The left no longer exists as a coherent political force in France. Embarrassed in the 2017 presidential election, the Socialist party has continued to disintegrate, polling just 6.2 per cent of the vote in May’s European elections. That was marginally fewer votes than Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise, which mustered a distinctly modest 6.3 per cent. The far-left leader polled well in the first round of the presidential election but as one French commentator wrote this week, his mistake was then to ‘to revert to his original culture, that of the radical left’.
As for the Socialist party, since 2007 their membership has plummeted from 260,000 to 102,000. But that is what happens when middle-class politicians alienate their traditional working-class voters.
One should feel not a jot of sympathy for the Socialist party, who have been humiliated by their hubris. In 2011, they followed the advice of a left-wing think-tank, Terra Nova, which told them that power beckoned if they appealed to a new kind of French person. ‘The France of tomorrow is above all united by cultural and progressive values,” the report said. “It wants change. It is tolerant, open, optimistic and inclusive…it is opposed to an electorate that defends the present and the past against change.’
Similar arrogance characterised Emmanuel Macron when he came to office, but the Yellow Vest movement has put a brake on his progressive revolution, and served as a warning to the smug liberal elite that you provoke the hoi-polloi at your peril.
Britain’s Labour party should have looked at the collapse of the left in France and drawn lessons. That they haven’t is clear by the motion passed on Wednesday at their party conference that Labour must at the next election “campaign for free movement, equality and rights for migrants…extend free movement rights” and “extend equal rights to vote to all UK residents”. This contradicts Jeremy Corbyn’s manifesto pledge in 2017 to end freedom of movement “when we leave the European Union”.
It also ignores the warning from the Guardian in March 2015, six months before the migrant crisis erupted that has since reshaped the political European landscape. The article said:
“If Labour is to reconnect with its traditional supporters, it may have to think how to respond to those who, in the words of Jack Straw, feel they have not had a fair deal in life as the country changed around them.”
Labour must believe it no longer needs such voters, that it can pick up enough support from the metropolitan middle-classes. That is the only explanation for its Brexit strategy and the party’s free movement pledge.
Eight years ago, the French left was equally contemptuous of its white working-classes, which was yet another monumental misjudgement in a long list of ideological errors. Their deep bonds with that demographic started to fray thirty years ago – 18 September 1989, to be precise. On that day three pupils arrived at their school in Creil, on the northern outskirts of Paris, wearing headscarves. Within weeks the ruling Socialist party were at each other’s throats as an ailing François Mitterrand looked on helplessly. Some defended the girls’ right to wear the headscarves and others were adamant that it was contrary to Republican values, but all the arguing did was to create an ideological vacuum into which Islamists moved with swift cunning.
One French currents affair magazine, Marianne, devoted last week’s issue to the ‘headscarf affair’ under the front page headline ‘When The Republic Capitulated’. In an interview with the magazine, former secretary-general of the Socialist party Jean-Christophe Cambadélis, admitted:
“Nobody on the left had thought of these questions of immigration, insecurity and identity, the famous three ‘i’ theory of the far-right thinkers.”
The tragedy for the French left is that thirty years later many still refuse to address these questions. Benoît Hamon, for example, who led the Socialist party to its calamitous defeat in 2017, is now the leader of a fringe party called ‘Génération.s’ [they polled 3.27 per cent of the vote in the European Elections, a whisker more than the Animalist party, which believes in equal rights for our furry friends] and occasionally appears in the news wailing about the ‘shame of the Republic’ in refusing to open its borders to mass immigration. Hamon was also quoted in Marianne saying that if girls can wear short skirts to school then they should also be allowed to wear headscarves.
Hamon just doesn’t get it, and nor do the Labour party, despite their own dismal showing in the European elections. But that is what happens when a political party is hijacked by a privileged middle-class.