In the early morning hours of January 20, Olivier Faure, the leader of France’s Socialist Party, announced that the party’s members had reelected him. The vote, he said, was “clear.” Around the same time, Nicolas Mayer-Rossignol, the mayor of the northern city of Rouen and Faure’s opponent, announced that, actually, he had won. A few hours later the party sided with Faure, putting out a press release claiming that, according to an initial count, he had triumphed by 393 votes, but Mayer-Rossignol remained unsatisfied and threatened legal action to prevent the election from being “stolen” from party members. A Faure ally accused Mayer-Rossignol of Trumpian tactics; the two camps traded allegations of irregularities, including ballot-stuffing. After a reexamination of the results, party officials confirmed that Faure had won by a slightly wider margin than they had initially reported. Mayer-Rossignol accused Faure and his allies of hijacking the process and refused to concede.
The dispute over the position for premier secrétaire, or first secretary, was not just a petty power struggle—though it certainly was that. It was a division over the strategic direction of the party. Last spring, ahead of legislative elections in France, Faure brought the Socialists into an electoral pact with other left-wing parties, most notably La France Insoumise, the movement spearheaded by the populist Jean-Luc Mélenchon. The alliance was christened the Nouvelle Union populaire écologique et sociale (NUPES). (Even today, it’s not entirely clear how NUPES should be pronounced; I favor “Noops.”) The Socialists had been all but wiped out in the presidential election a few weeks earlier, and Faure and his allies insisted that the party faced a clear choice: divvy up seats with more popular rivals—increasing the wider left’s odds of success in the process—or be crushed by them right across the electoral map.
To Faure’s Socialist critics, he was being unduly alarmist—and selling the party’s soul to Mélenchon. Until 2008, Mélenchon was himself a Socialist senator, but he quit the party in protest of its centrist direction, which he decried at the time as inadequate to harness “the popular energy that is available in this country.” He founded La France Insoumise in 2016 as a democratic, post-partisan movement, offering radical ideas for political, economic, and ecological reform. Mélenchon’s appeal has soared ever since, but he remains personally controversial. He has traditionally been skeptical of the European Union and NATO; in the past, he defended Russia’s annexation of Crimea and came close to describing Ukraine as a non-country. In 2018 he shouted “I am the Republic” at police searching his offices as part of a financial probe. Many current Socialists view him as a cantankerous rabble-rouser.
There were initially three candidates in the running for Socialist first secretary: Faure; Hélène Geoffroy, the mayor of a Lyon suburb who ran on a strongly anti-NUPES platform with support from members of the party’s old guard (known as éléphants); and Mayer-Rossignol, who took a more ambiguous position on the NUPES. After a first round that was itself marked by mutual allegations of “fake news” and “neo-Trumpism,” Geoffroy bowed out and threw her weight behind Mayer-Rossignol. When Faure was declared the winner, his two opponents proposed that a four-person directory should govern the party, with power shared between the three candidates and a Faure ally. Faure likened the notion to a Hydra; instead he asked Geoffroy and Mayer-Rossignol to serve as his deputies and the latter to lead the party’s campaign for elections to the European Parliament next year. Mayer-Rossignol replied, tartly, that he wouldn’t be “bought off with posts.”
In the end, a deal was struck. Mayer-Rossignol took a leadership position, but under Faure; Geoffroy was tapped to serve as president of the National Council, a sort of internal Parliament in which Faure’s allies still hold a majority. At a party congress in Marseille at the end of January, Faure and his rivals stood shoulder-to-shoulder on stage, each holding aloft a red rose, the Socialist emblem. Faure, and the party, lived to fight another day. But both emerged weaker. The Socialists have “a problem of public confidence,” Rémi Lefebvre, a professor of political science at the University of Lille, told me, “and this type of congress reinforces the idea that the party is finished.”
