Will France sound the death knell for social democracy?

As the French presidential election approaches, even workers in the country’s rust belt are embracing right-wing populism. James Angelos reports
Will France sound the death knell for social democracy?

One afternoon in September Franck Sailliot marched through the northern French city of Lille alongside a couple of thousand leftist trade unionists and students.

The marchers waved union flags, blew whistles, bellowed slogans. “Enough, enough, enough of this society, where there’s only unemployment and insecurity!” they yelled.

“We don’t want the law of the bosses! The only solution is to revoke it!”

Sailliot, a 48-year-old trade unionist who had worked much of his adult life in a paper mill in a town about an hour’s drive to the east, shuffled along, mostly silent, his hands in his pockets.

As the demonstrators made their way through Lille’s town centre, passing the ornate 17th-century stock exchange, they shouted, “Fire the stockholders!” and “Everything they have, they stole it!”

One man wielded a bloodied, severed mannequin head and waved a French flag emblazoned with the silhouette of Robespierre, who presided over the Reign of Terror. It was a revolution of sorts, but Sailliot seemed a bit bored.

The French left has long protested the encroachment of an unbridled free market, and despite some victories in halting its progress, the overall trend was one of demoralising defeat. Sailliot debated peeling off from the crowd early and grabbing a beer.

He might have been forgiven for betraying a degree of protest fatigue. For seven months, he had participated, off and on, in a wave of large and angry anti-government demonstrations that transfixed the country and at times paralysed it.

Chief among the objects of the protesters’ ire was a labour law, conceived by President François Hollande’s Socialist government, designed to loosen the country’s impossibly dense network of job protections.

The law lacked support in the French Legislature, so in July, Hollande’s prime minister invoked special constitutional powers to push it through without a vote.

From the point of view of French leftists like Sailliot, this was the latest in a series of betrayals by an ostensibly left-wing government that backed one nonleftist measure after another.

Hollande and his ministers were acting under immense pressure to improve the country’s sluggish growth and chronically high unemployment, which now hovers at 9.5% (25.9% for people under 25).

Everyone from the International Monetary Fund to the European Commission was urging Hollande to undertake a programme of economic liberalisation in order to remedy the problem. The argument for the labour law was the essence of free-market orthodoxy: If companies could more easily lay off workers in bad times, they would be more willing to hire them in good times.

The argument was unconvincing to many in Pas-de-Calais, the rural and industrial area in the northernmost tip of France, where Sailliot lives. In the 1970s, France, like other industrialised countries, began a shift away from manufacturing to a services-based economy, and within a few decades, Pas-de-Calais came to epitomise industrial decline. It is now France’s rust belt and coal country all in one.

The working-class voters of Pas-de-Calais have long supported France’s Socialists, along with the French Communist Party. But as in the United States, where Rust Belt voters no longer embrace the Democratic Party, these workers have increasingly lost faith in the parties of the left.

Sailliot’s union, the General Confederation of Labour, or the CGT, was among the most strident opponents of the new labour law. The CGT, formerly linked to the Communist Party, is one of the oldest and largest trade unions in France.

Though its membership and stature, like those of other French unions, have declined considerably from their post-World War II height, the CGT remains unmatched in its ability to mobilise workers.

And many of its members retain a far-left ideology and preference for militant tactics. After a draft of the labour law leaked last February, the CGT demanded that it be scrapped and recommended alternative policies: Reduce the French workweek to 32 hours (from the current 35) and give workers raises.

The Socialist government tried to appease the CGT and other unions by watering down the original draft of the law, but opposition to it remained fierce. The face-off ignited one of the most sustained and impassioned protest movements in France since the May 1968 demonstrations that nearly brought down the Fifth Republic a decade into its existence.

Marches in Paris and cities across the country drew hundreds of thousands of protesters and often culminated in tear-gas-laden street battles between truncheon-swinging riot officers and anarchist groups.

French riot police forces walk during a demo against the government’s labour reform on May 12,2016 in Paris.
French riot police forces walk during a demo against the government’s labour reform on May 12,2016 in Paris.

Nuit Debout, a French version of Occupy Wall Street, drew large gatherings of young people to night-time meetings in the Place de la République in Paris. CGT activists blocked highway lanes and oil refineries, creating fuel shortages. Labour strikes halted train travel and cut output at nuclear-power plants.

Sailliot had another reason to protest. The paper mill in Pas-de-Calais where he worked for three decades shut down in 2015, because of what the company called an “accelerating deterioration in market conditions for printing and writing papers.”

