2021-10-01 17:18:37 Europe’s Social Democrats Show Signs of Life, but France Poses a Roadblock

Europe’s Social Democrats Show Signs of Life, but France Poses a Roadblock

FRANCE — For France’s venerable Socialist Party, which is polling at 4% ahead of next year’s presidential elections, news of a surprise victory by its center-left counterpart in Germany last Sunday provided a glimmer of hope.

The narrow victory of Olaf Scholz and Germany’s Social Democratic Party, as well as the expected return to power of Norway’s Labor Party following a recent win, have highlighted Europe’s long-struggling social democrats. If Mr. Scholz is successful in forming a government, social democrats in Europe’s most powerful country will join center-left governments in Spain, Portugal, Sweden, Denmark, and Finland, as well as Norway.

The focus will then shift to France, where presidential elections are scheduled for April of next year. However, experts believe that the social democrats’ hopes for a continental revival are likely to fade in France.

Nonetheless, Socialist Party officials seized on the German results as a sign that Europe’s political tides may be turning.

“Never assume the battle is already lost,” said Socialist leader Olivier Faure in a tweet. Anne Hidalgo, the party’s presidential candidate, stated that Mr. Scholz “had beaten the odds” due to policies shared by both social democratic parties.

But it will take more than that to turn around the fortunes of a party that once dominated French politics.

Ms. Hidalgo, 62, the second-term mayor of Paris, announced her presidential candidacy in mid-September after months of hints. However, instead of the expected uptick in polls, her approval ratings have dipped.

Her polling is now far behind not only the two front-runners for a showdown, President Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Rally, but also candidates from the center-right and Éric Zemmour, a writer and TV star known for his far-right views who is not yet an official candidate.

Polls show that she trails the far-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon and is neck and neck with the Greens’ newly designated presidential candidate, Yannick Jadot, on the other side of the political spectrum.

The Socialists’ demise is all the more notable because, under Socialist President François Hollande, the party controlled the Élysée Palace, both chambers of Parliament, a majority of major cities, and nearly all regions less than a decade ago.

“Nine years ago, this party held all the cards,” said Pascal Delwit, a political scientist at the Free University of Brussels who specializes in social democracy. “Nine years later, it still doesn’t have any.”

In what became a symbol of its demise, the Socialist Party was forced to abandon its long-standing headquarters in one of Paris’s most affluent neighborhoods in favor of cheaper real estate in a suburb, or banlieue, that many members never visited.

According to Alain Bergounioux, a historian and expert on the Socialist Party, Socialists appear to have lost the ability to push forward their ideas and themes in a fast-moving political landscape.

“They really don’t influence the national debate any longer because public opinion has shifted to the right,” Mr. Bergounioux explained.

“If it was premature to say that social democracy was dead, it would be overstatement to say that there is a renaissance,” he added.

Seven months before the presidential election, right-wing issues such as immigration, crime, and national identity are dominating political discourse. While Mr. Macron ran as a centrist in 2017, he has shifted to the right in order to capture the largest share of the vote.

With the intense news media attention on Mr. Zemmour’s possible candidacy, the focus on these themes has only increased in recent weeks. He has been touring different regions on a book tour that has also served as a campaign, portraying himself as a Trump-like populist outsider. According to a poll released this week, his support among potential voters in the first round of the elections has risen to 13%, just three percentage points lower than Ms. Le Pen’s.

According to experts, France is an extreme, but revealing, example of the problems that social democratic parties face across Europe.

While social democratic parties have lost support almost everywhere on the continent as a result of political fragmentation, Mr. Macron’s successful creation of his centrist La République en Marche party has decimated France’s Socialist Party. Some Socialist leaders defected to Mr. Macron, who had previously served as Mr. Hollande’s economy minister. Mr. Macron also recruited from the center-right, which was less weakened than the center-left and remains a political force in France.

For decades, social democratic parties used a vision of social justice and an equitable economy to appeal to a core base of unionized, industrial workers and urban professionals.

Many long-term French supporters, however, felt betrayed by Mr. Hollande’s pro-business policies, as French Socialists, like their counterparts elsewhere, were unable to protect their traditional base from globalization.

While French Socialists return to their traditional values and emphasize their commitment to the environment, Mr. Bergounioux believes their vision for society lacks a “strong spine.” Mr. Delwit stated that in France, as in other countries, the constituencies that support social democratic parties are made up of “aging, loyal voters who have voted for them their entire lives.”

According to experts, the recent success of social democratic parties in Germany and elsewhere in Europe was due to successful jockeying rather than the attraction of a new social democratic vision.

Mr. Scholz’s victory last Sunday was “first and foremost a strategic victory,” according to Ernst Stetter, a member of Germany’s Social Democratic Party and former secretary general of the Foundation for European Progressive Studies, an umbrella group of social democratic think tanks across the continent.

Mr. Scholz served as vice chancellor and finance minister in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government, offering “change in continuity by offering a little bit more social programs, a little bit more on the environment, and continuity in European and international affairs,” according to Mr. Stetter, who is also an analyst at the Fondation Jean-Jaurès research institute in Paris.

Mr. Scholz’s victory, however narrow, represented “the center of the Social Democratic Party, not the left,” according to Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a French-German politician and former Green member of the European Parliament.

Mr. Cohn-Bendit attributed the success of socialists in Spain, Portugal, and the Nordic countries to responding to local needs rather than a shared vision of social democracy.

“On immigration policy, social democrats in Denmark are to the right of many centrist parties,” Mr. Cohn-Bendit said, referring to Denmark’s Social Democrats’ adoption of a series of hardline immigration measures.

Following a rise in right-wing parties in recent years, social democrats now lead governments in Sweden, Finland, and Denmark, and are poised to do so in Norway. Their grip on power, however, is far more tenuous than in the past.

In Norway, the Labor Party, led by Jonas Gahr Stoere, won first place in the parliamentary election last month, but only a little more than a quarter of the total seats, one of the party’s lowest scores on record. Following the failure of recent talks to form a broad center-left coalition, Mr. Stoere is now expected to become prime minister of a minority government.

“There hasn’t been a new definition of what social democracy might be in today’s world,” Mr. Cohn-Bendit said.

Mr. Stetter expressed his own skepticism about a broad revival of social democracy. Over the last decade, social democrats had attempted, but failed, to resurrect themselves under the banner of the “Next Left,” he said.

Nonetheless, Mr. Stetter expressed optimism that last Sunday’s election results in Germany would portend good news for European social democrats.

“If Scholz forms a government as a social democratic chancellor, there will be a dynamic force at the heart of Europe, and that could give energy to the French Socialist Party in the campaign period before the presidential elections in April,” Mr. Stetter said. “We must maintain our optimism.”

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Europe’s Social Democrats Show Signs of Life, but France Poses a Roadblock