Beyond the new electoral formation, a potential avenue is open to democratise work.
Has the French left ever been social-democratic? Until now, the question had interested only academics attached to cataloguing the parties which, over the course of the 20th century, carried the claims of a working class which became progressively diluted in the salariat.
Their response was generally no. This, on the one hand, was because neither the SFIO (the prior French section of the Socialist International) nor the Parti Socialiste defined itself by a privileged relationship with a mass trade union. On the other hand, however implausibly, many French leaders, up to the last socialist president, François Hollande, claimed to embody a political radicalism inherited from 1789.
In this way they maintained, unlike European counterparts, an anti-capitalist rhetoric characterised by the demonisation of private enterprise. Favouring the parliamentary arena, the French socialists did not, with the notable exception of the one-time prime minister Michel Rocard, conceive of the company as a space of democracy. Instead, the firm was viewed primarily as as a fiscal resource or an organisation to be placed under the direct control of the state.
Since the 2022 presidential elections, the nature of the French left has aroused interest beyond the community of political scientists—reaching even the ranks of the government, in the shape of the minister of labour, Olivier Dussopt. The challenge is no longer to classify the parties for encyclopedic purposes but, starting from the mutations of the left, to illuminate the enigma of the possible transformations of a large European state.
Three conclusions are commonly drawn from observation of the events of recent months. The first highlights the competition among three political blocs—respectively ‘left’, ‘right’ and ‘centre’—vis-à-vis defending the purchasing power of citizens, faced with inflation induced in particular by the energy crisis.
The second reckons on the renewal of a bipolarisation which would no longer oppose Olivier Faure’s PS to the centre-right Republicans—respectively reduced to the occupation of 27 and 59 of the 577 seats in the National Assembly—but rather la France insoumise (‘France unbowed’) of Jean-Luc Mélenchon to 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 the ecologists who have agreed to become members. In this manner, the New Ecological and Social People’s Union (NUPES) would be a step in the consolidation of a left-wing 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 supposes a gradual weakening of the alliance formed in 2017 by Emmanuel Macron as the successful centrist presidential candidate: a political orientation based on modernising the conditions of production in a European environment would not forestall the rise of populism. The last conclusion presumes enduring hegemony for la France insoumise—hitherto capable of embodying part of the national social discontent by channelling it in the direction of a contest of phantom elites, an ecological promise and a questioning of the country’s international alliances.
This prognosis of the French political future may be validated in the coming years. It omits, however, a number of elements.
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One is the nature of Macronism, the alchemy of which belies definition as a French avatar of an Anglo-Saxon or German neo/ordo-liberalism. The president and major figures in his entourage come from the old socialist breeding-ground and progressive circles receptive to the needs of national companies—in particular, to the argument of the necessity to stimulate productive investment. The parliamentary majority also includes a bloc of elected representatives who, gathered in a ‘progressive federation’, claim to belong to the left. Finally, the policy mixes applied between 2017 and 2022 borrowed at once from a classic Keynesianism during the health crisis, as previously that of the ‘yellow vests’, and, beyond that, from a socialism of a European disposition more reminiscent of the former president François Mitterrand than the once British prime minister Tony Blair.
Another element is the choices to be made by the PS and the ecological movement, whose futures depend on an ability to distance themselves from la France insoumise. The socialists and greens have local networks which they made available to the NUPES in the urgent context of the legislative elections. To continue along this path, which mainly benefits Mélenchon’s supporters, would be all the more like assisted suicide: red-green majorities in large cities and regions allow experimentation with original programmes, towards putting in place what in France is called the ‘social and solidary economy’, particularly inspired by the Spanish historical experience.
Moreover, if we consider the texts elaborated 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 ecological. Paradoxically, the best illustration of this is less the consensual legislation adopted by the new government of Elisabeth Borne than a law adopted when Edouard Philippe, once close to Rocard, was prime minister.
Carried in 2019, the PACTE law (pacte being ‘pact’ in French) is an acronym for Plan d’Action pour la Croissance et la Transformation des Entreprises (‘an action plan for the growth and transformation of companies’). As Nicolas Aubert and Xavier Hollandts have observed, it represents a step towards revitalisation of the debate on corporate reform in the direction of ‘co-determination’, if not co-management, by owners of capital and employees.
The PACTE law has in effect accomplished a Copernican revolution, which has sought—according to the language used in the package—to ‘rethink the place of companies in society’, starting from the premises of the economy minister, Bruno Lemaire. For Lemaire, ‘without success for the employees, there is no success for a company’.
Essentially, by encouraging the consolidation of a status of employee shareholder within companies, the law has offered social actors tools which can serve two purposes. The first is reform of the governance of private companies in the direction desired by the social-democratic union federation CFDT in the 1970s. The second is restitution to citizens, in accordance with the ideas of an ecological thinker such as André Gorz, of the means of control of their daily lives in the workplace.
This ‘self-management’ logic, to which—in a still very moderate manner—the law commits companies, is important in the national and European context. It is the outworking of the current tendency towards political abstention and the temptation of disgruntled voters to entrust the economy and the state to adventurers of the extreme right or the extreme left.
To a socialist and ecological left as well as to liberal progressives, the PACTE law could function as a booster shot. Some might remember a time when social democrats, later joined by ecologists, won the trust of citizens by being as interested in the conditions of production as in purchasing power. Others might recall that the irreducibility of the interests of capital and labour is a Marxist fable the neoclassical economist Friedrich von Hayek was wrong to believe.
Since 2019, the potentialities offered by the PACTE law have hardly aroused the interest of the parties and trade unions. They could therefore represent another missed opportunity—reminiscent of the imperfect efforts initiated by the long-serving postwar French leader Charles de Gaulle, whose vision of enterprise reform attempted to define a political third way between capitalism and an authoritarian socialist model.
But it may also be, in the light of recent experience in the United States, that this law is only one step. If the proposals for ‘economic democracy’ could be glimpsed among the demands of the former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, the theme is also the subject of bipartisan interest across the Atlantic. Far from being the paradise of multinationals described by the European far left, with creative use of the tax code thousands of companies in the US are in the process of converting to a model of governance in which workers slide from the status of minority shareholders to that of majority owners, without risking any personal capital or sacrificing benefits.
The impetus for this movement was given by intellectuals who, from John Dewey to Noam Chomsky to David Ellerman, have refused to sacrifice visions of worker (and manager) sovereignty at the altar of wage-based enterprise and shareholder capitalism. This sector of the US economy is supported by tax-favoured legal structures, including ‘employee stock ownership plans’ (ESOPs) and worker co-operatives, encouraged by public authorities and non-governmental organisations.
Political support for this movement has become all the more necessary because of demographic trends in the US, as in Europe or in France. The ‘silver tsunami’ ageing of managers of small and medium enterprises exposes all national economies to a risk of destruction of capital and jobs.
The task of assigning ideological names to these emerging political forces lies ahead. Ultimately, it does not 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 enlisting the resources of democracy and capital.