It’s not unusual for French Socialists to tear themselves apart over a leadership election. It happened in 1990, when Laurent Fabius took on Lionel Jospin, and again in 2008, when Martine Aubry and Ségolène Royal had a razor-close contest of their own. But those giants were fighting on a very different field. In 2008 Aubry won with 67,000 votes; Faure won with roughly a sixth of that figure, reflecting the huge decline in membership that the party has suffered in the intervening years. Aubry was elected leader of a party whose presidential candidate, Royal, had lost narrowly to Nicolas Sarkozy the year before; Faure of a party whose candidate finished tenth in 2022.
The radio journalist Alba Ventura has likened the recent Socialist infighting to the fable of a scorpion who rides a frog across a river and kills it—even though the frog is the only thing stopping the scorpion from drowning—because it simply can’t suppress its venomous instincts. More than one observer has asked whether Faure, in particular, might be his party’s fossoyeur—its gravedigger. But a better question is whether he is burying the Socialist Party or merely its most recent, moderate incarnation, and whether a new rose might grow in its place.
Recently, thousands of French people have taken to the streets in protest of a broadly unpopular new pensions bill that would, among other provisions, raise the retirement age for many workers from sixty-two to sixty-four. Last week, President Emmanuel Macron and his prime minister, Élisabeth Borne, resorted to ramming the bill through the National Assembly without a vote, exacerbating public fury. Macron is a former Socialist minister, and Borne was long close to the party. On Monday, Faure—who, as well as being Socialist first secretary, is an elected lawmaker for the region around Paris—voted with every one of his Socialist colleagues to sack Borne’s government in a motion of censure that fell only nine votes short of succeeding.
Faure has railed vocally against the pensions bill online, in the media, and sometimes in the streets, demanding that the government withdraw it, call a referendum, or resign—though his rhetoric has been less sharp-edged than that of Mélenchon, who is calling for a large-scale uprising, and he has arguably been less prominent in the public debate. On one level, opposing the law, and a government in crisis, is a political no-brainer. This week, Faure, Mayer-Rossignol, and Geoffroy all signed an angry letter to Macron demanding an end to the pensions bill.
The broader issue of pension reform, however, does not inspire complete unity among Socialists. In the recent leadership election, Mayer-Rossignol and Geoffroy each said that they’d keep the retirement age at sixty-two, but Faure said that it should, with some conditions, be lowered to sixty, a headline number in line with a radical shared platform that the NUPES outlined last summer. Faure himself once backed retirement at sixty-two; when the NUPES platform was unveiled, a Socialist senator quipped that Faure had either been “touched by grace” when reading it or he was playing politics. But the notion that retirement at sixty is a political opportunity nonetheless says a lot about this febrile moment in France, and the steps the Socialist leadership seems willing to take to reposition the party in relation to it.
There is a chance, albeit a slim one, that the Socialist Party and its NUPES allies will have to appeal directly to voters again very soon; one way out of the current impasse could be for Macron to dissolve the National Assembly, triggering new legislative elections, though he seems to have ruled out the possibility for now. Last weekend, on an online talk show, Faure was asked whether he fears such a scenario. “I don’t fear anything, least of all the judgment of the French people,” he said. He was speaking on a video call, sitting in front of a stylized cartoon rendering of Liberty Leading the People, the famous revolutionary painting by Delacroix. Instead of weapons, the figures in the cartoon held aloft pencils.
Olivier Faure was born in 1968 near Grenoble, in southeastern France, to a French father and a Vietnamese mother. According to a 2018 profile in Libération, the young Faure dreamed one day of being a doctor or lawyer, the next of being a photographer or comic-book illustrator. In the end, he joined the Socialists when he was sixteen and ascended through a series of behind-the-scenes positions, eventually working closely with First Secretary François Hollande. Faure didn’t give up drawing: in 2007, he published Ségo, François, papa et moi, a fictionalized comic book about Royal’s presidential campaign.
