François Hollande: a socialist analysis

May 7, 2012 at 5:29 pm (Andrew Coates, Cross-post, Europe, France, Marxism)

As promised, Coatsey is on the ball with his analysis of the French Presidential election:

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François Hollande: a socialist analysis:

“The only part of the so-called national wealth that actually enters into the collective possession of a modern nation is the national debt.”

Karl Marx. Capital. Vol. 1. Page 919.

“Enfin les difficultés commencent.”

Alexandre Bracke-Desrousseaux (SFIO) – Socialist Parliamentary Deputy. 1936.

I jumped, literally, for joy listening to the Exit Polls for the French Presidential election. That François Hollande won was more than a relief after so much tension during the campaign: it was elating. That Greece showed such a strong showing for anti-austerity parties, with the left bloc Syriza coming second, was a further boost. The sight of the celebrating crowds across France, the country at its forward-looking and generous best, will remain in the mind for a long time. It gave a fillip to the left in all Europe. Good on you!

The French Stock-Exchange, the Bourse, did not share this happiness. This morning we hear reports of plunges in share values. Is Hollande such a threat to Capital? Who is he, what are his politics, what policies will he pursue, and what are the implications for the left, French and European?

Political Backgrounds

According to large parts of the British media François Hollande is ‘centre-left’. This is not a term much used in France. Others, more accurately, call him a ‘social democrat’. Does this mean, as Terra Nova’s spokesperson said, that the former Parti Socialiste’s General Secretary is a ‘moderniser’ of the stamp of Tony Blair, or Gordon Brown? That is somebody ready to wipe out the French version of Old Labour?

Nothing could be less sure. Talking with the philosopher-sociologist Edgar Morin in Saturday’s Le Monde (5.5.11) Hollande referred not to the ‘centre-gauche’ but to the Gauche. They discussed the “famille socialiste” (which for both includes a – 19th century – communist and libertarian component). Who were the thinkers and political actors who have inspired Hollande? He cites the influence of Marx’s analysis of capitalism (“utile pour comprendre ce qu’est le capitalisme”) even if the system has changed, Jean Jaurès for his synthesis of socialism and republicanism, the communist black poet, Aimé Césaire, Victor Hugo and Albert Camus. It would he hard to find a leader of the Labour Party, or any European third-way ‘moderniser’, with a parallel list of influences.

Second and First Lefts

Hollande’s social democracy has led some to say that he is the “spiritual son of Jacques Delors” and what is known in France as the “Second left”. This is the current of thought associated with one-time Prime Minister Michel Rocard (PM, 1988 – 1991), and the ex-Christian Trade Union, the CFDT (Confédération Démocratique du Travail). It was strongly opposed to the ‘Jacobin’ left tradition of reform from above. Embodied in, say, the French Socialist (and now ultra-republican), Jean-Pierre Chévènement this took the ‘battering ram’ approach to socialism, a parliamentary majority could thrust through a programme of radical reform (as the 1981 Projet Socialiste offered). The First left in reality was less of a trend of thought than a series of policies for socialism through Parliament that collapsed at the first sign of serious economic difficulty – as happened under Mitterrand in 1984.

The Second Left combined an ethical socialism indebted to the ‘personalism’, Catholic humanism, of Emmanuel Mounier and his journal Esprit (founded in the 1930s), and a belief in the central value of democracy. It was associated with support for decentralisation, and a degree of ‘self-management’ (worker participation, influenced by the Guild Socialism of G.D.H.Cole rather than Marxism or anarchism) in industry. Delors’s concern about budgetary probity and economic realism was combined with left-liberal values. It wanted to change people from below, (civil society) not by Parliamentary Acts. It petered out by the end of the 1980s (as Rocard became Prime Minister) as it too failed to change much in French society, and was unable to change a market society by moral example.

This stream of thought, influential in the 1980s, and present in the ‘anti-totalitarian’ left up till the 1990s, is dispersed today. It faded away as its moderation ebbed away into a diffuse enthusiasm for ‘modernisation’ and by-ways, such as the pro-enterprise Fondation Saint-Simon (whose closest present day offspring is Terra Nova). The present CFDT leader, François Chérèque is not associated with any strong ideology and Rocard is barely audible. Martine Aubry, the actual daughter of Delors, and identified with some of his ideas, lost out to Hollande in the Socialist ‘primaries’. Only in the vaguest sense is the President an inheritor, in his moderate ‘possibilism’ and scorn for sweeping, uncosted and not thought-out, reform. The sociologist Alain Tourraine, one of the last theorists connected to the Second Left, has nevertheless praised the President as the only person capable of combining support for “European construction” with social policies. (Le Monde. 26. 4.12). If this may be true it is also the case that almost the whole of the French left, including those hostile to the EU’s existing make-up and leadership (like Jean-Luc Mélenchon) equally share such an ambition.

