A New Home for French Socialists, on the Periphery of Paris


IVRY-SUR-SEINE, France — Maybe it was the equivalent of moving from Manhattan’s Upper East Side to Queens or Staten Island or even New Jersey.

For decades, the headquarters of the Socialist Party, which held France’s presidency until just a couple of years ago, was ensconced in the heart of Paris — a stroll to the nation’s top schools; the Orsay and Louvre museums; the National Assembly and, across the Seine, the Élysée Palace. A constellation of Michelin-starred restaurants shined from every direction.

Today, its new home, in a converted pharmaceutical factory, shares a block with a scrap metal dealer and a beverage wholesaler, just behind the railroad tracks of the commuter transit system that services the “banlieue,’’ or suburb, of Ivry-sur-Seine. A party stalwart grumbled that his “GPS couldn’t find the street,’’ but even some locals seemed lost.

“Really?’’ Kamrul Islam said when informed that France’s Socialist Party was a two-minute walk from his Hawaiian-style poke bowl restaurant, adding that he was less interested in politics than food. “Before it was tacos in France, now it is time for poke. I don’t know how many years we’re going to survive with the poke bowls. But we’re not going to change anything until we see it is bad.’’

For years, the Socialist Party survived on a poke bowl of increasingly free-market economics and liberal social policies, but did not change despite growing popular discontent with the two-party system in which it had secured a comfortable spot. Mirroring the decline of Social Democrats across Europe, France’s Socialists failed to capitalize on anger over globalization and rising inequality, ceding those issues especially to far-right populists.

Since 2017, the Socialist Party has suffered a series of electoral defeats so disastrous that its very survival remains in doubt. The biggest beneficiary, of course, has been President Emmanuel Macron himself, a former investment banker and brief interloper with Socialists before he jettisoned them in 2017 to create his own centrist party.

But since then, Mr. Macron, too, has struggled to connect with the working-class voters who used to form the core of Socialist supporters. Instead he has earned a reputation as the president of the rich and faced the wrath of the Yellow Vest movement in a country of widening social cleavages.

Some Socialists say those failings still leave them an opening. The optimists cast the move of the cash-strapped party from Paris’s 7th arrondissement a year ago not as a retreat but a chance at rebirth — an opportunity to shed their image of being limousine liberals and the “gauche caviar.”

Their new home in Ivry-sur-Seine, an eastern, working-class suburb, gentrifying in pockets, which remains a stronghold of the French Communist Party, represented that aspiration, they say.

“The symbol we sought was to be able to say that we are, once again, among those we’re called to represent,’’ said Olivier Faure, the party’s secretary general, adding that the party’s former supporters had “sometimes felt abandoned once we were in power.’’

In an interview inside his glass-walled office, Mr. Faure, 51, unfurled a map to bring back his party to relevance. He said his party would focus on the destructive effects of globalization and free markets on people and the environment.

Just as his party had represented workers in the past, it needed to address the needs of those toiling in an “Uberized economy,’’ who “in reality are slaves of algorithms and management methods that are extremely brutal.’’

Like all parties in France, from the extreme left to the extreme right, the Socialists were keenly aware of the rising importance of the environment as an electoral issue. To Mr. Faure, the biggest victims of climate change were globalization’s losers, and his party must make it its mission to defend them.

Focusing on these issues, he said, would lead to “the renewal of social democrats on one condition — that they integrate these changes into their vision and become once again a disruptive force, and not simply the nice guides of the free-market revolution.’’

It was during the tenure of the last Socialist president, François Hollande, who served from 2012 to 2017, that there was a “break’’ between the party and its working-class supporters, Mr. Faure said. The party’s traditional base “felt betrayed’’ by Mr. Hollande’s business-friendly policies — Mr. Macron was a senior adviser, then economy minister — and especially a labor law that made it easier to hire and fire people, he added.

The party’s push on socially liberal issues, like gay marriage, made it better known as the choice of the urban “bobo,’’ or bohemian bourgeois.

The Socialists slipped into an “intellectual laziness’’ abetted by France’s two-party system that pitted the left against the right, he said. They failed to realize that “gradually there were many French who were switching off and who no longer saw a place on the right or on the left.’’

Today, with the Socialists in disarray, France’s dominant parties are instead Mr. Macron’s La République en Marche and the far-right National Rally of Marine Le Pen.

But the Socialists are not alone in their pain. What happened to them has occurred elsewhere in Europe — Germany, Italy and increasingly even in Britain, where Social Democrats and the Labour party had dominated after the end of the Cold War, but steadily slipped into crisis.

“They failed to grasp the consequences of globalization,’’ said Alain Bergounioux, a historian who is an expert on Socialism.

Today, he added, the party’s place in the nation’s political spectrum has shrunk: many working-class voters had drifted to the extreme right, while Mr. Macron and the ascendant Greens were grabbing left-leaning middle-class voters.

Jean-Christophe Cambadélis, who served as the party’s secretary general between 2014 and 2017, said that to regain relevance France’s left would need to undergo a more radical makeover, with the Socialists establishing formal ties with ideological allies.

A new party on the left would succeed only by offering a new vision that, he said, should focus on fighting for the “integrity of the individual’’ facing bewildering changes, like climate change, the digital economy and medical revolutions.

“It’s not the concept of workers’ emancipation from the 1960s,’’ he said, “but one that says that, in our age of revolutions, the integrity of human beings must be defended.’’

The future seemed limitless when the party moved into its old headquarters — at 10 rue de Solférino in Paris’s 7th arrondissement — months before the Socialists won the presidency for the first time, with François Mitterrand in 1981. Back then, the choice of location had a different message — “to show that the left was ready to govern,’’ Mr. Faure said.

Not that there weren’t critics. For a party devoted to defending the working class, an address in one of the capital’s richest neighborhoods sounded dissonant.

There was also the building’s inconvenient past: a vast M-shaped building once owned by a princess who was known for holding one of Paris’s most sought-after salons and for keeping a pet elephant.

So far, the Socialists have kept a low profile in their new neighborhood, according to many locals, who said they saw very little foot traffic in and out of the new headquarters.

“The Socialists are in a very bobo part of Ivry, with a lot of artist lofts,’’ said Benjamin Gozlan, a painter and illustrator who was born in and still lives in Ivry-sur-Seine. “They held a reception after they moved in. But they really haven’t made any waves.”


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