Sailliot was still technically employed there — he was a CGT delegate, he explained, so legally it was harder to lay him off — but it was an unsettling feeling, he said, to think he’d have to find a new industry to work in. He blamed the Socialist government.

His resentment was aggravated by the fact that he voted for Hollande in the French presidential election of 2012, enticed by his leftist pre-election rhetoric. These new Socialist laws, Sailliot said, were even worse than what the right was proposing; as for Hollande personally, Sailliot raised his hand in a gesture, not uncommon among Frenchmen, to indicate his testicles’ springing up to his neck in anger. “He’s a traitor.”

All around his home and workplace in Pas-de-Calais, Sailliot told me, the far-right, anti-immigration National Front was filling the political void that working-class discontent had created.

With national elections looming, the party depicted itself as the new defender of the French worker; as part of that effort, its leader, Marine Le Pen, joined France’s hard leftists in condemning the labour law as “social regression” — the same term of disparagement used by trade-union leaders and the Communist Party.

Marine Le Pen
Marine Le Pen

Le Pen’s economic rhetoric, in fact, is often hard to differentiate from positions normally held by the far left. She rails against free-trade agreements and “social dumping” — the practice of domestically hiring foreigners for lower wages than citizens earn — and her party has vowed to reindustrialise France and protect social benefits.

The French newsmagazine Le Point reported that Hollande, when asked to explain the growing popularity of the National Front, often relays a story a former head of the CGT told him: When the union leader read a National Front leaflet to his fellow union members without telling them what party it was from, the union members all approved of the message.

Sailliot, a committed Communist, referred to the National Front’s leaders as “impostors” — a word that CGT leaders use when describing the party’s effort to appeal to their rank and file — and dismissed the notion that the far-right party, if elevated to power, would keep its leftist-sounding promises. But he could not deny the political effectiveness of the message.

Among his disaffected colleagues, neighbours, even within his own family, the National Front was increasingly popular, he told me. Laid-off workers saw that mainstream parties hadn’t done anything for them, he said, “so they vote for Le Pen.”

In two rounds of voting this April and May, France will elect a new president to succeed Hollande. According to polls, as of this writing, Le Pen remains a viable contender. Her success — in the coming election and beyond — hinges in no small part on her party’s effort to supplant the left in places like Pas-de-Calais, and to make the National Front the new voice of France’s working class.

The 2008 financial crisis, which began in the United States but

quickly spread to Europe with more enduring, destructive consequences, should in theory have been a boon to the global left.

The vast scope of the collapse, after all, illustrated that free markets are far from unfailingly efficient. Governments across Europe stepped in to rescue banks, to save capitalism from itself.

Both the origins of the crisis and the activism of the state in addressing it seemed to justify the social-democratic model that European nations traditionally championed: government intervention to tame the excesses of capitalism and harness its productive capacity for the greater good.

Recently, though, European social democrats have witnessed an extraordinary drop in support. In 2009, the Social Democratic Party of Germany suffered its worst election defeat in post-World War II history.

In the British general election one year later, the Labour Party received its second-lowest share of the vote since 1918, the year that voting restrictions on women and non-property-owning men were relaxed. Even in Scandinavian countries — often cited as the apotheosis of social democracy — centre-left parties are struggling.

A recent analysis in The Economist showed that across Western Europe, support for social-democratic parties is at its lowest point in 70 years.

France appeared to be something of a holdout. Hollande’s ascension to the presidency in 2012 was seen as a rare bit of good news. Before his election, Hollande tapped into the sense of grievance on the left, declaring his “true enemy” to be the “world of finance,” calling himself the “candidate of justice” and vowing to impose a 75% tax on earnings over one million euros (a measure later enacted but allowed to expire in 2014).

Hollande also declared his opposition to German-backed austerity policies applied in response to the eurozone debt crisis. But only months into his presidency, he began to anger the far left, supporting a German-led European Union fiscal compact that established stricter controls over national spending.

By 2014, Hollande was emphasising the need to reduce corporate taxes and trim public spending in order to increase growth and control deficits, and he replaced leftist cabinet members with more centrist ministers. Hollande’s prime minister, Manuel Valls, had previously suggested that the party drop the word “socialist” from its name; it was Valls who later muscled the labour law through Parliament.

In part because of the disaffection of the leftists who once supported him, Hollande became perhaps the least popular president in recent French history; in one poll last October, only 4% of respondents said they were satisfied with him.

In December, Hollande took the extraordinary step of announcing that he would not run for re-election, making him the first sitting president in recent French history not to seek a second term.

