Where is the French left headed? – Christophe Sente and Christopher Mackin

Beyond the new electoral training, a potential path is opening up to democratize work.

Will the populism of Jean-Luc Mélenchon prevail or the interest in self management reappear? (Victor Joly/shutterstock.com)

Has the French left ever been a social democrat? Until now, the question interested only the academics attached to listing the parties which, during the XXth century, carried the claims of a working class gradually diluted in the wage-earners.

Their answer was usually no. This, on the one hand, because neither the SFIO (the former French section of the Socialist International) nor the Socialist Party defined by a special relationship with a mass union. On the other hand, although it is implausible, many French leaders, up to the last socialist president, François Hollande, claimed to embody a political radicalism inherited from 1789.

They thus maintained, unlike their European counterparts, an anti-capitalist rhetoric characterized by the demonization of private enterprise. Privileging the parliamentary arena, the French Socialists have not, with the notable exception of former Prime Minister Michel Rocard, conceived of business as a space for democracy. Instead, the business was seen primarily as a fiscal resource or an organization to be placed under the direct control of the state.

Possible conversions

Since the presidential elections of 2022, the nature of the French left has sparked interest beyond the community of political scientists, reaching even the ranks of the government, in the person of the Minister of Labor, Olivier Dussopt. The challenge is no longer to classify the parties for encyclopaedic purposes but, based on the mutations of the left, to shed light on the enigma of the possible transformations of a large European state.

Three conclusions are commonly drawn from observing the events of recent months. The first highlights the competition between three political blocs - respectively "left", "right" and "center" -vis à visa-screw defend the purchasing power of citizens in the face of inflation induced in particular by the energy crisis.

The second table on the renewal of a bipolarization which would no longer oppose the PS of Olivier Faure to the Republicans of the center-right - respectively reduced to the occupation of 27 and 59 of the 577 seats of the National Assembly - but the France rebellious ("La France insoumise") by Jean-Luc Mélenchon at Marine Le Pen's far-right National Rally.

The third interprets the creation of a political cartel by Mélenchon, on the eve of the June legislative elections, as a kiss of death for the PS as well as for the ecologists who have agreed to become members. Thus, the New People's Ecological and Social Union (NUPES) would be a stage in the consolidation of left populism with a presidential vocation.

The first two conclusions are not contradictory, because the thesis of a refoundation of the opposition between left and right presupposes a gradual weakening of the alliance formed in 2017 by Emmanuel Macron as the centrist candidate elected for the presidency: an orientation a policy based on the modernization of production conditions in a European environment would not prevent the rise of populism. The last conclusion supposes a durable hegemony for the France rebellious— hitherto capable of embodying part of the national social discontent by channeling it into a contest of phantom elites, an ecological promise and a questioning of the country's international alliances.

Classical Keynesianism

This prognosis of the French political future could be validated in the years to come. However, it omits a number of elements.

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One is the nature of Macronism, whose alchemy belies the French avatar definition of an Anglo-Saxon or German neo/ordo-liberalism. The president and the great figures of his entourage come from the former socialist breeding ground and from progressive circles receptive to the needs of national companies, in particular to the argument of the need to stimulate productive investment. The parliamentary majority also includes a bloc of elected officials who, united in a "progressive federation", claim to belong to the left. Finally, the policy-mixes applied between 2017 and 2022 borrow both from classic Keynesianism during the health crisis, as previously that of the "yellow vests", and, beyond that, from a socialism with a European temperament closer to Europe. former President François Mitterrand than former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Another element concerns the choices to be made by the PS and the environmental movement, whose future depends on an ability to distance itself from the France rebellious. The Socialists and the Greens have local networks that they have made available to the NUPES in the context of the emergency of the legislative elections. Continuing on this path, which mainly benefits Mélenchon's supporters, would be all the more akin to assisted suicide: red-green majorities in the big cities and regions make it possible to experiment with original programs, towards the establishment of what is called in France the “social and solidarity system”. economy", particularly inspired by the Spanish historical experience.

