France's spring elections have forced the country's leftist parties to the fringe of political influence for a change. Like other European country's, France is shifting to the center-right. Now, the left is scrambling to heal internal divisions, and to find a new direction and leadership.
Over the past few days France's Communist and Socialist Parties have been holding national meetings to plot out their future strategies and to assess why they were so soundly defeated in the polling booth this year. The two parties, along with the Greens party, formed the leftist coalition government that was in power for the past five years.
Just a few months ago, the left was confident that its candidate, former Socialist prime minister Lionel Jospin, would defeat his conservative rival, President Jacques Chirac in April-through-May presidential elections. Instead, Mr. Jospin placed third in the first-round of voting, behind far-right presidential contender Jean-Marie Le Pen. Mr. Chirac won re-election handily.
The left was also defeated in this month's National Assembly elections. Once again, Mr. Chirac's center-right Union for the Presidential Majority Party swept the vote and unseated the leftist coalition from power.
During the Communist party's meeting outside Paris Wednesday and Thursday, the party's national secretary, Marie-George Buffet, admitted the Communists were still reeling from their losses. Interviewed on French radio, Mrs. Buffet said the Communists had lost touch with their working class supporters. The party had become too institutionalized, she said, and failed to offer new programs.
The Communists captured less than five percent of the vote in National Assembly elections this month. Its leader, Robert Hue, lost his parliamentary seat. Former supporters argued the Communist party had lost its far-left principles, by joining the more moderate leftist coalition government, in 1997.
The Socialist Party has its own problems. The party has been leaderless since Mr. Jospin retired from political life. Like the Communists, the party is also fractured by internal divisions.
During its national meeting Saturday, the Socialist Party elected former finance minister, Laurence Fabius, as its new spokesman, after a week of infighting.
Secretary Francois Hollande, currently heads the party. But the Socialists have yet to pick a leader to run in presidential elections, five years from now. Former Socialist minister, Elisabeth Guigou, also says the party needs to undergo fundamental reforms.
Mrs. Guigou told Europe1 radio the Socialists must engage in some real self-criticism. Mrs. Guigou also suggested her party had strayed too far toward the center, and had lost touch with France's poorest and neediest.
The left's current dilemma contrasts sharply with 1981, when the center-right fell from power, and Socialist Francois Mitterrand was elected president. Mr. Mitterrand remained president of France for the next 14 years. Although conservative, Mr. Chirac won the 1995 presidential elections, the leftist coalition swept legislative elections two years later.
Steve Ekovitch, a political science professor at the American University of Paris, believes that if France's left is to regain power, it must somehow recapture the support of its traditional far-Left power base, yet still attract more centrist French voters. Doing so, Mr. Ekovitch says, poses a major dilemma for the left.
"In order to win elections it needs to move to the center. When it moves to the center, it loses part of its base," he said. "And if it moves too far to the Left, to make sure its base is there, it loses the elections."
Professor Ekovitch says whether the left wins the next elections, scheduled for 2007, will also depend on the conservatives now in power. "If the French don't think this government has satisfactorily delivered, there will perhaps be enough French to vote against it, which means they'll vote for the left," he explained.
Already, the new, center-right government of Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin is criticizing the legacy of its leftist predecessor. Mr. Raffarin has faulted Mr. Jospin's government for spending too much, and for increasing the country's deficit. The new prime minister also suggests he may amend some leftist programs, including the new 35-hour work week, and a law giving more rights to crime suspects.
Nonetheless, Mr. Ekovitch and other analysts doubt policies will change radically under Mr. Raffarin's government. For one reason, they say, France's center-right and center-left have much in common. For another, the left can always tap an old French tradition, calling for mass demonstrations to protest the new government policies. Even in the opposition, they say, the left will continue to wield a small amount of power.