THE LEFT IN EUROPE: WHAT DOES THE FUTURE HOLD?
Pierre Moscovici, French Member of Parliament
Kalorama Lectures, June 22nd 2010
I am glad and honored to talk today about the Left, and what is left of it, in Europe. I
would like to thank the Ambassador for inviting me to express my views on this
subject, and the Embassy’s press office for organizing the event. Talking about such a
specific subject to an American audience is not an easy task, because the US political
landscape is more divided between the notions of liberalism and Conservatism, when
in Europe we do not use them: we mostly think with the concepts of Left and Right,
which are far from being homogeneous forces. My presentation will particularly
focus on the situation and perspectives of Europe’s mainstream and reformist Left
parties, even if I will sometimes talk about other forces of the left, such as the
communists or the ecologists (or Greens).
Let's start this Kalorama lecture with an analysis: there is, clearly, a paradox of
the European socialism. In the economic turmoil the world is currently going
through, all the components for an ideological, and also a political domination of the
Left are in place: after the conservative wave of the 1980's, with « Reagonomics »
and Thatcherism, after the unlimited financialization of the last decade, even after the
winning periode of the blairite « Third Way » in Britain, and of Lionel Jospin's
reformism in France – to which I contributed as a Minister for European Affairs in his
government – new political needs are now emerging, mixing a return to keynesianism
with much needed new perspectives. According to a lot of commentators and
analysts, time has come for a widespread rejection of the rule of the market, for
financial regulation, for a return of the once « rolled-back » state, in other words,
time has come for a social democrat momentum.
I do not believe in any kind of fatality to the electoral regression of the left, no
more at the local level than at the national one. In France, for instance,
opposition forces are potentially a majority, even if they cannot be added one to
another quite easily. The French political landscape is one with an impopular
government, confronted with a sluggish growth, a high unemployment rate and
exploding deficits, supported by a narrow coalition, disputed by a popular electorate
considerable disappointed by Sarkozy's presidency. Beyond local defeats, the French
right should be, logically, be defeated at the next national elections – that is the 2012
presidential elections – like many of its European counterparts.
Yet, this apparently favourable deal does not translate at all in the European
ballotboxes. On the contrary, as you all know, the social democrats went through a
crushing and unprecedented defeat in the European legislatives elections in June
2009, which were won by the conservatives, the only emerging force being the
Ecologists, whose breakthrough was however quite limited.
As for national elections, even though the Socialists won in Greece and were
reelected in Portugal and Austria:
−The Labour party lost power in Britain last month
−The German SPD was severely defeated by Angela Merkel's CDU-CSU, with its
weakest score since the World War II in September 2009.
−This month, the PvdA has lost influence in the Dutch Parliament while the far right
had a spectacular breakthrough
−In Slovaquia, Robert Fico's coalition, characterized by its populism, was
surprisingly defeated by a coalition of right parties.
−In Czech Republic, the alleged frontrunner Socialist party didn't win the elections
−In Hongria, Viktor Orban's Fidesz, an ultra-conservative party, overwhelmingly
defeated the discredited Socialists, who are closely followed by a far-right party.
−In Belgium, the autonomiste N-VA of Bart de Wewer became the Flanders, but also
the kingdom's first political party, even if the Socialists are leading in the Walloon
area, making Eli Di Rupo the favorite for the Prime minister position.
I am not going to enumerate the situations in every European countries, which
national contexts can sometimes be very specific – I think about the Netherlands but
also about Belgium – but one thing is sure: the centre-left is on its defensive, and
looks defenseless in face of the right.
Where do these difficulties come from? In my opinion, the reformist left, torn
apart between neoliberal temptations and its social-democrat traditions, didn't
manage to reinvent itself. When it was dominating Europe, between 1996 and 2002,
the Democratic left didn't put the European construction on a new course, while it
was supposed to make the enlargement to the Eastern and Central European countries
success, to implement the Maastricht Treaty and create the euro.
