Not too long ago, a German Social Democratic leader’s endorsement of a French Socialist presidential nominee ahead of a hotly contested election would hardly be the stuff of controversy. But when Benoît Hamon, the Socialist Party’s candidate, traveled the well-trodden path from Paris to Berlin last week seeking the SPD’s blessing, it was far from obvious whether he would get it.
In the end, Martin Schulz, the SPD’s new leader and candidate for chancellor in the German election on September 24, did embrace Mr. Hamon, with all the warmth expected from a comrade. In fluent French, Mr. Schulz declared that “Benoît Hamon has the SPD behind him; he has the SPD’s full support.” Mr. Hamon, a former minister in France’s center-left cabinet, was “a man with deep convictions for which he’ll fight,” Mr. Schulz lauded, trying hard to sound optimistic. But many in the audience, including Mr. Hamon himself, struggled to find his support entirely convincing.
This is because of the awkward fact that another German leader of the Social Democrats, Sigmar Gabriel, had only two weeks earlier publicly endorsed a different candidate for the French election that starts on April 23, and a deserter from the Socialists to boot: Emmanuel Macron. Mr. Gabriel, who was the SPD’s boss until he ceded to the more popular Mr. Schulz, is now foreign minister but used to be the economics minister and in that function was Mr. Macron’s counterpart for a while. “From what I can see, you are the only presidential candidate in France to pursue a clear and unequivocal course for Europe,” Mr. Gabriel cooed to Mr. Macron in his endorsement.
No fewer than three candidates who would normally represent French socialism now cannibalize one another.
Mr. Gabriel’s motivation was tactical, since Mr. Macron is much more likely to defeat France’s far-right party and win the presidential election than the hapless Mr. Hamon, said Ulrike Guérot, an expert on Franco-German relations and the director of the European Democracy Lab, a Berlin-based think tank. And yet Mr. Gabriel opened a Pandora’s Box. Mr. Macron is a politician from the center left who stepped down as economics minister before launching his presidential bid in November. He used to be in the Socialist Party but left it and now runs as an independent. Many Socialists in France consider him an opportunist at best, a traitor at worst.
Mr. Macron thus embodies the schism and crisis in which French socialism, like social democracy across much of western Europe, finds itself today. In fact, the situation is even worse. Another candidate is Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a former education minister who a decade ago left the PS, as the party is known in France, to found his own hard-left party. He has soared in recent polls and overtaken Mr. Hamon. This means that no fewer than three candidates who would normally represent French socialism are now cannibalizing one another, leaving the actual Socialist contender, Mr. Hamon, languishing at just 10 percent.
This splintering of its French sister party causes much angst inside Germany’s SPD. Throughout the decades-old Franco-German friendship, the two center-left parties have supported each other and worked together, not least in the European Parliament, where Mr. Hamon and Mr. Schulz, for example, were lawmakers in the same parliamentary group. Likewise, in recent years, Germany’s Social Democrats have been tearing themselves apart in much the same way that France’s Socialists are now doing. “If France’s left were united, things would be easier for the left in Germany,” Ms. Guérot told Handelsblatt Global. But as it is, “Germany’s left just tries to cope with the rapid erosion that’s affecting its counterpart in France.”
Until recently, Germany’s Social Democrats were teetering on the edge of the same internecine fighting that is now the bane of France’s Socialists. “There’s no denying the German left has its own factions that mirror those in France,” Ms. Guérot said. The last time the Social Democrats were in power, from 1998 to 2005 under Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, they enacted far-reaching labor reforms and welfare cuts, of the sort that Germans today would like to see in France as well. Often dubbed “Hartz IV” after the most controversial law in the German reforms, the SPD’s achievement alienated its own left wing, however.
Moreover, it completely antagonized the party that is even further to the left in Germany’s political spectrum, simply called The Left. Until recently, fighting between the SPD and The Left, and between the left and moderate wings inside the SPD, appeared to relegate the Social Democrats in Germany to the same irrelevance that the French Socialists now face.
“The wounds the Hartz IV reforms inflicted on the German left still haven’t healed.”
The surprise candidacy for chancellor by Mr. Schulz, announced in January, has for the first time given the Social Democrats credible hope of overcoming this left-left civil war. Upon his entry, 15,000 new members joined up–in a party that had been losing members for years. The SPD surged in polls and is currently running neck-and-neck with the ruling conservatives of Angela Merkel. On March 19, Mr. Schulz, who spent the last two decades at the European Parliament and was little-known in Germany until a few months ago, even scored a symbolically perfect 100 percent of delegate votes as he was elected party chairman.
For now, all this suggests that the party is determined for once to close ranks against the common enemy. “Social Democrats want to be in power; it’s their overriding goal. So they’ll stand united behind Martin Schulz,” Timo Lochocki, a political scientist, told Handelsblatt Global.
Their clearest path to power, however, is to build bridges to The Left Party. This would make a coalition of the three left-leaning parties (including the ecology-focused Greens) conceivable come September. But since a regional election in Saarland on March 26 failed to deliver a victory for the SPD, that plan already looks flawed. A big reason why the SPD fell short of its own expectations in Saarland is that moderate voters wanted to prevent a government coalition between the SPD and the The Left.
After all, The Left descends from East Germany’s communists and, especially in western states, contains anti-capitalist, anti-NATO and anti-E.U. radicals like Oskar Lafontaine, an éminence grise in Saarland and passionate hater of the SPD since he departed from that party in fury over its Hartz IV reform. A government consisting of “the Reds,” said Oskar Niedermayer, a political science professor at Berlin’s Free University: “Many people are just scared of this.”
“Social Democrats want to be in power; it’s their overriding goal. So they’ll stand united behind Martin Schulz.”
This is why, following the Saarland election, various senior Social Democrats, including Mr. Schulz, have started distancing themselves again from a possible coalition with The Left. Most notably, former chancellor Gerhard Schröder — he of the Hartz IV reforms — urged the party to pursue a coalition with the Greens and the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) instead, should that party get into the Bundestag again in September (they were ejected in 2013). That might appeal to moderate voters in the political center.
But it would also jeopardize the recent peace within the SPD and the wider left. Leftists harboring suspicion, if not outright hatred, of German capitalism would regard a tie-up with the Free Democrats and their love of free markets as a betrayal. At a stroke, their old fights about Mr. Schröder’s reforms would restart. “The wounds the Hartz IV reforms inflicted on the German left still haven’t healed,” Ms. Guérot said, adding that she isn’t sure whether Mr. Schulz can keep papering over the ideological fault lines in his party.
Hence the anxious attention with which German Social Democrats follow the election in France, and the conflicted loyalties to individual candidates. As in Berlin, the French left is torn between a fresh-seeming and market-friendly progressive (Mr. Macron), a paleo-Marxist museum piece from a past century (Mr. Mélenchon) and an uninspiring party functionary (Mr. Hamon). If Socialism falls apart in France, even the alleged “Schulz effect” may not save Social Democracy in Germany for long.
And yet, Germany’s Social Democracy, whether or not the SPD wins the general election in September, still looks far healthier than Socialism beyond the Rhine. In France, the two front-runners in the April 23 vote, Mr. Macron and far-right leader Marine Le Pen, do not belong to any of the parties that have governed France since the end of the Second World War. Yet between them, they will get more than half of the vote three weeks from now, according to recent polls. That represents nothing less than an implosion of mainstream politics and the traditional party spectrum. By contrast, “the German political system is more stable than the French one,” said Ms. Guérot, the political thinker. “Germany is witnessing a mere erosion of its mainstream parties, while in France it’s a complete meltdown.”