The greatest external factor to assist the Socialists in their rise to predominance among the left wing parties has been the decline of the Communists as the major party of the left. It is important to note that the Communist party did not slide into irrelevance, and continues to play an important part in French politics to this day, but their decline did serve the interests of the Socialists and as such their fall from dominance of the left wing bloc is very significant. Since 1969 the Communists have faced a declining level of popular support.
This is due to many factors, some of them already discussed, revolving around both the changing nature of politics in France as well as internal errors and party political blunders. Internal disunity in the Communist party has been a particularly important aspect of the inability of the Communists to improve their political fortunes. The traditional strength of the Communist Party leader has been undermined, and there is now much questioning of the party leadership, a development in sharp contrast to previous days of Communist strength when the leadership was never doubted.
Another one of the Communist party's great past strengths, it's network of party associations with other organisations, has declined dramatically, and still continues to do so. In the 1970s many of the associate groups linked to the Communist Party, particularly those in professional sectors, saw their support collapse, as the intellectual and political appeal of Communism diminished. This was a result of developments within French politics and society.
For example, the Peace Movement, strongly associated with the Communists, had enjoyed great support and respect in the 1950s, but had become an organisation of ridicule by the 1970s. The reduction in size of the working class was highly significant, and its impact upon Communist party fortunes was exacerbated by a truly spectacular fall in trade union membership that was in part concomitant with this fall in the number of workers. The Communists have also failed to adapt to the changing climate of French politics in the post-war world.
New political issues such as racism, feminism and immigration have come onto the political agenda in France, but have been met with little organised response from the Communist party. The Communists have thus seemed reluctant to tackle significant modern issues, making them seem less like a plausible main-stream political party. Perhaps most important in explaining the decline of the Communists is the nature of the Fifth Republic itself. As already discussed, the key to the French political system is the Presidency, which is only open to parties close to the centre ground ideologically.
Thus, the Fifth Republic was bound to make the Communist Party a peripheral party. The electoral system used for determining the Presidency has not only discriminated against the Communists, but also assisted the Parti Socialiste, for the two ballot system has led many people who use dot vote for the Communist candidate in the first ballot to vote just for the Socialist candidate in both ballots as they are well aware that the Communist candidate can never win the presidency. As important in the rise of the Socialist Party as external factors were the endeavours of the party itself.
The bulk of the credit for the transformation of the Parti Socialiste from a weak disorganised party in the late 1960s and early 1970s into a party of government can be given to Francois Mitterand, the party leader. He succeeded in anchoring the identity of the Socialist party in the left wing. He correctly assessed that in spite of political theory that argued that all parties should move to the centre parties could be more successful if they maintained grass roots support in their ideological heartland.
Mitterand also engendered a healthy pragmatism in the Parti Socialiste, making for a flexible political party that was able to adapt to changing political circumstances. Above all, Mitterrand's abilities as a politician benefited the Parti Socialiste. His capacity to use other people and political parties to further advance the Socialists proved essential in the rise of the Parti Socialiste. The alliance with the Communists in the l970s was an example of one such relationship that Mitterand established that benefited the Socialists greatly.
The Parti Socialiste have managed to retain their supremacy in the left-wing bloc in part through their ability to succeed electoral. This is an important factor in their ability to unite the left behind them on many matters. The relatively new Green Party has been accommodated and subsequently contained to a large extent by the Parti Socialiste due to its ability to offer the Greens a role in government. Equally, there is now much more co-operation between the Communist Party and the Parti Socialiste based on much the same understanding as with the Greens.
Whether this situation is particularly stable, since it by definition rests upon electoral success, is unclear, and in an age when cohabitation is becoming ever more common, it is difficult to see whether such an alliance can hold. Equally, the role of the Parti Socialiste as the dominant party of the left is largely dependent on its ability to best utilise the constitutional structure of the Fifth Republic, and its political fortunes are inextricably linked with its electoral success.
However, it seems likely that the Parti Socialiste will remain that dominant political party of the left wing for the foreseeable future, as it has not only made good use of the institutional framework of the Fifth Republic, but also has pragmatic flexibility as one of its core values, giving it the versatility required to adapt to constantly changing political circumstances.