Indeed, it was economically efficient, it achieved considerable reforms – in
France, between 1997 and 2002, there were the 35-hour week, an active policy for
youth employment, free healthcare for people on low incomes... - but it did not
deflect the finance liberalization, it didn't focus enough on inequalities, which first
victims are the working classes.
Little by little, it ceased to represent an alternative, and just became in the eye of
many voters, in a way that is mostly unfair I must say, a « better or improved
centre Right ». In the meantime, the Left just defended some social benefits, without
leading the much needed changes in the social safety net and the education system.
To sum up, it appeared as unable to embody its electoral base, as unable to express a
demand for change at the roots and, overall, as conservative. Ideologically moved
away from power in the following years, the Left suffered from the ideological and
cultural domination of a Right that did manage to renew itself and adapt to the world.
The Left lacked creativity in its response to the consumption society's new
I am also deeply convinced that it suffers from a relevant deficit on the
credibility and the attractivity plans. This is a point that is often underestimated by
the commentators: the European is confronted with a terrible leadership crisis, it did
not manage to replace its prominent figures – Tony Blair, Gerhard Schröder, Lionel
Jospin, Romano Prodi… Most socialist and social democrat parties are meeting
difficulties at this level, either with questionable and questioned leaderships, or with
confused or disputed strategic orientations, or plain instability. But the problem is,
now even more than before, politics and policies need embodiment and authority.
At last, in its response to the crisis, the European left has been vague, while the
Right, on the other side, seized the opportunity for « triangulation », making the
keynesian principles its own, calling for a return of the State, claiming to be in
favour of public intervention and of ecology, without giving up its populist rags, as
too often used by Silvio Berlusconi and Nicolas Sarkozy.
In addition, there is, particularly in France but also in Germany where the
impossible relation with the far-leftist « Linke » with the social democracy
forbids any alliance of the entire left, the prominent difficulty in synthetizing the
various trends of the left, hybrid heirs of the reformist and the revolutionnary
trends. Actually, the European left, theorically in a favorable position, is in reality
confronted with major challenges it is having difficulty to take up.
Is is it a reason, as suggested by many commentators after the last European
elections, to declare the socialist and social democrat parties of Europeans as
agonizing or even already dead ? This risk does exist and it would be arrogant to
deny it. Indeed, political organizations do die, they are not immortal. In France, the
Communist Party is not even the shadow of the first political force it used to be after
the World War II. The SFIO – the French Section of the Workers' International,
created in 1905 and which dominated most of the Third and the Fourth Frehcn
Republic – was wrecked by the Algerian war of the 1960's and unable to adapt to the
Fifth Republic. It disappeared and was replaced by the Socialist party in 1971 around
If they do not renew themselves, if they fall in the trap of bureaucracy, if they
are unable to help the emergence of promising generations, to produce « fresh
ideas », if they lose the concept of unity, they can be swallowed up. There would
be many candidates for taking over, from anticapitalist parties to the progressive
centrists, to the heirs of communism and to the ecologists.
We should not, however, underestimate the strength of the traditional and
mainstream political forces, both at the left and the right. It's even one of the
difficulties on the current debate: distinguishing between what is cyclical – the
recession of the left would only be temporary – and what is structural – in this case,
its decline would be a deep and lasting one. My opinion is a little bit in the middle of
the road: the turmoil of the left are deep, but the ways to a quick recovery do exist.
One of them is breaking the taboo of wealth distribution. For decades, under the
hold of « offer » economists, the left and the center left kind of swept fiscal concerns
under the carpet, because it was so much widely believed that the only possible
strategy was to lower taxes, that the capitals allocation to investment was of first
importance, that inequality could be base on merit. The states' complacency with a
shareholder capitalism in search of colossal rate of rentability did the rest of it. The
use of taxation as a tool for redistribution became obsolete, or at the least tricky: the
German governing coalition's policy in favor of lower taxes is one example amongst
Thus, I think it is not safe to base an entire political project on taxation, as some
of my colleagues or my counterparts do. But its use has been rehabilitated: it is
now necessary and legitimate, because of the recent excesses of capitalism, which
made revenue inequalities even higher, in exponential and insane proportions, and
because of the new awareness, in this crisis, of the unsustainability of such injustice.
