Hollande and the New French Left

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Winner of the Socialist Party (PS) 2011 primary vote for France's 2012 presidential election, Francois Hollande (C), flanked by Clichy's mayor Gilles Catoire (2ndR), waits before throwing a rose into the Seine river on in Asnieres, northern Paris, during a ceremony to pay tribute to victims of the massacre on October 17, 1961 in Paris during the Algerian war. (Photo: AFP - Patrick Kovarik)

By: Marie Haikel-Elsabeh

Published Monday, October 17, 2011

France’s new Socialist Party leader Francois Hollande drew on his competitors’ radical ideas involving more government control and protectionism to unite the left in France. His ability to genuinely steer France away from Sarkozy’s neoliberal agenda will partly rest on the new leader’s willingness to follow up on his promises.

Paris - François Hollande was elected Sunday as French Socialist Party leader to face incumbent president Nicolas Sarkozy in next spring’s presidential election. Hollande garnered 56 percent of the votes in the second round of primaries. More than two and a half million voters cast their votes in a new electoral process styled after the US system, open to all French voters regardless of political affiliation.

The first round of the primaries was held October 9, with more than two and a half million voters participating. Hollande received close to 40 percent of the votes in this round, while his main rival, Martine Aubry, came in second with 30 percent.

Aubry and Hollande faced off in a heated debate on Wednesday night, which largely addressed issues of financial reform. During a brief TV interview, Aubry indirectly condemned her adversary, saying that voters should not support a flabby left. Hollande served as leader of the PS from 1999-2008, while Aubry has held the post since 2008.

Hollande’s victory is due to his capacity to reunite his camp. His strategy is to be open to dialogue and to adopt new ideas. He went so far as to state that he will integrate the ideas of his former opponent, Ségolène Royal, into his campaign platform.

Both candidates tried to rally support from Arnaud Montebourg, the left-wing maverick parliamentarian, who came in third place during the first round of voting. Montebourg clearly expressed his personal preference for François Hollande who had integrated some of his ideas into his program. But both candidates attempts to reach Montebourg's voters were unconvincing; indeed, both candidates did not clearly state to what extent they were in favor of his ultra-protectionist stance. Montebourg is in favor of “deglobalization” – a term referring to reducing economic interdependence between states – as well as increasing control over the banking system in France, European protectionism, reindustrialization, and the creation of the sixth republic (parliamentarian style of government). His leftist stance, and radical proposals, appealed to voters who are impacted by the economic crisis.

Montebourg’s positions on banks were echoed by both candidates, each repeating the same arguments for separating investment and deposit banking. Hollande is also in favor of state control of the banks, but is against complete nationalization. In his open letter to Montebourg published in the press, he explained his vision of state interventionism in more detail: “I will ensure that any public money contributed directly or indirectly to a bank leads automatically to the entry to the board of directors of representatives of the state, in order to proceed with a active surveillance of the reorganization of the banking organization, and this, in order to protect the interests of French citizens.” Yet Hollande did not explain in his open letter whether he would be in favor of taxes at the European level for imported goods.

Both candidates are adopting a strong stance in favor of state economic intervention, resembling the approach of former President François Mitterrand. Nonetheless, Aubry's and Hollande's positions toward deglobalization and the sixth republic remain unclear.

To a certain extent, Montebourg is the master of the game. He authored the idea of the primaries and forwarded new proposals that differentiated him from the other frontrunners. He published a letter to test both candidates on their capacity to adopt his ideas and change their programs to seduce his voters. Marine Le Pen, presidential candidate and leader of the far-right party, recognized that Montebourg's position on deglobalization was similar to hers. Nevertheless, she outdid the socialist candidate by demanding the creation of a national (as opposed to European) tax on imported goods. Yet the main candidates of both mainstream parties are not in favor of deglobalization. Rather, their economic and financial reforms mainly focus on debt reduction, employment, and banking sector reform.