For many French leftists, Hollande’s presidency did not represent the first betrayal at the hands of the Socialist Party. The only other Socialist president of the Fifth Republic, François Mitterrand, was an even greater disappointment.

Francois Hollande
Francois Hollande

When he was first elected in 1981, Mitterrand ran on an anticapitalist platform, vowing to nationalise industry, raise wages and reduce the retirement age. His victory was met with jubilation on the left, and some supporters believed Mitterrand would end French capitalism.

But outside France, political winds were blowing in the other direction. The 1980s were the era of deregulation and economic liberalisation, the age of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Europe was advancing toward a single market.

Mitterrand’s policies couldn’t contain inflation, threatening the country’s place in the coming monetary union. He was forced to choose between his revolutionary agenda and European integration.

By 1983, Mitterrand chose Europe and implemented spending cuts, a move referred to in France as the tournant de la rigueur, or the austerity turn. Today, French leftists compare Hollande’s shift to Mitterrand’s u-turn and ask now, as they asked then, Is socialism dead?

The answer, at least in today’s Europe, is probably yes. In the 1990s and early 2000s, leaders like Tony Blair in Britain, Bill Clinton in the United States and Gerhard Schröder in Germany led a centre-left resurgence.

Yet in their fight for the political middle ground, they pulled their own parties away from shrinking labour constituencies and toward a fuller embrace of the free market.

In Europe, the demise of the old left has been cemented by the strictures of EU membership, which sets in stone practices that were once anathema to socialists: free trade, limits on national spending and monetary policies that subordinate employment to price stability.

There is no more blatant example of the European left’s inability to be leftist than Greece, where in 2015 voters elected Syriza, a “radical left” party that promised to thwart EU austerity policies.

Since its victory, however, Syriza has been compelled, under threat of expulsion from the eurozone, to adopt an agenda that is anything but leftist: privatisations, pension cuts and stringent fiscal targets.

In a recent interview in the French journal Le Débat, Hollande was asked about his own rightward drift: Will he be the president who presides over “the end of the socialist idea”?

Hollande replied that it was impossible to be socialist in isolation, before going on to frame the left’s challenge. “What is at stake is whether the left, rather than socialism, has a future in the world, or whether globalisation has reduced or even annihilated this hope.”

Revolution roots

A demonstrator wearing a Guy Fawkes mask gestures as demonstrators clash with police during a counter-demonstration to a rally of police officers against “anti-police hatred” on May 18, 2016.
A demonstrator wearing a Guy Fawkes mask gestures as demonstrators clash with police during a counter-demonstration to a rally of police officers against “anti-police hatred” on May 18, 2016.

As centre-left parties become more indistinguishable from their centre-right opponents, the classical liberal vision — a well-informed polity making democratic choices along a left-right continuum — has blurred.

The left-right dichotomy has its roots in the French Revolution, when members of the National Assembly physically divided themselves according to their view on the king’s authority: Those members in favour of more royal power stood on the right side of the chamber, and those opposed stood on the left.

While the meaning of the left-right divide has since evolved and the concept has often failed to encapsulate complex political movements, it has since come to define democratic politics. Increasingly, however, voters perceive their democratic choices, not from left to right but from a fill-in-the-blank centrist party to a populist, radical one, as a choice between parties wishing to tweak the prevailing order and those seeking to overthrow it.

Far-right parties are not the only ones offering revolution. Far-left parties remain on ballots across Europe, and in France, the Left Front, an electoral coalition that includes the French Communist Party, has sought to take advantage of the Socialists’ troubles.

The Left Front was popular among many of the trade unionists I met, yet as of now, its support has remained limited. With notable exceptions like Greece and Spain, where far-left parties have surged in the face of economic misery, voters in Europe often perceive these parties to be discredited by history, even irrelevant. And now, in countries like France, the far left faces growing competition from the far right.

Many believe that the consequences of this political scrambling will be profound. Dominique Reynié, a political-science professor at Sciences Po in Paris, described “the end of the story of the democratic-socialist model” as “very bad news,” even though he does not identify as a socialist himself.

“If we consider the invention of pluralistic democracy in Europe at the end of the 19th century, it was founded on the possibility of making a choice between the right and the left,” he told me.

“If we have lost this duality, we have probably lost the mechanical principle of democracy.”

The National Front has, in recent years, become more popular in many rural areas and small towns in France, places that are often relatively homogeneous and have few immigrants.

Many people, of course, wish to keep it that way and therefore happily embrace the National Front’s nativist message. Yet immigration is also intertwined with broader anxieties that fuel support for the party — fear of terrorism, fear of economic collapse — and so the issue becomes an easy, tangible target, even if it remains an abstraction.