This is the reason why the redefinition of a progressive and inclusive tax,
concerning all the incomes, requiring more efforts from the highest of them, is
now, in Europe as in the United States, a burning issue. It is one of the proposal of
the French socialist project “for a new development model” I have been asked to
draft by Martine Aubry: a deep reform of the taxation system with a much more
progressive and global tax, encompassing incomes and social contributions, with a
pay as you go system. This is also the reason why I am in favor of what some call a
« stakeholder capitalism », that is a regulated capitalism encompassing both the
incomes issue – notably with the minimum wage policy, but not only – and the
employees' rights in businesses and companies, in which power must be shared in a
better way. The time for redistribution is coming back, and the Left must come back
as well to lead this fight it gave up as it was too afraid of a unique thought more
worried by equity rather than by equality.
The perspective of an active, and even a protagonist state, is also essential. There
will be, on this issue, differing conceptions within the various countries of the
European Union and with the United States. But it is now a common issue to all
the Western states, the USA included, even if the return of the « big government » is
not convincing. Unprecedented stimulus packages are developping everywhere, in
order to save the financial system, but also to support production, employment, and
Longtime criticized industrial policies are back on the frontline. Without
government plans in support of consumption – like « cash for clunkers » programs –
or in support of production, the European auto industry may have disappeared, or at
least as shaken as General Motors. Here again, the French socialist party would like
to create a national commission for a public center on industrial investment, in order
to support companies in that direction.
You could tell me that such strategies are not the prerogatives of the left, as
right-wing governments do follow them too. But here I see three differences
between left and right:
−A difference in analysis first: the Right only dealt with the big companies, starting
with the banks, but did not go further into the industrial fabric, for example
equipment manufacturers in the auto industry.
−A difference in intensity then: the right does not really deal with the issue of
temporary nationalizations, and public services are still under close focus and
−A difference in method at last: contrary to the right, the left must propose
compensations in term of control from the bailed out companies – for example the
state participation in their executive board – while the right, mostly attached to help
an ailing capitalist system, remains Lampedusian - « change everything, so that
nothing changes ».
I am deeply convinced that the era of nationalization is not anymore, as the era
of massive privatization is also behind us: it is now time for a mixed economy.
Public intervention is and will be necessary to prepare the future: organized green
economy, supported and promoted by governments as the defense or the nuclear
industry; the knowledge industry through research and development in universities
and the entire economic fabric; massive public works – in transportation, in housing,
in city planning. These investments will have to be financed without aggravating the
preoccupying public debt. In this regard, the definition of new resources, partly from
the taxation of financial markets, as the questionning of some tax privileges, must be
considered without any shyness or shame.
But beyond mere economism, thinking about the society we want to build, about
the « good society » is essential. It is essential because the left neglected this
question, and becam unattractive, boring, technocratic, unable to « enchant » the
world. The tie between justice and well-being must be at the heart of its policies. This
means a focus on culture, education, sports, and on a real « lifetime » policy –
encompassing retirement, professional social security, working time, continuing
Giving priority to the being rather than the having, getting out or the narrow
materialism: here is a good window opportunity for a more creative left, more
attentive to the individuals and the people's lot. In this way, I do not think that
participative democracy is a gadget. Yesterday's planification, even in its democratic
ways, is not anymore, but long-term strategies, elaborated with the citizens' support,
are more than ever on the frontline, at a time where the European political systems'
representativity is disputed. As for social policies for combating social segregation, in
the suburbs but not only, or gender inequalities, the local scale is at the heart of the
Left's future and the strengthening of solidarity: it must then be reinforced.