Wednesday's PS debate barely touched on social policy, though Hollande discussed the need to address social matters such as youth unemployment. Hollande's position towards unemployment is a main reason why Alain Thebault, member of Hollande's campaign staff, decided to support him. “I am going to vote for François Hollande, he wants to develop an integrated policy for young people’s employment. His main proposal is the generation contract. When a firm employs a young person and a senior at the same time, it will pay fewer contributions to social security.” According to Thebault, both candidates promote other reforms addressing the many small- and mid-sized firms in France: “Like Martine Aubry, François Hollande wants the small- and medium-sized firms to pay fewer taxes and to have more possibilities to invest. He does not want these firms to pay more taxes than the big ones.” Hollande’s proposals in favor of employment for the youth, and the lowering of taxes for firms appeal to specific portions of the electorate – young people who are hard hit by unemployment, and bosses of small- and medium-sized firms. These two portions of the electorate are important. The young people are mobilized in groups such as “Les indignés” (the outraged) that want an alternative to the right and the bosses of small- and medium-sized firms that create the most jobs. Indeed, according to the French Ministry of the Economy, 2.3 million new positions were created by small- and medium-sized firms out of a total of 2.8 million positions created over the last twenty years.

Hollande, criticized the position of French President Nicolas Sarkozy for his refusal to create Eurobonds that, according to Hollande, would keep European debt to a minimum. He also criticized Sarkozy's failure to create a constitutional limit on debt. In Germany, the former finance minister, and member of the Social Democratic Party, Peer Steinbruck shares the same position on Eurobonds. Steinbruck explicitly stated that a central institution distributing the bond with conditions would be a force for discipline.

Yet unlike Aubry, Hollande has yet to develop a strategy to appeal to female voters. Aubry clearly stated during their last debate the necessity to improve women's salaries, which have been disproportionately impacted by the ongoing economic crisis. Unequal wages and low retirement allowances impact all generations of women. But Hollande rebuffed his opponent, sarcastically apologizing during the debate for not being a female candidate like Aubry. According to Thebault, Hollande has a clear position on the subject, which he explained during his last campaign meeting on Thursday night. “François Hollande is against the accumulation of mandates and clearly stated his position for the equality of salaries for both men and women,” he said.

If the Socialist Party wins in France, it might set a trend that returns the left to prominence in Europe. The only option for the European left is to have a distinct position from the right, as Ed Miliband leader of England's Labour Party said during a speech. “The right is seeking to emulate the electoral strategies of the left in the 1990s; and the left in the last decade has not been able to decide whether to disown them or embrace them, when the key is in fact to build on them. So it is losing elections again on a grand scale.”

Indeed, after a long hiatus, leftists across Europe are returning to their core perspective on economic regulation and other issues that distinguish them from the ultra-liberal right. This change after a decade of failure is not surprising considering the current crisis. Alternatives to the right's lack of control over the financial system are now being explored by voters all over Europe. The recent election of Helle Thorning-Schmidt, the former head of leftist Danish Social Democrats, and the current prime minister of Denmark, gives evidence that the right and far-right's supremacy in Europe could be changing. For Miliband, a return of the left in Europe could put an end to the right wing's policies of inequality. “Politics has taken on a harsher hue — on welfare and wages, on tax and spending, on immigration — to the benefit of the right. And the increased budget deficits have provided a new and simple rationale for the center-right." The position of the center right-wing parties in Europe are still massively in favor of globalization, and ultra-liberalism. The alternatives, the left and extreme right parties, support the concept of an interventionist state in the economy. The upcoming French election will put forward a new vision of the left in Europe.


This article gives the impression that François Hollande represents a new unabashed left that has abandoned neoliberalism and returned to its principles, whereas, everone in France knows, this is far from the truth. Hollande was the candidate the furthest from Montebourg's courageous views, openly representing the liberal, centrist right-wing of the PS. He made a few verbal gestures toward Montebourg in order to get some of his voters after the latter came in 3rd, but to see Hollande as the bold new future of a newly invigorated left in Europe is pushing it pretty far....

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