Socialism Takes Over France, Again?

Detail from the painting Liberty Leading the People, by Eugène Delacroix, commemorating the French Revolution of 1830.

Detail from the painting Liberty Leading the People, by Eugène Delacroix, commemorating the French Revolution of 1830. The Socialist Party regained power in this year's elections.

Editor's Note

After François Hollande's victory in the French presidential elections in May followed by socialist victories in the more recent legislative elections, many commentators declared a decisive swing to the Left in Europe's second largest economy, at a moment of intense political paralysis in the Eurozone. This month historian Alice Conklin explores why the socialists won now in France, after two decades out of power, and what their return portends for the future of the country. Rather than an extreme shift to "socialism," French politics in the post-WWII era have been marked by a broad consensus across party lines over social policy and the basic architecture of the French welfare state.

*Update: you can also find an interview of Alice Conklin on our podcast.

For more on current events in Europe, read Russia and the Arctic; 1989 and the End of Communism; Kosovo's Independence, and Czech and Slovak Republics and the EU.

Two minutes after the polling stations closed, we knew the winner.

France has a unique tradition of announcing the president-elect. At 8 p.m., as the TV cameras roll, the winner's face is slowly unfurled on a silver screen in hues of red, white and blue (the national colors). The two contenders in the run-off for France's highest office that took place on May 6, 2012 were the Socialist François Hollande, and the center-right incumbent, Nicolas Sarkozy, leader of the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP).

"Sarko," as he is popularly known, has a thick head of hair; Hollande, although exactly the same age (57), has a balding pate. As soon as the top of the head appeared on the screen, the people's choice was instantly recognizable: in a record voter turnout (80%), the Socialist candidate, Hollande, had beaten his rival.

And another victory quickly followed a month later when the Socialists and their allies also won an absolute majority of seats in the legislative elections.

The Socialists now control almost every lever of political power—the presidency, Senate, National Assembly, and most of France's 22 regions and departments as well as its major cities. They do so, moreover, at a time when France's major European partners and friendly rivals—Great Britain and Germany—are still governed by conservatives.

On the evening of May 6, a massive, euphoric crowd assembled in Paris at the historic Place de la Bastille to celebrate Hollande's election. Ever since the toppling of the Bastille prison over two hundred years ago, the event that helped to spark the world-changing French Revolution, France's leftists have gathered in this square to celebrate their victories.

Despite—or perhaps because of—the nation's famed revolutionary tradition, these victories have been surprisingly few and far between.

Indeed, Hollande is only the second Socialist to be elected president since 1958, when Charles de Gaulle founded the Fifth Republic. The first was François Mitterrand, who swept into the Elysée in 1981 in the wake of the oil crisis of 1979, and amid rising unemployment—and who was then re-elected in 1988.

Conservatives in France and abroad predictably met Hollande's election with consternation, to put it mildly. Socialism, at least in the United States, has become a byword among Republicans for fiscally irresponsible government over-reach into the lives of citizens, epitomized by "Obamacare."

In the eyes of the right-wing press in Europe, France under Hollande can only be headed for "revolution"—i.e. mob rule, attacks on the rich, and an even more bloated social welfare system—policies that the Left has ostensibly always stood for. And this at a time, these same conservatives insist, when France in particular, and Europe in general, require austerity, fiscal responsibility, and a dramatic slashing of public expenditures to compete effectively in today's globalized economy.

Ever since the elections, pundits have been trying to explain Hollande's victory and to understand what exactly this surge in support for the Socialist Party (PS) means for France and Europe. And while the answers vary, almost everyone agrees on two points.

First, while Hollande ran a brilliant campaign, he won the election in part on the basis of his promise to preserve the essence of France's social programs and to govern France "humanely." He even presented himself as "Mr. Normal."

And second, he was immensely aided by the enormous wave of antipathy that many French men and women on both sides of the political divide felt for the policies and the "bling" lifestyle of incumbent president Sarkozy.

In this sense, any analysis of the Hollande victory and socialist surge must take into account the long history of both social welfare and socialism in France—and the broad-based support in France for the welfare state—as well as the ways in which "Sarko" shot himself in the proverbial foot during his five years in office.

"Dream on": Hollande as Improbable President

The Right's initial reaction to Hollande's election is reinforced by the fact that the man himself was a virtual unknown abroad. Even in France he was long considered a colorless party hack, rather than a serious contender for the presidency.