I also think that the European left must define its own conception of sustainable
development. Contrary to the Ecologists, who sometimes fall into some sort of
fundamentalism, which paroxysm is the apology of economic decline, and contrary to
the Right, which only seeks to marginally modify behaviors rather than deeply
questionning the current ways of production and of energetic consumption. We need
to elaborate a new development model, turning our back to productivism without
giving up industrial excellency and innovation, away from any sort of obscurantism,
linking ecology and social justice, seeking a sustainable growth fostered by an
ambitious ecological taxation.
This issue was at the heart of the French socialist party's national convention on
a new development model I led: we want to foster new ways of production and
consumption, more respectful of natural constraints, less greedy for energy and raw
material, and stimulated by tax incentives.
Another necessity is to insist, in face of the too often populist right, on the
republican and the European ideals. In France, rehabilitating the principles of the
French motto - liberty, equality, fraternity, to which I would add « laïcité », or
secularism – is on the top of the left's to-do list.
And the European lefts must reaffirm their solidarity, with a common political,
economic, social and environmental project for the European Union. Because
Europe, weakened by the social damages of massive unemployment rates and the
effects of an enlargement without a corresponding deepening, is essential to any
appropriate response to crises and turmoils, because it is sine qua non condition, a
prerequisite for the affirmation of a power, and of an identity, in the economic and
political globalization. The Right has such a common program, though not written,
the left doesn't. It is more than heteregeneous, split between its different trends –
socialistes, social democrats, labourists, social-liberals, democrats: it is now its
responsibility, before the 2014 European elections, to get together and to outline a
program for a reunified, a reunited, an active Europe, able to move forward through
reinforced cooperation, an actual foreign and defense policy, armed with a significant
budget with which it could modernize the economy and help its struggling territories
in their redevelopment. And as the Greek crisis unfortunately put it into light, the
European left must also address the Continent's blatant need for a real governance of
the Euro zone.
So what does the future hold? In other words, does the Left hold a chance to get
back to power in the next future, and above all to revive hope for policies
complying with its values? I do not believe in the end of the left, nor do I think that
it is only a cyclical phase. Neither is the European left is due to disappear, nor the
European right is due to win, despite the appearances. Look at what happened in
Latin America: the Left, in its diversity, is dominant there, in spite of the recent
victory of the Right in Chile, and look at what happened here: the Democrats took
back the power after a 15-year long « conservative revolution » in Congress and eight
years of neoconservatism at the White House.
The circumstances, first of all, could paradoxically be favorable to a swing of the
pendulum. The economic crisis reinforced the Rights, considered as more reassuring
and more credible, all the more than they cleverly attracted many tags from the left,
putting into light its destitution and exhaustion.
The after crisis, that will probably happen in the twoor three coming years, could see
the awakening of a craved redistribution and solidarity, the expectation of a softer
society - not harder that it already is – and of a fairer and worthier policy. It is up to
the left to meet these aspirations, by drawing a blueprint, by setting up a program
attached to its ideals of social transformation, but by adapting them to today’s world.
Let’s not neglect, at last, political factors at the strict sense of the term: the
modernization of the parties, the use of new communication tools, the building
of attractive teams. In that sense, the weakness of the Left is ideological,
intellectual, but also, in a way, technological: we also have to catch up with the
internet era, as the Democrat Party, with Barack Obama’s revolutionary electoral
campaign, already did.
The last European socialist and social democrat “wave” happened at the end of
the 1990’s, in a high economic growth context, thanks to the renewal of the
political offer and communication. It did not succeed however, because it remained
largely too conformist, and went away too fast from its fundamentals. This example
shows how to win the power back, and what to avoid for a future victory. Tomorrow’s
left won’t be a sequel of the Third Way, it will be a new way or will not be at all.
It is true that the left is at crossroads, but its destiny is in its hands, especially in
my country, France. The ways for a renovation are difficult, but necessary,
inescapable and possible. It’s my mission and that of my generation to keep up