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Article / 13 June 2016 at 15:02 GMT

Who can save French socialism?

Managing Partner / Spotlight Group
United Kingdom
  • Opinion polls show President Hollande is deeply unpopular
  • He says he may not seek a second term if unemployment does not fall
  • There are young pretenders from the Socialist Party that would do better
  • They do not have a groundswell of support
  • The left will be out of power at least until 2022

f Well, I can't work out who should be the next leader of the French socialists. Photo: iStock

By Stephen Pope

For psephologists that follow French Presidential elections one would look to the historical record and feel assured that the incumbent, President François Hollande is likely to represent the Socialist Party and seek a second and final term.

However, there has been a wealth of speculation in the French media that given the President’s low opinion-poll ratings, the Socialist Party may decide its interests are best served by nominating a different candidate.

Ifop pollsters showed in mid May 2016 that only 14% of the French electorate have a positive opinion of President Hollande. This is the lowest level of support for an incumbent 12 months ahead of a presidential election.

Other polls show that the president, who is yet to decide whether he will seek another mandate for a second term, will lose an election in 2017 no matter who his opponents are.

Hollande's got a mountain to climb
French Op Polls
 Source: Polling Agencies

To be fair to the president, he has suggested that he may not stand for re-election if he fails to reduce the French unemployment rate by the end of his term. He stated:

 "…if after five years, a President cannot meet the objective that he had when he got elected, he cannot be once more a candidate for the highest office in the country…"

Unemployment was at 9.7% in May 2012 when Hollande was elected president; in Q1 2016 it stood at 10.2% after peaking at 10.5% in Q4 2014.
French UE
Source: INSEE 

So if the president decided that he did not wish to risk either not being selected in his party’s primaries, or perhaps not even making it through the first round of national voting in April next year, who could the socialists turn to that might at least give them a shot at retaining the Élysée Palace?

At one time it was generally believed that if the standard bearer of the left were not to be the president, then perhaps the prime minister, Manuel Valls would be favoured. However, opinion polling shows that the better prospect would be in selecting the minister of economy, industry and digital affairs, Emmanuel Macron.

Valls would lose to former President Nicolas Sarkozy by 48% to 52% whilst he would beat Marine Le Pen by 55% to 45%. In contrast, Macron would beat Sarkozy by 64% to 36% and Marine Le Pen by 61% to 39%. 

His only problem would be if the centre right selected former prime minister and mayor of Bordeaux, Alain Juppé. If that were the case he would, according to the latest polls, be beaten by 39% to 61%.

However, he has time to nibble at that lead and do not forget as prime Mmnister to president Jacques Chirac, Juppé’s plan for welfare reform in November/December 1995 caused the biggest social conflict since May 1968 and he was forced to abandoned it. He also became the most unpopular prime minister of the Fifth Republic. So if ever there were a centre right candidate that would rally the left of all hues to unite in opposition it would be Alain Juppé. 

Who is Emmanuel Macron?

Emmanuel Macron, (38 years old) is looking to the labour unrest that currently blights France as his best hope of forcing a serious challenge for the French presidency next year.

His supporters are seeking to position him as being the French incarnation of a modern left of centre politician that give the French Socialists the same transformation as Bill Clinton did for the Democrats in the US during 1992 or Tony Blair for Labour in the UK in 1997. In short they say that he has the ability to reform the party and move it to the centre to address the challenges of a global economy.

However, that is what Hollande has tried to do…admittedly a little late in the day and the labour market reform has been met with hostility. So whoever is the socialist standard bearer, they face a tremendous challenge.

French politics are quite polarised and many of the old guard on the left regard Macron as a thinly veiled capitalist. In the UK, the current Labour leadership have nothing good to say about Tony Blair and Bill Clinton’s wife, Hillary, who will be the Democrats Presidential nominee in November has been accused of being too close to Wall Street and Big Business.

Macron will find it hard to shake off his banking background, education at elite establishments and his rather stiff personality. He is seen as being quick with an unguarded and maybe ill-conceived remark. For example, he told a T-shirted demonstrator that the best way to afford a suit is to work. The response of the demonstrator i.e. “…I’ve been working since the age of 16, sir! …” placed Macron at the centre of the protesting unions outrage.

Young pretender Emmanuel Macron may bear too much of a resemblance
in style to a certain former UK prime minister. Photo: iStock

Shake down and wake up!

Macron’s vision is for a fluid, flexible French workplace that makes it easier to find employment, but also gives employees greater ability to cut the workforce as conditions demand. He has no time to entertain unbreakable contracts. He wants to forge a workplace driven by incentive as against entitlement.

To the left-wing establishment, Macron is too quick to lecture older politicians and they mistrust his agenda as they sense in a more flexible labour market, workers’ rights will be crushed whilst bosses will be allowed to gather ever larger pay packages as has happened in the US and UK. In short they will tolerate no flirtation with an Anglo-Saxon labour market model.

An older Communist André Chassaigne will not back him as he said at a public meeting:

“…There is always with you this, I won’t say, obsession to liberate activity, …As a society, we would lose our bearings. …”

In response Macron replied:

“…We need young Frenchmen who want to become billionaires. …”

That is exactly the type of rhetoric France has to embrace, but Sarkozy tried and failed to shake France out of its complacency. So if a true blue right-of-centre President could not stir the French populous what would a socialist do, especially when he has to look to the left for political support.

Macron can look for encouragement from a trusted voice in academia. Dr Philippe Mario Aghion the French-born Harvard economist has specialised in the field of endogenous growth theory.

This states that economic growth is primarily the result of endogenous and not external or exogenous forces. Endogenous growth theory holds that investment in human capital, innovation, and knowledge are significant contributors to economic growth. He argues that France needs to shake off its yoke of restrictive practices and labour entitlement. If it wants to play on the global stage, then it has to play by global rules.

Dr Aghion says of Emmanuel Macron:

“…He’s a free atom. One doesn’t really know where he is going … The problem is, he doesn’t really have any allies.”

My thoughts are that France needs fixing and when in need of a fix, old practices that have failed and old reasoning that has been found wanting must be thrown out. France cannot change its past…a past that was indeed glorious, but now it is time to address what happens next.

Unless the French left are prepared to seize the centre ground they will be cast into a political wilderness next year. I sense that this is exactly what will happen, as Hollande will squeeze through the primaries but not make the second round. That is where Juppé will beat Marine Le Pen.

Not until 2022 will the Socialist Party recognise that if France is to compete on the global stage it has to adopt more business friendly, wealth creating policies. Socialism is simply a theoretical luxury that is impossible to afford.

How do we make France great again? Photo: iStock

— Edited by Martin O'Rourke

Stephen Pope is managing partner at Spotlight Ideas

johnnyw johnnyw
Interesting, I was not aware that France was this Socialist. I agree with your statement that Socialism is impossible to afford. The increasing regulations that it requires will stifle growth and become a disincentive for business and the entrepreneurs that start them. Like Dr Aghion said the restrictive practices and labour entitlements (welfare state) creates drag on the economy, its free market practices with far less intervention that will reinvigorate growth once again. Pushing the socialist agenda more to its logical conclusions produces a state more like Venezuela, which is impoverished. Looking at the unemployment graph there appears to be a marked correlation between the health of the economy and the government interventionist policies that are dictated to the market. I find the left right centre spectrum to be slightly confusing, and have found it useful to think on a scale of total free market on one hand and total government control on the other.


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