Until the cataclysmic political demise of fellow socialist Dominique Strauss-Kahn (or DSK, as he is always called by the media), who was arrested in New York City in May 2011 and accused of sexually assaulting the Sofitel chambermaid Nafissatou Diallo, no one imagined that François Hollande could emerge as the party's candidate. DSK, a successful lawyer, economist, and politician, seemed to have all the advantages: ministerial experience, the requisite socialist credentials, and a successful term as managing director of the IMF.

Hollande nevertheless managed to win the October primary and became, with Nicolas Sarkozy, one of ten contenders in the first round of presidential elections, held in April 2012. Since no one won an absolute majority, a run-off between those with the most votes, Hollande and Sarkozy, took place three weeks later. This time the Socialist candidate garnered 51.7% of the popular vote to win the Presidency.

It was a stunning outcome for a man with no previous experience in a national government position. Throughout the 1980s, Hollande remained a junior adviser to Mitterrand. He was then elected to parliament and regional office in the Corrèze area of southwestern France—a political stronghold he shared with former center-right President Jacques Chirac (1995-2007)—and served the region loyally.

His highest-profile role to date has been as leader of France's Socialist Party from 1997-2008. Overall, he had a reputation for, if not blandness, at least unpretentiousness and a fondness for telling jokes. A year ago Laurent Fabius, a former prime minister (and the current Minister of Foreign Affairs in Hollande's government) went on record saying "François Hollande president? Dream on."

Obviously, Hollande proved the doubters wrong.

But beneath his low-key demeanor, Hollande is, like so many of France's governing class since the end of World War II, a product of the country's elite schools. He was born in the Norman city of Rouen; his father was a doctor on the extreme-right and his mother was a progressive social worker. His family moved to Paris in 1968, when he was 13, the same year the student revolts broke out.

After receiving his baccalaureate, he studied at Paris' prestigious Institut des Sciences Politiques and France's leading business school, l'Ecole des Hautes Etudes Commerciales (HEC). Hollande then entered the Ecole Nationale d'Administration (ENA), which was created in 1945 with the specific purpose of training the post-war generation of leaders.

There he met the future mother of his four children, Ségolène Royal, with whom he shared a 30-year relationship ending shortly after Royal ran as the Socialist candidate in the 2007 presidential election and lost to Nicolas Sarkozy. (Hollande is now partnered with French TV journalist Valérie Trierweiler.) After meeting at the ENA, Royal and Hollande together became party stalwarts.

Appearances to the contrary, Hollande is an extremely well prepared, well connected, and experienced insider among France's power elite.

All of these qualities were on display in the election campaign. But, the longer history of France's post-war social compact and government commitment to social justice also explains the recent socialist success.

The Post-War Social Consensus and the History of French Socialism

It may come as news to many readers, that almost everyone in France—not only Socialists—holds the welfare state sacrosanct.

As American historian Philip Nord put it, "the [French] state's job is to educate, to provide welfare services, and to make cultural goods available to one and all. On these basic points, most French can still agree, and they do not want to go down the Anglo-American road with its dog-eat-dog capitalism and consumer kitsch. Individualism and liberalism, words that some Anglo-Americans hold dear, do not have the same positive ring in French ears."

Why should there be such agreement over the need to preserve the welfare state in a country famously divided on just about everything else?

Here history provides a relatively simple answer. France's current cradle-to-grave safety net dates back to 1945, when policy-makers at the end of World War II drawn from both the Left and the Right, many of whom had served in the Resistance, created the system. Determined to put the humiliation of defeat, occupation, and collaboration behind them, Socialists, Communists, centrists, and conservatives alike insisted that the nation needed not only social justice but repopulation, if France were to be great again.

These twin goals of justice and repopulation proved to be mutually reinforcing ones, and led to a truly comprehensive social security system that remains the envy of most visitors—and the pride of most French citizens. It incorporated health, disability, old age, death benefits, workplace compensation and the most generous family allowances in Europe. To again quote Nord, "The postwar order in France has proved more durable than in the United States or Great Britain, and that is because it was more consensual."

This consensus on social policy was not always the case in France. Before World War II the struggle for social benefits was largely unsuccessful except in the realm of child welfare. Because late nineteenth-century elites in France were already worried about the nation's declining birthrate, they began providing generous state subsidies, maternity leave, and free infant healthcare to poor mothers.