The Socialist Party, at least in its present form, is younger than Faure. In 1971 various factions on the French left came together for a congress at Épinay-sur-Seine in the Paris suburbs. The attendees made François Mitterrand their leader. He spoke at the time of a fundamental break with capitalism and forged an alliance with the French Communist Party, which was then dominant on the left; ten years later he took power as the first Socialist president of the French Fifth Republic and Communist ministers served in his government. Mitterrand and his government quickly passed a series of aggressive economic and social reforms—hiking the minimum wage, expanding benefits, lowering the retirement age to sixty, and shortening the workweek—but then, just as sharply, pivoted to austerity in a bid to fight inflation.
Mitterrand served as president until 1995. It would take the Socialists nearly twenty years to reclaim the presidency via Hollande, who beat Sarkozy in 2012. Hollande set out to confront the uber-wealthy and the world of finance before eventually moving to the right, passing a package of labor reforms that slashed workers’ rights and proposing, after the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, that dual nationals convicted of terrorism offenses be stripped of their French citizenship. As James McAuley has argued in these pages, over the years the Socialist Party, among others on the French left, had grown increasingly susceptible to culture-war posturing about Islam, secularism, and identity.
Faure was elected as a lawmaker in 2012 with a big helping hand from Hollande, but he subsequently distanced himself from these more right-wing policies, albeit not as noisily as more rebellious colleagues. As Hollande’s approval ratings tanked, he found himself outmaneuvered by Macron, who decided to run for president himself in 2017 on a nominally technocratic and post-ideological platform. In the end, Hollande didn’t run for reelection. The eventual Socialist candidate, Benoît Hamon, tacked back toward the left but was squeezed out, not least by Mélenchon, and finished with 6 percent of the national vote.
When Faure became Socialist first secretary in 2018, he promised a fresh start for the party. (Hollande was reportedly furious at what he saw as a betrayal of his legacy and has often since been a public thorn in Faure’s side.) The fresh start did not immediately bring electoral gains. The Socialists flopped in the European elections of 2019. They did better in subsequent local and regional contests, but then came the crushing defeat in last year’s presidential election; Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, ran a fractious and mostly invisible campaign and won less than 2 percent of the vote.
In that race, Mélenchon narrowly missed out on a runoff against Macron, establishing him as the dominant force on the left. With the Socialists in danger of a wipeout in the legislative elections that followed (France staggers its presidential and legislative votes), Faure, with the eventual backing of the party’s National Council, decided to jump into the NUPES alongside La France Insoumise, the French Greens, and the Communists. Some critics saw this as nothing more than a selfish ploy to save his own seat in the National Assembly. Others have accused Faure of failing, during his five-year tenure at the head of the party, to redefine its ideological offerings. But at the very least, Faure has replanted the Socialist flag on the left of the political spectrum—a clear break with the muddled legacy Hollande left him.
In 2017 various Socialists who had served under Hollande joined or backed Macron’s new government, creating the impression, as Faure put it at the recent congress in Marseille, that Socialists are little more than “traitors” driven by the prospect of career advancement. “The president says, ‘Be careful, they’re savages,’” Faure said at an early NUPES event, summarizing Macron’s assessment of the Socialists’ new colleagues before addressing them directly. “It’s true that I sometimes find you a bit different to the Socialists, who are calmer and more habituated to institutions. But I said to myself, deep down, who are the real savages? Is it those who want to think another world is possible? I’ve made my choice.”
Despite entrenched hostilities and some early mutual sniping in the press, the NUPES alliance came together surprisingly smoothly; even before the deal was finalized, Mélenchon credited Faure with breaking from the legacy of Hollande and showing that the Socialists can be “reborn.” The NUPES unveiled a fairly extensive shared platform, including the Mitterrandian commitment to retirement at sixty, even though senior Socialists had previously opposed it as unrealistic. Areas of disagreement—where La France Insoumise would be happy to “disobey” EU rules, for instance, the Socialists would only “deviate” from them “in a transitory manner”—were delicately characterized as “nuances.”