Moreover, if we consider the texts drawn up by Macron's governments, a basis exists to allow the convergence of the presidential majority and other progressive forces, not only liberal but socialist and environmentalists. Paradoxically, the best illustration of this is less the consensual legislation adopted by the new government of Elisabeth Borne than a law passed when Edouard Philippe, once close to Rocard, was prime minister.


Introduced in 2019, the PACTE law (pact being "pact" in French) is an acronym for Business Growth and Transformation Action Plan (“an action plan for business growth and transformation”). As Nicolas Aubert and Xavier Hollandts have observed, it represents a step towards a revitalization of the debate on corporate reform in the direction of "co-determination", or even co-management, between owners of capital and employees.

The PACTE law has indeed accomplished a Copernican revolution, which sought – according to the language of the package – to “rethink the place of companies in society”, starting from the premises of the Minister of the Economy, Bruno Lemaire. For Lemaire, “without success for the employees, there is no success for a company”.

Essentially, by promoting the consolidation of employee shareholder status within companies, the law has offered social actors tools that can serve two purposes. The first is the reform of the governance of private companies in the direction desired by the social-democratic trade union federation CFDT in the 1970s. The second is the restitution to the citizens, in accordance with the ideas of an ecological thinker like André Gorz, of the means control over their daily life at work.

This logic of “self-management”, to which – still very moderately – the law commits companies, is important in the national and European context. It is the realization of the current trend of political abstention and the temptation of disgruntled voters to hand over the economy and the state to far-right or far-left adventurers.

For a socialist and ecological left as for liberal progressives, the PACTE law could work as a booster shot. Some remember a time when the social democrats, joined later by the ecologists, won the confidence of the citizens by being interested as much in the conditions of production as in purchasing power. Others might recall that the irreducibility of the interests of capital and labor is a Marxist fable that the neoclassical economist Friedrich von Hayek was wrong to believe.

Since 2019, the potential offered by the PACTE law has hardly aroused the interest of parties and unions. They could therefore represent another missed opportunity – reminiscent of the flawed efforts initiated by longtime post-war French leader Charles de Gaulle, whose vision of corporate reform attempted to define a political third way between capitalism and an authoritarian socialist model.

Majority owners

But it is also possible, in light of recent experience in the United States, that this law is only a step. If the proposals for "economic democracy" could be glimpsed among the demands of former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, the theme is also the subject of bipartisan interest across the Atlantic. Far from being the multinational paradise described by Europe's far left, with the creative use of the tax code, thousands of companies in the United States are converting to a model of governance in which workers slide from minority to majority shareholder status, without risking personal capital or sacrificing benefits.

The impetus for this movement was given by intellectuals who, from John Dewey to Noam Chomsky to David Ellerman, refused to sacrifice visions of worker (and manager) sovereignty on the altar of the corporate world. wage and shareholder capitalism. This sector of the US economy is supported by tax-efficient legal structures, including “employee stock ownership plans” (ESOPs) and worker cooperatives, encouraged by governments and non-governmental organizations.

Political support for this movement has become all the more necessary due to demographic developments in the United States, as in Europe or France. The “silver tsunami” of aging small and medium-sized business leaders puts all national economies at risk of destruction of capital and jobs.

The task of assigning ideological names to these emerging political forces awaits us. In the end, it doesn't matter whether they define themselves as social democrats, liberals, ecologists or progressives. What is at stake today, when our societies are at a turning point, is a new effort to reconcile the spheres of politics and the economy by mobilizing the resources of democracy and capital.

Christophe Sente is a Cevipol scholarship holder (Center for Political Life Studies) to Free University of Brussels. His areas of interest include the history of ideas, the evolution of party systems and the transformations of democracy.

Christopher Mackin is a Ray Carey Fellow at Rutgers University's Institute for Employee Ownership and Profit Sharing. His career involves both academic and practical endeavors focused on advising employee-owned businesses.

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