The suspicion that immigrants are taking something they don’t deserve, the conviction that native citizens are being supplanted by foreigners, the growing sense that mainstream political parties serve the interests of privileged global elites rather than working people — all of this will be perfectly familiar to Americans who just lived through the last election.

President Donald J Trump’s campaign in many ways embodied the nativist, anti-establishment rebellion sweeping much of the West. In doing so, it replicated aspects of an older French model, in which the far right adopted the rhetoric of the far left to surprising success.

In the mid-1990s, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the National Front’s founder, began to push the party’s economic platform away from its original free-market ideology and toward protecting the working class. (Observers coined the term gaucho-lepénisme to describe his growing appeal to traditional leftists.)

In 2002, he stunned France by coming in second in the first round of the French presidential election, ahead of the weak Socialist candidate. In France, the winner must obtain an absolute majority of votes, so the top two finishers compete in a second round.

In that runoff, Le Pen lost overwhelmingly to the centre-right candidate, Jacques Chirac, as many leftists joined center-right voters to form a “republican front,” uniting forces to thwart the National Front.

When Jean-Marie’s youngest daughter, Marine, took over the party in 2011, she redoubled the leftist economic message and shunned her father’s blatantly anti-Semitic statements — a so-called dédiabolisation of the party intended to make it more palatable to the mainstream.

Her economic rhetoric is now often indistinguishable from that of far-left European leaders. In 2015, Hollande and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany jointly addressed the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France.

Le Pen, a member of that Parliament, stood to make a reproach to Merkel. The terms on which she did so — German economic domination of Europe, the “visualisation” of European nations and the imposition of austerity policies that led to mass unemployment — could just as well have come from Greece’s former finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, Le Pen’s ideological opposite in every other way.

Le Pen has adopted an old-left economic message at a time when the centre-left has largely abandoned it. Across much of Europe, in fact, far-right parties are increasingly presenting themselves as guardians of workers and of the welfare state for native citizens, promising to preserve it from the threat of foreign newcomers.

The consequences are proving particularly drastic for the European Union. Britain’s vote to leave the EU was propelled by an unusual alliance of conservatives and working-class voters who have traditionally supported the Labour Party — many of them in England’s industrial north.

Le Pen promises that if she wins the presidential election, she, too, will call for a referendum on whether France should remain in the EU, and she hopes a similar alliance of voters will yield the same result.

France is a founding member of the EU and is far more economically and politically entwined with the bloc than Britain, which was never a fully committed member.

While Brexit was a blow to the EU, France’s departure could signify its end. An eventual French exit, though unlikely, is not unimaginable. French voters rejected a European Constitution in a 2005 referendum, and French attitudes toward the European Union since then have only grown more skeptical.

A pre-Brexit Pew Research Centre survey found that 61% of the French held an unfavourable view of the EU; the same survey found that 48% of Britons did.

Presidential-election polls in France, as of this writing, show Le Pen likely to make it to the runoff, to be held in May. The pressing question in France now is: Will the “republican front” once again hold?

Given the unpopularity of the Socialists, Le Pen’s chief opponents are now François Fillon — a centre-right, market-oriented social conservative who has promised to cut public-sector jobs and was recently depicted on the front page of the left-wing newspaper Libération with a Margaret Thatcher hairdo — and Emmanuel Macron, a young former investment banker who served as the economy minister under Hollande but has now split to form his own neither-of-the-left-nor-of-the-right political movement.

A paper mill in Wizernes, France. Picture: Christopher Anderson/Magnum, for The New York Times
A paper mill in Wizernes, France. Picture: Christopher Anderson/Magnum, for The New York Times

This, bewilderingly, makes the far-right Le Pen the only leading candidate with a traditionally leftist economic message, and leaves many leftists who remain opposed to her hard-pressed to vote for her opponents.

Sailliot told me that he would support the Left Front candidate in the first round, but that if he was forced to choose between Le Pen and one of the other probable candidates in the second round, he would not vote at all.

Some of his leftist colleagues, many of whom voted for Chirac in 2002 in order to foil Jean-Marie Le Pen, told me the same thing. Ultimately, Marine Le Pen isn’t expected to win; enough left-leaning voters, it is believed, will join centre-right voters to defeat her.

But this is an era in which political prediction may seem like a fool’s game. The day after Trump’s election, Le Pen was clearly heartened by his unexpected victory.

“What happened last night wasn’t the end of the world,” Le Pen said. “It’s the end of a world.”

