Changing fortunes of the French Socialist Party

Jacques Chirac once said that the politics of France would always remain "effervescent". Political volatility is a characteristic feature of French politics (Pierce 1992). That being said, many events that seemed grave and a turning-point for French political parties in the course of history actually turned out to have not such a major impact on their fates. The literature on the Socialist Party (Parti Socialiste or PS) over the years of elections is ripe with predictions of either tremendous success or grave failure.

This essay will show that the PS has done well since its official founding, and the converging nature of politics now will result in a 'Third Way' in the policies of the Left and Right, leading to the eventual rise of the PS again. The PS is the biggest party in the left-wing coalition. It was last a majority party in parliament in 1997 under then Prime Minister (PM) Lionel Jospin, and both legislative and presidential powers are now in the hands of Nicolas Sarkozy's Popular Movement Union (Union Mouvement Populaire or UMP) after the April 2007 elections.

This essay describes and explains the changing fortunes of the PS under the Fifth Republic in the form of trials faced before 1981, its rule in government from 1981 to 1992, and its gradual improvement after its defeat in 1993. We will look at how the changes in PS' ideologies, policies and alliances over this abovementioned time period affected its development. The measures of development taken are the size of support base, image of party, and electoral success.

Since the introduction of the Fifth Republic by Charles de Gaulle in 1958, the governmental system of France has been a semi-presidential system, where both the president and the prime minister have equal power and legitimacy. This system has both "perils" and "virtues" (Linz 1990), which are, respectively, cohabitation and clear division of power. A president is directly elected for a five-year term. The National Assembly, the lower chamber of the bicameral parliament, is elected in legislative elections and lasts five years unless the incumbent president dissolves it.

Both elections utilize run-off voting – top two candidates of the first ballot proceed to the second ballot – to determine the majority party in the National Assembly or the winning presidential candidate (Assembli?? e Nationale 2007). Cobban (1948) pointed out that a characteristic feature of French politics is the "persistent tendency towards polarization on the extremes of left and right". This is true, since a semi-presidential electoral system sees coalition-building as essential. Later on we will look at how the semi-presidential system affects the fortunes of the PS. Before 1981: Rise from decline

In 1969, the French Section of the Workers International (Section Francaise de l'International Ouvriere or SFIO) was merged with other left-wing groups and this new aggregation was renamed to the Socialist Party (PS)1. The SFIO was once the dominant party of the left (Cobban 1948), but it faced a long period of decline from the Fourth Republic until the official formation of the PS. The formation of the PS solved some problems in the left, but the PS itself faced several trials of the lack of a clear ideology, resulting in membership loss and electoral decline (Machin & Wright 1977).

The SFIO had long been unpopular because of the lack of a clear ideology. The appearance of several radical Socialist parties further left made the SFIO more of a centre party instead (Cobban 1948). The SFIO was supported mostly by town workers, but it was a party consisting of intellectuals, professors, officials, petit bourgeois and peasantry with a lack of leaders of working class origin (Cobban 1948), which resulted in a conflict of class interests and uncertainty about their ideology.

It was once a mass party, hoping to become a French Labour Party (Machin & Wright 1977), but by the mid-1960s it had confusingly evolved into an organization of deputies, mayors and councilors (Machin & Wright 1977). As a result, postwar membership was low at around only 70 000 members, about fifth of their former size in the Fourth Republic. It had also lost activists and future elites, due to the purges of youth and student movements at the end of the Algerian War in 1962.

In addition, the emergence of political clubs consisting of "politically-interested middle-class leftists" (Machin & Wright 1977) and rival parties like the young and creative United Socialist Party (PSU) stole members away from the SFIO. Furthermore, the SFIO's presidential candidate Gaston Defferre barely garnered 5% of the votes in the 1969 elections. The lack of clear ideology and political competition resulted in a loss of membership and electoral support, inducing the emergence of the new PS.

After the SFIO was renamed to the Socialist Party (PS) in 1969, the party had strengthened its elite, activist base, organization and financial position under the leadership of Alain Savary and later on, Frani?? ois Mitterand. The PS had failed to gain a majority (absolutely or in coalition with the left) in six National Assembly elections in a row it participated in since the creation of the Fifth Republic (1958, 1962, 1967, 1973, 1978), as well as three presidential elections (1965, 1969, 1974). However, the number of votes gained had been increasing in general.

This was shown in the 1974 presidential elections, when the PS' leader and candidate, Mitterrand came out top in the first ballot, but narrowly lost the presidency by a margin of 1. 6%. With a new leader experienced in national and international politics, new party leaders and cadres from left alliance groups, a respectable membership of 170000 with greater numbers of younger members, and electoral advances (Machin & Wright 1977), PS seemed poised to take on the next election. 1981 – 1992: Rapid rise and failures in power

This period marks the rapid rise of the PS to government, but during this period we can also see the mistakes of their rule. Mitterrand won the 1981 and 1988 elections, and PS obtained an absolute parliamentary majority in the 1981 and 1988 legislative elections. Their successes can be attributed to the following factors, 1) an alliance with the left, 2) Mitterrand's policies, and 3) "modernization" (Parti-socialiste. fr 2006) of the PS' ideology. These factors took place in the context of anti-Americanism and an economy in poor shape, which worked in their favour.

After the official founding of PS, its first strategy was an alliance, or a "cartelization" (Blyth & Katz 2005) with other political groups of the left, including the French Communist Party (PCF). This was a strategic move because the PCF advocated policies of Charles de Gaulle after 1958, which were popular with the electorate (Marcus 1985). Worries about their ideology and its associations were put aside in consideration of the changing international situation. PS hoped to improve its electoral prospects with this alliance.

However, in an alliance there is a danger of factionalism, which continues to affect the PS today. Their alliance with other leftist groups introduced the danger of radical groups that prevented reform (Machin & Wright 1977). The two external factors that helped the left were the prevalence of anti-American thought in the French electorate as well as the poor shape of the economy under the previous president, Vali?? ry Giscard d'Estaing. Giscard had left Mitterrand a precarious economy – high unemployment, rising inflation, and rising oil prices.

Fortunately, Mitterand had a domestic and foreign strategy that was perceived to be the key to raising France's international stature and reviving its economy. Mitterrand launched a campaign with the slogan "Changer la vie" in 1977 (RTL 2006) to promote his Socialist domestic program that included nationalization (industries and banks), lower unemployment (create jobs by implementing a 35-hour work week), more welfare (increase minimum wage and social security benefits), and greater redistribution of wealth (lower taxes for low-income groups and higher taxes for companies and the wealthy) (Wells 1981) through increased government spending.

As for his foreign policy, Mitterrand realized he needed to embrace Gaullist policy2 in order to gain public support for his 1988 re-election. Luckily, the Gaullist theory of foreign policy where the president holds tight personal power over defense and foreign affairs was flexible and ambiguous enough to be adapted to the PS' political and ideological concerns (Harrison 1984).

Mitterrand managed to pass off Socialist decisions as his own idiosyncratic leadership pattern, and fortunately, the PS seemed better representatives of Gaullist principles (Harrison 1984). Furthermore, the Socialists wanted to make world trade "more favorable to developing countries"; the French electorate agreed because they traditionally oppose "a world monetary system dominated by Washington" (Wells 1981).