The Fall of the French Left

The result of the first round of the French election, though not surprising, is unprecedented and mirrors, to some extent, the disenchantment with establishment politics seen in other countries across Europe:

In the first round of a French presidential election, there will, naturally, always be more losers than winners. But until Sunday, the Socialist Party had lost in the initial round only once before: in 2002, when incumbent President Lionel Jospin unexpectedly finished a close third, behind a surprise surge from the National Front’s leader (FN), Jean-Marie Le Pen.

This year, independent-centrist Emmanuel Macron and Jean-Marie’s daughter, Marine, now leader of the FN herself, will move on to the final round on May 7. The Socialist candidate, Benoît Hamon, finished an unprecedented fifth. His loss feels very different from Jospin’s of 15 years ago, and not only because his paltry share of the vote was so much lower—just over 6 percent compared to Jospin’s 16.

What is even more striking than the result itself is that, unlike in 2002, this crushing loss comes as no surprise at all. Like Le Pen’s victory, it was in the making for months, if not years. And yet it is still so remarkable: the most open presidential race France has seen since the formation of the Fifth Republic, with four candidates in close contention, saw no place for the Socialist Party, a stalwart of the French political scene for the past half century. The election was full of surprises, scandals, twists, and turns. But for numerous reasons the Socialists were never really in the mix. The media covered Hamon, it seemed, almost out of sympathy, a melancholic nod to the party’s former status.