The French Socialist party is at risk of dying out. Following three unsuccessful attempts at the presidency, the recent crushing defeat in the European elections speaks of a party in deep crisis. Britain’s Labour party has declined while in power; France’s Socialists are doing so in opposition.
Some might believe that the party’s collapse can be explained by the successes of President Nicolas Sarkozy. I do not share this view. Government deficit levels have reached and exceeded worrying highs, unemployment is rising at an alarming rate, and several structural reforms have not delivered the expected results.
Under the leadership of Mr Sarkozy, the French political right has managed to stay true to its old paradoxes. While it is certainly conducting a conservative policy in taxation, judging by the tax breaks given to better-off households, it has shied away from opening up an economic system that is biased in favour of insiders. Labour market reforms have increased this bias instead of reducing it.
Yet it is not enough to acknowledge the limits of the current presidency; indeed, I am convinced that knee-jerk anti-Sarkozyism only damages the credibility of the left.
What we need to understand are the reasons for the decline of European social democracy, especially the French Socialist party. While capitalism is being widely called into question by the global recession, theleft has not been able to convince Europeans that it can remodel the system. In almost every country in the European Union, it has experienced major setbacks.
In failing to face up to the repercussions of a more globalised economy and the individualisation of society, the left gradually let itself become caught up in an outdated view of the world. Too often, being on the left involves seeking to rebuild what has been destroyed, without ever considering the positive implications of current developments.
As Joseph Schumpeter demonstrated, capitalism is based on the principle of “creative destruction”. While crises always have serious and worrying ramifications, the job of the left is not to deny the inevitable; instead, it should seek to transform every change into an opportunity to promote its values. It is up to the left to ensure that trade is globalised in such a way as to protect the most vulnerable and create new opportunities for those who are losing out. This would achieve far more than furious and abstract denunciations of the capitalist system.
While free-market fundamentalism has been weakened by the current crisis, a step backwards to the previous situation is neither possible nor desirable. A number of irreversible trends prevent such a move. First, the rise of individualism makes it increasingly difficult to identify all-encompassing solutions. Second, there is the process of globalisation, which continues relentlessly despite a momentary fall in trade. Last but by no means least, we are seeing increased awareness of environmental issues and of the challenge for humanity represented by global warming.
The left must therefore come up with a new doctrine that will enable it to pursue several goals at once. These include the extension of individual choice, the protection of global public assets and the pursuit of greater fairness, given that equality has proved unattainable. The latter is a particularly important challenge for the French left, which clings to its grand ideals and lofty sentiments.
Recently, I had the opportunity to gauge the strength of this conformist tendency. For several decades, France has been plagued by segregation. Whether regional, social or ethnic, discrimination affects the daily lives of millions of our compatriots.
Yet saying – as I have done – that there are not enough white people in the young, working-class town of Évry, just as there are not enough black people in the affluent suburb of Neuilly, is likely to be met with a barrage of criticism. If we are ever to tackle this issue, it is essential that we identify ghettos in all their forms.
It is precisely because I want the left to face up to reality that I intend to stand as a candidate in the 2012 presidential elections. In the debate that will ensue, my essential aim is to promote a radical modernisation of the French Socialist party’s ideology, as part of which I am proposing a more appropriate name – for which I am still searching. Indeed, I believe that the term “socialism” – an inheritance from the 19th century – is one of the main factors contributing to a confused identity.
For too long, the left has sought to use ideology to make up for its lack of a strong militant base in the working class and pressure from the far left. It is high time that it renounced its pompous claims and contented itself with the pursuit of a “relative utopia” of the kind proposed by Albert Camus. While there is no longer an alternative to the capitalist system and market economy, there are countless methods that will allow us to increase the range of choices available to all individuals.
I am convinced that this is the best and indeed only way to re-inject meaning into the age-old struggle of the political left.
The writer is a Socialist MP and mayor of Évry
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