Others say that Hollande combines the ‘First’ with the ‘Second left’. By this they refer to his praise for the last Socialist President, François Mitterrand (1991 – 1995), who was said to incarnate the former. Mitterrand however had a background in the ‘Parliamentarism’ of French ‘radical socialism’ (a name potentially misleading to English readers, it signified opposition to ‘revolution’ and owed the first term to 19thcentury British ‘radicals’ like Cobden and Bright). His Socialism, as for his radical allies, drew on the ideas of equality and social solidarity expounded by French novelists like George Sand and the later Victor Hugo, and ‘social republicanism, with some influence of Lois Blanc’s schemes for welfare and gradual socialisation. His reliance on state-led change was ‘reformism’ boiled down to agreements with parliamentary groupings, or, as the Socialists became the dominant force in the National Assembly, to deals between the party’s different leaders and tendencies.

Hollande’s debt to this approach to one aspect of the First Left is still important, though. It lies in his republicanism. In le Monde he argued strongly against Edgar Morin’s proposal that the word “multicultural” be put into the Constitution. “The word ‘multiculturalism’ creates ambiguities, it could indicate that we’re a society without common terms of reference. This doesn’t mean we should be indifferent to people’s origins, but that we have to make a Republic in which all citizens feel they are recognised. I prefer to reinforce Secularism (laïcité) in the Constitution because it’s a one of the important principles of freedom – every citizen, all religions – are treated in the same way – in fraternity. Secularism enables us to live together, with the same rights and responsibilities.” (5.5.12). This republican equality (the value that for Hollande is the ‘soul of France’) stands in sharp contrast to both Sarkozy’s efforts to attack immigrants, especially those of a Muslim background, and the British multicultural left’s attempts to play on religious difference. Its success was notable in the ‘mixed’ crowds, of every ethnic background, that celebrated Hollande’s victory.

Finance Capital

Socialism, Hollande, has written, means putting capitalism in the service of social objectives. The Parti Socialiste dropped references to class struggle and a ‘break’ (rupture) with the market in the 1990s. But it did not become, as some on the left alleges, ‘social liberal’ on the model of New Labour. Nor do the categories of First and Second Left fit a world transformed, it is said, by ‘globalisation’. Neither state-run nor grass-roots initiatives alone could confront the altered world. It is this context which led the Socialists (influenced by the intellectual revival of the left in the late 1990s) to attack ‘finance’ and uncontrolled globalisation (Declaration of Principles. 2008). How the proposed to tackle it was through the European Union – an idea increasingly problematic as the EU itself began, critics asserted, to operate as a funnel for the interests of finance and global capital.

Speaking at Bourget in January this year Hollande identified finance capital as his principal foe, “Il n’a pas de nom, pas de visage, pas de parti, il ne prèsentera jamais sa candidature, il ne sera donc jamais élu. Cet adversaire, c’est le monde de la finance.” (It has no name, no face, no party, it will never stand for election, and hence it will never be elected. My main adversary is the world of financial world). In this vein the Presidential Candidate attacked the “excesses” of bankers’ pay, bonuses, and the profits that financial markets make. The framework which encourages profiteering, instability, restrains the wages of the ordinary people while putting pressure on states to cuts public spending, is a “construction politique” (le Monde. 5.5.12). The task is to change this structure. The problem is that financial markets do indeed have a face, including prominent former Labour party politicians, like Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson (now both well-paid rewarded of this world), whose actions have helped create the problems the French socialists face. **

Hollande offers only moderate measures to begin to fulfill the mission. Taxation of the wealthy, proposals to employ more, not fewer, teachers and front-line civil servants, appear modest enough. It is the challenge to European Union-led austerity is far more significant. Today we hear signs that this may be watered down, that a compromise may be reached with Germany, that the time is not ripe for confrontation. Yet it is what Marx called the debt’s position as a “collective possession” that is going to cause the main problems. A strategy for growth will not make this go away.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon left the Parti Socialiste and founded the Parti de gauche (PG) because of a previous failure to stand up against plans for Europe-wide fiscal controls in the referendum of 2008. His electoral score as the candidate for the Front de gauche in the first Presidential round two weeks ago, was, at 11%, less than hoped for, but a major advance on original projections (well below 5%). The European issue remains a live one, and will be raised again as we now move towards the Legislative Elections. A strong FdG vote could keep Hollande on course.

For the moment we simply send Hollande all our best wishes, with all our heart.

*La Deuxième gauche. H. Hamon, P.Rotman. Seuil. 1984. Esprit. Michel Winock. Seuil. 1996.

** Les marchés financiers ont un visage.Geoffery Geuens. Le Monde Diplomatique. Mai 2012.( Here.)

Note: Caroline Fourest is important in grasping the role of religion, ethnicity, race and secularism in the campaign. See her latest column D’une digue républicaine à l’autre. here

1 Comment

  1. Andrew Coates said,

    Thanks.

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