In every other respect, however, they were committed to the free market and refused to pass many social measures beyond the provision of universal free primary education.

A fledgling socialist movement did its best to agitate for social protection for workers, but it was too small and fractious to influence legislation. French socialists a century ago could often not even agree on which political strategy to follow: should they work within the system and try to win reforms that would only "disguise" the evils of capitalism, or should they stay out of electoral politics and work towards revolution?

Only in the wake of the Depression and the rise of the fascist threat in the 1930s did France's divided leftists finally put aside their differences and form a "popular front"—a coalition of communists, socialists and moderate republicans—to defend democracy against fascism, reduce inequalities, and bring greater social justice to France's poorest citizens.

For the first time in the history of modern French politics, a Socialist, Léon Blum, became prime minister in 1936. The Popular Front introduced the forty-hour work week, the right to collective bargaining, pay raises, and the first paid vacations for French workers, among many other initiatives.

French conservatives were outraged, and as the Depression lingered on and the threat of war grew, the Popular Front collapsed, along with most of its reforms.

Yet because so many Socialists and Communists subsequently joined the Resistance to the Nazis, they were in a position in 1945 to bring back and expand the welfare provisions that they had first tried to implement in 1936.

Mitterrand and the Evolution of Postwar French Socialism

While the welfare state became a permanent fixture of postwar French life, the Socialists would only return to power twice, in 1956-57, and then again with the election of François Mitterrand in 1981. Mitterrand's legacy as president for an unprecedented fourteen years is key to understanding the kind of Socialist president that Hollande aspires to be.

Back in 1981, Mitterrand ran on a modernizing platform to "change life" (changer la vie) "here and now" (ici et maintenant). Hollande, in clear emulation of Mitterrand, chose as his slogan "Change, now" (le changement, c'est maintenant).

In the Mitterrand era, the country was just emerging from twenty years of conservative rule, marked in particular by Charles de Gaulle's authoritarian paternalism. For twenty years Mitterrand had opposed many of the institutions and socio-economic policies of the Fifth Republic. (Although both ends of the political spectrum shared the firm commitment to social policies and the welfare state, they often took different approaches when it came to implementation). Now, he was its president.

During his fourteen years in office Mitterrand did bring change, just not the kind everyone expected from a Socialist president. France was on the cusp of a painful transition to a post-industrial society. The number of workers in manufacturing had peaked in 1975, which meant that many had recently lost, or were in the process of losing their jobs—and with them a whole way of life.

Like other advanced economies, although no one could see the future at the time, France was shifting from a primary economy, with wealth generated by producing heavy industrial products, coal steel, and automobiles, to a secondary economy centered on services, finance, and high technology.

Mitterrand's promise to change life in 1981 spoke particularly to France's industrial workers, who represented 25% of the electorate, and who traditionally voted for the Communist Party (with whom the Socialists were allied). Once elected, Mitterrand paid this blue-collar constituency back by promptly appointing four communist ministers, a controversial move at the time.

But in the end, he succeeded in outmaneuvering and sidelining the Communist Party, to the point where it is no longer a force in politics. This move in the long run helped to consolidate the Socialist Party as the major party of the Left in France. Equally important, it won Mitterrand the grudging respect of his critics to the Right.

Since the 1990s, the PS has been solidly middle-class in its make-up, and cannot be seen as revolutionary in any way, whatever its political enemies like to claim. Meanwhile disenchanted blue-collar workers gave up on the Left altogether and began migrating to the other extreme, voting for the ultra-nationalist and populist National Front party of Jean-Marie Le Pen. This party's candidate, Marine Le Pen—Jean-Marie Le Pen's daughter—pulled a staggering 18% of the vote in the first round of the 2012 presidential elections.

Growing worker disenchantment with socialist rule in the 1980s also reflected France's continuing unemployment problems and Mitterrand's inability to relaunch growth. His predecessor, the center–right politician Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, had tried to liberalize the French economy. Mitterrand instead embraced the interventionist policies of France's earlier experiment in socialist governance—that of the Popular Front of 1936-1938.