One morning, I visited Grégory Glorian, the 41-year-old head of the CGT’s Pas-de-Calais office in the city of Lens, a former coal town in the heart of the region’s mining basin, where coal extraction began in the 18th century. Glorian, a thin, hospitable man, told me that his grandfather had worked in a mine just down the road; he still remembered how his grandfather’s blue eyes peered out at him from a coal-blackened face at the end of a shift.

That mine shut down when Glorian was 11; in 1990, the last mine in the area closed. While the government supported programmes to place miners in other industries, some of those suffered, too.

The mining life, despite its hardships, had provided security. Miners lived in rowhouses built by the mining company. Their children went to schools built by the company.

Coal, electricity and health care were all provided by the company. Now all that remains of the industry in the basin is a collection of mining pits, slag heaps and workers’ estates so archaic that Unesco, in 2012, added the region to its World Heritage List of unique global treasures.

The site “illustrates a significant period in the history of industrial Europe,” Unesco noted. “It documents the living conditions of workers and the solidarity to which it gave rise.” Glorian’s working life is emblematic of the new uncertainty.

For a time, he worked at Metaleurop-Nord, a smelter that produced zinc and lead, then at a textile factory that produced carpet thread. Each of those factories closed. The shuttering of the smelter in 2003 was a particularly hard blow to the region, leaving several hundred workers without jobs. The National Front sensed electoral opportunity. Marine Le Pen has run repeatedly for the French Parliament in the area around Lens, narrowly missing a seat in 2012. At the same time, National Front candidates have steadily chipped away at the left’s power, making significant gains in local elections.

Glorian acknowledged that the National Front was attracting some CGT members in Pas-de-Calais; in one case, he said, a prominent CGT delegate from a nearby tire shop ran for office on a National Front ticket.

The delegate, Glorian added, was kicked out of the union. When CGT members openly expressed sympathy for the National Front, Glorian told me, union leaders tried to “educate” them about the errors in their thinking. If that didn’t work, they kicked them out, because the union doesn’t tolerate overt racism and nationalism.

Glorian said he was afraid that some of his peers hid their favourable feelings about the National Front from him, knowing they wouldn’t go over well. “The left is to blame,” he told me of the party’s success. “They didn’t do their job.”

The CGT delegate turned National Front politician, I soon found out, was not an isolated case. A number of National Front politicians in the area claim to come from unions and other traditionally leftist organisations.

The party, it appears, often seeks out members with such credentials as part of its strategy to supplant the left. In Méricourt, a town a few miles from Lens that is overshadowed by a volcanic-looking slag heap, the Communist mayor is holding together an alliance of leftists who are battling a rising challenge from National Front politicians like these.

On the morning of my visit to Méricourt, an outdoor market was set up on the main street, with stalls selling cheap clothes, cleaning supplies, sandwiches.

In a bar, I met a foreman named Laurent Dassonville who described himself as a former Communist. Now he is the president of the town’s chapter of the National Front. Dassonville and I moved toward the pool table, where his 12-year-old son sat next to him, playing Pokémon Go.

Dassonville told me that his father had been a Communist, and so had his grandfather. Years ago, he switched allegiance because, he said, the National Front is the only party that still defends workers.

Dassonville ran for local office in 2015 on a National Front ticket. He virtually tied his leftist opponents in the first round of voting but came up short in the second round. After his loss, Dassonville published an angry letter in a local magazine, accusing his leftist opponents of siding with “the big bosses” in order to prevail over the National Front.

“You followed the instructions of the haves and the powerful,” he wrote. A National Front politician was denouncing the area’s hard leftists as if they were neoliberal capitalists.

Dassonville sipped his coffee and lit a Marlboro. He called over a man he introduced as a National Front activist, a retiree who presented a new party membership slip to Dassonville. New members were signing up all the time, Dassonville told me.

“Look, this one’s a truck driver,” he said. “Someone from the working world.” I couldn’t help wondering if this interaction was being staged for my benefit. “They say we are an extreme-right party,” Dassonville said.

“But when you look closely at the words of Marine Le Pen and at the programme we are now building, there’s a big part of the left in it. The left forgot its tradition. It’s up to us to appropriate it.”

I asked Dassonville if he would call the National Front an extreme-right party or an extreme-left party. Like many in the National Front, he objected to the designation “extreme.”

“It’s a normal political party,” he said. “Why would you say extreme? What does the word ‘extreme’ even mean?”

Dassonville thought the whole left-right spectrum was finished anyway. “For me,” he said, “it has no value.”

James Angelos is a writer based in Berlin. He last wrote for The New York Times about Syrian refugees living in a Bavarian village.

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