labor reform

The French Left Is Destroying Itself

French strikes DPA
Is the left bent on destroying itself?
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    A proposed reform of France’s labor law has triggered a wave of protests backed by the left wing of President François Hollande’s Socialist Party. The conflict highlights the deep divisions within the party.

  • Facts


    • The labor law reform would shift power to companies, management and labor and away from the government.
    • The left wing of the Socialist Party is now openly attacking its own members in the administration and campaigning against reforms it views as neoliberal.
    • There have been street protests and strikes throughout France and labor unions have called for further strikes on Thursday.
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Amid railroad and airport strikes, and blockades of logistics centers and refineries, unions aligned with the Communists in France have ratcheted up their protests against a reform of the country’s labor law.

The left wing of the ruling Socialist Party, or PS, is fueling the resistance. Last week, it even attempted to topple its own prime minister with a vote of no confidence.

People abroad may laugh at the labor law as yet one more of President François Hollande’s mincing steps. But for the Socialists, it has become a fundamental point of contention that is dividing the party.

The left accuses Mr. Hollande of destroying decades of social rights and traditions and of encouraging “social dumping,” as the reform would enable more negotiations and decisions to take place within companies in the future.

The conflict has become so entrenched that formal compromises are no longer possible.

Arnaud Montebourg, Mr. Hollande’s former economics minister, attacked the president, calling him a “fraud machine.”

Formally, the Socialists still constitute a unified party but it’s only a matter of time until it collapses.

The majority, led by Prime Minister Manuel Valls, wants to give companies, management and labor more latitude, while scaling back the government’s influence. But he no longer has sufficient support for the reform within his own parliamentary group.

Ironically, Mr. Hollande has for a long time done everything possible not to provoke the left wing of his party – dragging his feet over a reorganization of government finances and failing to pursue sweeping reforms that were expected after he said he would shift to supply-side policies.

But that didn’t lead to a ceasefire within the Socialist Party. The left has moved away from criticism to a double strategy, which involves attacking its own people in the administration, on the street and in parliament, and systematically campaigning against programs it views as neoliberal.

The leftist Socialists will put forward at least one of their own candidates in the 2017 presidential election, even if Mr. Hollande decides to run for reelection.

For the left, the labor reform is the clearest expression of the “supply-side policy” that Mr. Hollande announced as his strategic direction six months after his election.

At the time, the president said that there had traditionally been two directions among the Socialists, with one being more supply-oriented and the other being more demand-oriented. But in light of France’s problems with competitiveness, he said, the focus should now be shifted to the supply side.

Back in 2012, the president might have still had enough authority to set a new course. But he didn’t set a clear line. Instead, he sometimes sided with the left wing by criticizing the Germans and the planned free trade agreement with the United States, and at other times cozied up to the centerists in the government, for example, by appointing Emmanuel Macron as economics minister.

There was bound to be trouble. The left-wing Socialists have pretty clear beliefs: They see globalization as a conspiracy of multinational companies, to which the European Union has acquiesced. For them, markets are all about the dominance of the strong, and ideally, a massive civil service is regarded as the best path to full employment.

The French Socialist Party is structured differently than Germany’s center-left Social Democratic Party. It contains a large number of recognized wings and the “First Secretary” is not a chairman but essential a servant of the president. The German SPD never wanted much to do with these Socialists, which it viewed as ideologically contaminated. But the two parties share some political shortcomings.

Like the SPD, the PS has not found a response to new injustices and growing inequality, has talked a lot about education as the path to social advancement but has done little to advance this agenda, and has raved about strengthening Europe but has failed to do so. In France, disadvantaged young people no longer think the Socialists can help them succeed, but instead see The Voice, France’s version of American Idol, as their ticket to prosperity.

Who will take over the remains of the PS? Mr. Hollande would like to do it himself, as would the leftists. But likely neither will get a chance. Mr. Valls dreams of unifying all social democrats and social liberals, while Mr. Macron is building a party that’s socially progressive but would otherwise be neither on the left nor the right.

Either way, the conflict has become so entrenched that formal compromises are no longer possible. Within this open conflict, the left will reorganize itself – but it’s unlikely to do so before 2017.


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