True to their roots as the party of social justice, the President and his Minister of the Economy and Finance, Jacques Delors, initially directed a massive infusion of money into state benefits programs when they won power in 1981, including family allowances, pensions, and housing benefits. They also raised the minimum wage in the expectation that the rising tide of state monies would revive the struggling economy—policies which might best be dubbed a form of redistributive Keynesianism.

The hope was that higher wages and social transfers would spur domestic demand; a new tax aimed at the nation's wealthiest citizens was also introduced. To make a long story short, within two years it became clear that these policies could not dam the tidal forces of the global economy. By mid-1983, unemployment had increased from 6.3% to 8.6%. The trade deficit fared no better, and inflation soared to 14%.

Part of the problem was that France joined the European Monetary System in 1979, which in effect prevented any member from a major devaluation of its currency to solve domestic problems.

As France's economic woes mounted, Mitterrand had to choose between continued European integration, which meant in theory a dramatic reduction in public spending and restructuring of its industries to compete in the global economy, or retreating into a kind of economic autarchy within its own national borders.

Despite the reluctance of many members of the Socialist Party, he chose integration from 1984 onward, and tens of thousands of workers were laid off. There was, however, no simultaneous rollback of government expenditures—this at a time when Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were slashing their budgets for social programs and lamenting the corrosive effects of an overweening welfare state.

The number of civil servants in France rose from 3.8 million to 4.7 million between 1980 and 1990, and today they account for about half of the state's outlays. Although inflation was checked, unemployment continued to climb in France. Today it remains stuck at 10%.

Sarko and the Challenge to the Welfare State

Mitterrand's willingness to countenance massive unemployment to make France more competitive and his unwillingness to rein in public spending on education or social programs may look to outsiders like a typically "socialist" response to the French crisis.

In point of fact, and despite France's on-going economic problems, there continued to be very few voices anywhere on the political spectrum under either Mitterrand or his conservative successor, Jacques Chirac (1995-2007), calling for deep cuts to France's generous social security system.

Only with the election of Nicolas Sarkozy in 2007 did a French president openly advocate the need for reining in the welfare state. Sarkozy's decision to introduce austerity was unpopular, but he made himself even more unpopular by some of his other antics in office.

By 2012, Sarkozy's standing in the polls had plummeted, and he now has the dubious distinction of being the first incumbent French president since 1981 not to have been re-elected. Part of the problem lay with his personality, part of it with his policies.

Once in office, Sarko embraced a kind of star-struck flashiness that profoundly alienated large segments of France's citizenry, regardless of their politics. Nicknamed early on in his mandate the "bling bling president" by the leftist newspaper Libération, the epithet stuck.

The new president surrounded himself with celebrity and multi-billionaire visitors, whom he greeted while wearing designer suits, expensive sunglasses, and conspicuously large wristwatches. Upon winning the election, he threw himself a party at Fouquet's, a stylish restaurant on the Champs Elysées for those who liked to flaunt their wealth, which no ordinary French person could afford.

He proved mercurial in his moods, even when dealing with other heads of state. He also paraded his personal life in public, often at moments when he was in political trouble. Such blatant showmanship constituted an affront to a nation that prides itself on protecting the privacy of its statesmen, and which has traditionally expected a certain display of intellectual loftiness, solemnity, and detachment in its presidents.

Perhaps if this "style" problem had been compensated by more successful economic and social policies, Sarkozy's transgressions might have been forgiven. Alas, policy and style seemed to be cut from the same insensitive cloth.

He consistently supported the German Chancellor Angela Merkel's drive—unpopular in France—to cure the euro zone debt crisis with deep budget cuts and caps on future spending. And he earned the new nickname of "Merkozy."

At the same time, his presidency was marred by several high-profile corruption cases involving personalities close to him, including ministers. Among other serious allegations is the charge that Libya's former leader Muammar Qaddafi funded his 2007 campaign. There is no question that repeated missteps of this nature lost him the political capital he had amassed five years earlier.

Many centrist voters were especially put off by his shameless catering to the racist xenophobia of the extreme Right in the final months of the campaign, in a last-minute bid to broaden his base.

Governing "Humanely": Hollande, French Socialism, and the Global Economy

French voters evidently believed that Hollande would better protect their current benefits than the incumbent President Sarkozy did.

One of Sarkozy's most contested policies to help stimulate growth was educational reform, including massive cuts in the numbers of public teachers. By contrast, Hollande has proposed creating taxes on businesses and the rich to fund spending on education, investment, and state-aided job creation.

