The NDP should learn from defeat of Sarkozy in France

François Hollande on the campaign trail. (Photo: Parti socialist / flickr)

For the first time since the election of François Mitterrand in the 1980s, French voters elected a socialist president earlier this month. Is there anything progressive forces in Canada can learn from their French cousins? While the context is different, there are important similarities between the NDP and the French Socialist Party.

Both are progressive parties struggling to find their voice at a time when right-wing ideas seem to dominate. Both parties are flirting with the centre, at the risk of losing their base (and their identity) to the left. Ultimately, the challenges for the NDP are remarkably similar to those faced by the French Socialist Party.

What could NDP leader Thomas Mulcair, who is no doubt following the French debates given his family background, learn from the new French President, François Hollande?

First, don't be afraid to assume your party's roots, and campaign on the left, while keeping a watchful eye on the centre. There is a temptation for progressive parties to dilute their core ideological message in order to attract a more centrist electorate. The problem with a centrist strategy is that it concedes the ideological battlefield to the right, allowing your adversaries to set the agenda on which the election is fought, and, ultimately, define your party. A party with no ideas is not attractive. And it runs the risk of alienating its own base.

Harper's Conservatives are not afraid of their roots, nor are they hiding their core ideological tenets. While the tone may be softer, even reassuring, during electoral contests, we all know what they stand for: less government, greater reliance on the market, competition over solidarity, punishment over rehabilitation, etc.

Being ideological does not have to mean being radical. It means anchoring your platform in a clear, coherent set of ideas that will resonate with the electorate, including more centrist voters who could lean your way. Under the current political climate in Canada, there is little risk for the NDP in campaigning on a progressive platform, as long as it is perceived as the main, credible, alternative to the Conservatives.

The socialists under Hollande used this approach with great success. Listening to some of his key speeches, it was striking to note the prominence of classic progressive themes such as equality, social justice, and solidarity. The key, of course, is how one deploys these foundational ideas. Hollande's progressive discourse was tied to concrete themes that resonated with the French electorate. When socialists spoke about social justice, it was in reference to the growing gap between the well-heeled elite and the middle class. This was a gap that Sarkozy, nicknamed "president bling-bling," embodied for many French.

Hollande was not afraid to ruffle some feathers, either. He demonized the greed of a "faceless" financial sector and challenged his future European allies to privilege economic recovery over austerity measures. Hollande campaigned on themes that made sense to the middle class. This is why Mulcair is on the right track with his approach to the environment and the oil sands. Development may be good, he has suggested, but it comes with a cost. Let's be honest and make sure we don't simply pass on this cost to future generations.

There is another lesson the NDP could take from the recent French experience. Sarkozy, like Harper, thrives on conflict. His style is that of a general, not a consensus-builder. France is a divided country today. Workers are pitted against the unemployed, young versus old, minorities against the majority. Hollande capitalized on the fact that the French electorate was exhausted from divisive politics embodied by his adversary. Jack Layton embodied a similar consensual image. Let's hope Thomas Mulcair's sometimes abrasive personality will not drive his party away from the politics of bridge-building, as there will be a thirst in 2015 for a real alternative to the slash-and-burn approach of the Conservatives.

Finally, progressive parties in Canada as elsewhere should rethink their shift away from nationalistic toward a more cosmopolitan view of solidarity and justice. While this might have its appeal in our multinational and multicultural context, abandoning a nationalist message also has consequences. If the progressives vacate this nationalist space, the Conservatives will only be too happy to occupy it. Harper is reshaping the country's image away from a peace-building, tolerant and future-oriented identity to a warrior-like, Monarchy-loving nation. Nationalism can be a powerful mobilizing ideology progressive forces cannot afford to ignore.

François Hollande could not ignore it. In France, nationalism is a theme of the right and the extreme-right. It belongs to the Front National, with its anti-immigrant and xenophobic discourse. Sarkozy shamelessly borrowed from the Front National's platform to openly court its electorate.

Instead of ignoring it, the socialists chose to play the nationalist game, only differently. The target audience was the same: disgruntled working-class and middle-class families looking for an anchor in a turbulent world. Hollande understood this, and instead of playing down the insecurities of those tempted by the message of the radical right, he tried to provide an answer. Collective solidarity, a perennial theme of the left, was at the heart of Hollande's nationalistic appeal.

Nationalism is a slippery theme for the NDP, with its strong contingent of Quebec MPs whose electoral base is essentially that of the Bloc Quebecois. But the NDP will have to find ways of appealing to both Quebec and Canadian nationalisms in order to mobilize an increasingly disgruntled electorate around progressive themes.

Despite what conservative pundits in Canada and elsewhere may say about François Hollande, he won with a moderate yet substantive progressive platform. The NDP has two years to figure out how to build such a coherent platform to appeal to both Quebec and the rest of the country. Next time, the NDP cannot afford to run on an empty slogan and the charisma of its leader. 


Martin Papillon is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Ottawa. His research focuses on federalism, identity politics, nationalism and Aboriginal politics.

This article was originally published in iPolitics and is reprinted here with permission. 


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