By Elizabeth Pineau and Richard Lough
VALENCIENNES, France (Reuters) – In France’s former mining heartland, promises by the Communist Party’s first presidential candidate in 15 years to raise the minimum wage, lower the retirement age and tax big business hard resonate with voters who feel ignored by the mainstream left.
That Fabien Roussel, a native of France’s industrial north, has for months polled higher than Parti Socialiste contender Anne Hidalgo is a sign of how far the traditional centre left has fallen in a decade, and now risks irrelevance.
Hidalgo’s difficulty reviving a once-powerful political force in post-war France points to a broader struggle by social democratic parties across Europe to recover from a haemorrhaging of support, despite signs of a come-back in Portugal, the Nordics and Germany.
The economy around Valenciennes, a town of 44,000 people near the Belgian border, was once driven by coal and lace. Today, unemployment runs at over 12%, nearly double the national average even if it is now falling as new jobs are created.
“I’m reaching out to those who no longer believe in politics, those who doubt, those who abandoned a Left which let them down and betrayed them when it was in power,” Roussel told Reuters before addressing some 2,000 supporters in Valenciennes.
The latest IFOP poll showed Roussel with nearly 5% of voter support, almost double his Parti Socialiste (Socialist Party) rival. Such a score in April’s election would be the communists’ highest since 1995.
Meanwhile, compounding the centre left’s troubles, another hard-left challenger, Jean-Luc Melenchon, who would impose capital controls and guarantee jobs for the long-term jobless, has emerged as an outsider for a place in the runoff, behind President Emmanuel Macron and the far-right Marine Le Pen.
France’s election comes after a decade which saw politics across much of Europe shift to the right, with working-class voters deserting the centre left after the global financial crisis.
For the Parti Socialiste, which in 2012 under President Francois Hollande controlled the Elysee, parliament, most big cities and nearly all regions, it has been a tumultuous period. Hidalgo is currently polling at between 2%-3%.
“The Parti Socialiste has gone from its pinnacle to being on the verge of disappearing,” said Pascal Delwit, professor of political sciences at the Free University of Brussels.
For many Parti Socialiste voters, Hollande’s pro-business volte-face halfway through his term was an act of treachery at a moment when, scarred by the effects of the worldwide financial meltdown, they sought shielding from the forces of globalisation.
Isabelle Perello, a pensioner who backed former Socialist presidents Francois Mitterrand and Francois Hollande, said the mainstream left had failed voters.
“There wasn’t much change when it came to purchasing power and the sharing of wealth,” she said as she marched through Paris in support of Melenchon on Sunday.
Other voters lamented the Parti Socialiste’s failure to unite a fragmented left-wing electorate. Psychologist Frederic Clemence praised the centre left’s progressive policies on civil rights but added: “Leftist policies must also have a socio-economic aspect.”
Parti Socialiste membership numbers have sunk to 22,000 in 2021 from 220,000 in 2007, according to media reports.
Hidalgo points to Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Germany and, most recently, Portugal as evidence that social democrats are seeing a revival.
She promises to raise the minimum wage by 15% to 1,465 euros ($1,615) per month after tax, and would reimpose a wealth tax abolished by Macron, punish polluters financially and raise inheritance tax for the richest.
“It’s true that the financial crisis of 2008 in particular raised doubts about the response of social democrats and of the welfare state,” Hidalgo told Reuters.
“My programme is deeply connected to the fight against social injustice and inequalities.”
If the polls are right, voters are not convinced. Moreover, if Hidalgo scores below 5%, she will not recoup a large chunk of her campaign costs from the state, piling more financial difficulty on party which already gave up its old headquarters.
Delwit said the Parti Socialiste appeared short of answers to the leading socio-economic worries of voters, after a period in which many of Europe’s centre-left parties directed more attention to issues including gay rights and gender equality.
“When socialist parties abandon socialism, you lose your traditional voter base,” Delwit said.
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(Reporting by Elizabeth Pineau and Richard Lough; Additional reporting by Michaela Cabrera; Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Alison Williams)