The new president has already acted on these promises, instituting an income tax of 75% on those earning more than one million euros and cutting his own salary by 30%, along with those of other high-ranking civil servants. He has promised to increase the minimum wage (already the highest in Europe), to hire 60,000 new teachers, and to lower the retirement age from 62 (which Sarkozy mandated in 2010) to 60 for those who started working very young.

Yet the fact remains that in 2012, even more than in 1981, France is going through a major economic and social crisis, and is more than ever linked to the rest of the world, especially Europe. Just how much room Hollande will have to implement the Socialists' traditional goal of social justice remains an open question, especially given that the new president has made clear that he remains fully committed to the European project.

As France's newspaper of record Le Monde recently pointed out, although everyone in the Eurozone advocates the need for growth, various proponents aren't always talking about the same thing.

While Hollande regularly evokes the possibility of a European "New Deal" modeled on that of the Roosevelt era in the United States, conservative leaders of Europe continue to advocate austerity policies and economic liberalization, especially in the labor market.

Those who favor compromise are nevertheless encouraged. Hollande may talk a tough line—Germany should not, he told supporters on the campaign trail, "decide for all of Europe"—but he has promised to keep to the outgoing government's commitment to bring France's budget deficit down to 3% of GDP next year, and so far has not wavered over this—a first for a Socialist candidate.

And according to the British weekly The Economist, although Hollande says that he will postpone balancing the budget until 2017, a year later than Sarkozy had planned, not once has he advocated a deficit-financed stimulus for the French economy. In this sense, he has emancipated himself from Mitterrand's Keynesian experiment of thirty years ago.

What remains to be seen is how Hollande will manage to bring down the current deficits and deliver on his spending pledges, all at time when the IMF has forecast an anemic 0.5% growth rate next year.

A Return to Normalcy?

If the French people cling to their "different" model of economy and society from that of other Western nations, one in which the state has historically played an enormous role in regulating the free market and guaranteeing a minimal level of security to its citizens, they are not blind to the need to adjust to the realities of the new global economy.

Socialist elation on May 6, 2012 was more subdued than that of May 10, 1981. After three decades of a stagnant economy and twenty years of 10% unemployment, no one on the Left believes any more that inequalities can be abolished altogether. But they do insist that there are better and worse ways to manage the deep structural reforms that are required in order to remain competitive internationally.

Hollande's victory reflects the fact that a majority of French men and women believe that their new president will distribute the pain of austerity measures more fairly and humanely than his predecessors and in a way that will bring them together, rather than divide them.

This dimension of the old socialist dream has not died.

Hollande has already brought to French politics a salutary change in style and tone, in his speech and in his behavior. No Fouquet's banquet for him, no nepotism, and no favoritism; he and his partner Treitweiler wish to live in the same apartment as before, to maintain as "normal" a life as possible. A genuinely affable person, he has encouraged his supporters to respect their opponents.

With this version of socialism returning to power, many French were initially breathing a post-election sigh of relief.

However, Hollande's poll numbers have dropped like a stone over the last couple of months. In part, this is due to the missteps and confusion among his different ministries—so much so that in late August a prominent political weekly journal asked "Are they all incompetent?"

In part, this disillusion reflects the climbing unemployment numbers—for the first time since 1999, there are now more than 3 million French looking for a job.

But it also stems from Hollande's own aspiration to appear "Mr. Normal." Many commentators, on the Left as well as the Right, are asking if "normalcy" is all France needs just now.

Audio Version of Article
Suggested Reading

David Bell, François Mitterrand: A Political Biography

Alice Conklin, Sarah Fishman, and Robert Zaretsky, France and Its Empire Since 1870

Joel Colton, Leon Blum: Humanist in Politics

Catherine Fieschi, Fascism, Populism and the French Fifth Republic: In the Shadow of Democracy

Julian Jackson, The Popular Front in France: Defensing Democracy, 1934-38

Julian Jackson, De Gaulle (Life and Times)

Maurice Larkin, France Since the Popular Front: Government and People, 1936-1986

Philip Thody, The Fifth French Republic: Presidents, Politics and Personalities: A Study of French Political Culture

Ronald Tiersky, François Mitterrand: A Very French President

Gordon Wright, France in Modern Times

For the parts of the debate between Sarkozy and Hollande (in French) see: and