Notes on the Current State of the French Left

Most observers of contemporary French politics will certainly agree on the following assessment: the French left is at its lowest point, perhaps ever, and we should not expect anything from it for a long time. In the wake of the Socialist Party’s (PS) electoral collapse (31 seats in the National Assembly down from 295 in 2012), France Insoumise’s disappointing results in last month’s parliamentary elections, and Emanuel “Jupiter” Macron’s consolidation of the extreme center, the French institutional left lies in ruins. These days, the future shines perhaps paradoxically brighter in the Anglo-American world, thanks to the various movements coalescing around Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, than it does in France where Marxism was once dominant.

So now what?

Although his 5th place in the first round of the presidential election and subsequent defeat in the parliamentary elections leave him without a public office, Benoit Hamon, who left the Socialist Party to launch his own movement over the weekend, is the mainstream political figure who diagnosed the failure and upcoming struggles of the French left most clearly. In his inaugural address delivered on July 1st at Reuilly, Hamon offered the kind of analysis I don’t see nearly enough on both the American left (except in select Jacobin articles and many office conversations at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research), and the British left (although more informed observers might correct me on this one). The defeat was not a failure of communication which led ungrateful French people to vote against their own interests, it was, rather, profoundly ideological:

“I believe the paralysis of the social-democratic left results not only from its failure to propose an efficient critique of the neoliberal economy but also in its failure to engage, like it is becoming urgent to, in the great ideological battle, which is a narrative battle, that the liberal right is currently waging against us.”

The upcoming battles must be fought at an ideological level. The left must invent new vocabularies to describe the world and challenge the current hegemony.

“I am calling on you for a real intellectual and cultural reconquest. What is at stake is not the next small election, the next small convention, the next small arrangements. What is at stake is the next great project for the 21st century left: ideological and cultural recapture in the face of the neoliberal avalanche and its nationalist and populist twin.”

Crucially, the left imagined by Hamon remains anchored in class analysis and is openly internationalist. It does not perceive globalization as an existential threat but rather a political and social fact that must be contended with and become integral to any long-term leftist politics.

“For us, for the left, the risk is to see a culture of resistance to capital transform into a revolt against globalization, open borders, and thus migrations and human rights. The decision to situate political struggle exclusively along a vertical axis that separates the people and the elites, the base and the top, exposes the left to that risk.”

Specifically directed at  Jean-Luc Melanchon and his populist brand of republicanism, this claim touches on a subtle but crucially important point: playing the game of politics within the discursive field defined by the right is dangerous precisely because it creates “intellectual and semantic bridges that can radically distract us from the left’s democratic, internationalist, and universalist project.” On this analysis, the left must then “engage in real battles during which we will not accept the grammar, the vocabulary, or the syntax of those who turned neoliberal axioms into the end-all and be-all of politics in this country.”

Whether Hamon’s movement will succeed remains to be seen. The odds are certainly against him. But, like he concluded quoting Gramsci, the left must oppose the optimism of the will to the pessimism of the intellect.  Reversing the ideological tide after forty years of neoliberal hegemony will take a long time. In France, like elsewhere, it will take the physical reinvestment of the territories lost by the left to the right and the invention of new political tools and strategies adapted to our current social realities. In this sense, Hamon’s call to explode a sclerotic party system and create local, democratically run chapters all across France, not unlike Democratic Socialist of America is doing in the US, seem to be the right place to start.