French Socialist party in trouble; story is similar throughout Europe

The French Socialist party held its primary yesterday in the race to succeed Francois Hollande as the party’s standard bearer. Hollande’s presidency has been such a disaster that he declined to stand for re-election.

Former education minister Benoit Hamon came in first with around 36 percent of the vote. He will face former prime minister Manuel Valls, who captured around 31 percent of the vote.

Hamon is a left-winger. He represents what the BBC calls “the angry, radical wing of the Socialist party.” Apparently, his central policy idea is a guaranteed minimum income.

Valls is a centrist by French Socialist standards, anyway. As prime minister, he tried to implement a somewhat pro-business agenda. He also declared that France is at war with radical Islam and stated that if Jews flee France in large numbers, “France will no longer be France” and “the French Republic will be judged a failure.”

Unfortunately, Hamon has a very clear edge in the run-off. The third-place finisher, left-winger Arnaud Montebourg, is backing him. Combined, Hamon and Montebourg received more than 50 percent of the primary vote.

Valls has characterized the run-off as a choice “between an assured defeat [in the general election] and possible victory”. He’s right, I think, that defeat is assured if Hamon is the Socialist candidate. But it is probably a reach to say that victory is possible under Valls.

The big question is whether the Socialist candidate can finish second in the general election and thus make the runoff against against Francois Fillon, the closest thing to a Reagan-Thatcher conservative, at least when it comes to economic policy, ever nominated by a major party in France. Standing in the way is Marine Le Pen of the National Front party, a right-wing ultra-nationalist outfit. As far as I can tell, most observers expect that it will be Fillon vs. Le Pen in the runoff.

The bigger story here may be the collapse, at least for now, of socialist parties throughout Europe. This New York Times story by Alissa Rubin surveys the wreckage. Rubin writes:

The collapse of the establishment left in France is hardly a unique phenomenon. Across Europe, far-right populist parties are gaining strength, including in France, while the mainstream left, which played a central role in building modern Europe, is in crisis. From Italy to Poland to Britain and beyond, voters are deserting center-left parties, as leftist politicians struggle to remain relevant in a moment when politics is inflamed by anti-immigrant, anti-European Union anger.

“Wherever you look in Europe the Socialists are not doing well, with the exception of Portugal,” said Philippe Marlière, a professor of French and European politics at University College London. He added that the left lacked “a narrative that tries to unite the different sectors of the working class.”

Each country has its distinctive dynamics, but one common theme is the difficulty many mainstream left parties are having in responding to the economic and social dislocation caused by globalization. In Italy, constituencies that used to routinely back the center-left Democratic Party are turning to the new anti-establishment Five Star Movement, which is Euroskeptic and anti-globalization — just as some working-class, left-wing voters in France are now looking at the extreme-right National Front.

Whether it’s accurate to characterize a party about to nominate Benoit Hamon as “center-left” is open to dispute. But Rubin’s overall thesis seems sound.

The embrace, at least to some degree, of right-wing parties by typically socialist constituencies seems particularly noteworthy. I discussed this phenomenon here, in a post that relied on the analysis of Fred Siegel.

In the context of the French election, Siegel wrote:

Fillon’s Thatcherite economic policy will no doubt push France’s vast array of public-sector trade unionists—and what remains of the industrial working-class voters—into the arms of Marine Le Pen, who could merge as the de facto left-wing candidate (if such terms still have any meaning).

The many millions who either work for government or are the recipient of corporatist benefits might quietly support Le Pen’s nationalism rather than risk losing their privileges.

Europe is in a state of tremendous flux and possibly a state of crisis. Donald Trump’s reaction/response could be telling.

His sympathies are unlikely to be with the European establishment. But will he tilt towards the likes of Fillon, a free-market conservative, or towards anti-globalist, hard core nationalists of the Le Pen stripe?

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