Electorally, the NUPES was a qualified success. The alliance did not succeed in its stated goal of forcing Macron to make Mélenchon his prime minister, and left-wing optimism was tempered by a stronger-than-expected showing for Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally—but Macron’s party failed to win a majority and the NUPES did become the largest opposition bloc, with nearly 150 seats. The Socialist Party won thirty or so of those, a slight improvement on its previous tally. And Socialist candidates unexpectedly knocked off two senior Macron allies.
Despite frequent reports of its imminent demise, the NUPES hung together as a legislative alliance in the months after the elections, during which it gave its members room to express differences—particularly on the war in Ukraine, about which Faure is considerably more hawkish than Mélenchon. “In terms of the heart of what they’ve been doing as an electoral coalition, it’s quite a success,” Vincent Martigny, a professor of political science at the University of Nice and the École Polytechnique, told me in February. “I’m not saying they’ve become best friends, but these guys have been working together for eight months. You can see great signs of respect.”
Still, there have been tensions, not least over political style. How to respond to allegations of sexual abuse leveled at various senior figures—including a leading member of La France Insoumise, whom Mélenchon aggressively defended—has been one source of division, as have the combative tactics of Mélenchon and his allies. Ahead of a protest over the high cost of living, Mélenchon called for another March on Versailles—an early episode in the French Revolution, when a crowd of armed women forced King Louis XVI to relocate to Paris. Faure responded that there would be no pitchforks this time. More recently—amid broader tensions within the NUPES over the best tactics to fight Macron’s pension law—a lawmaker from La France Insoumise tweeted a photo showing his foot on a soccer ball that had the face of Macron’s labor minister on it; the lawmaker refused to apologize and was suspended from the National Assembly amid outrage from Macron allies. Various NUPES lawmakers have since called for the alliance to move on to its “Act II.”
What that might look like remains unclear. Dynamics among the parties that make up the NUPES have started to shift as the crucible in which it was formed—the immediate aftermath of the presidential election, when Mélenchon was ascendant—has cooled. The balance within the parties has been shifting, too. Divisions have opened up within the La France Insoumise over Mélenchon’s dominance and how long it might endure (he is seventy-one). The Greens now have a leader who has already ruled out a shared NUPES campaign for the European elections next year. The Socialists also sound skeptical—and internal contestation over the party’s position in the NUPES shows little sign of abating. Various Hollande-era éléphants have toyed with the idea of a splinter movement, though one has yet to really take off.
Meanwhile a forthcoming special election in France’s far southwest, the first round of which is scheduled for this weekend, will feature both a NUPES candidate from La France Insoumise, whom Faure is backing, and a dissident Socialist candidate supported by prominent critics of Faure, including Mayer-Rossignol—a reprise of last summer, when dozens of Socialists bucked the NUPES accord to run their own campaigns without the imprimatur of the alliance and faced suspension from the party as a result. This was arguably a squabble less over policy than over personal interest and strategy: in order to become part of the NUPES, Faure had to limit the number of candidates that his party would run in the legislative elections, rankling those who had expected to stand but were told they could not.
The party’s internal differences over matters of substance can seem minor in comparison, but they do exist. The split in the party can be called one of political vision: whether the Socialist Party should reclaim the mantle of moderate social democracy embraced by the likes of Hollande or head in the more populist direction of its NUPES allies, or whether some middle path might be possible. It has been said that Faure is enigmatic and politically opportunistic—over the years, he has aligned himself with a variety of Socialist tendencies, from the party’s perceived right to its perceived left. In recent months, however, he has explicitly laid claim to the radical legacy of the early Mitterrand era, including in remarks defending the NUPES agreement to his party’s National Council last year and in a somewhat cringe-inducing New Year’s video in which he played a game of “Macronpoly” with an actor dressed as Macron. When the actor reached for a token shaped like a rose, Faure aggressively slapped his hand away.
Faure is no Mitterrand (his critics in the party find the comparison risible). But perhaps he is relying in these moments on an analogy less of character than of trajectory. This year’s congress in Marseille might seem to have little in common with the 1971 Épinay congress that birthed the modern Socialist Party, but both followed on the heels of a disastrous presidential election: in 1969 Gaston Defferre—representing the Section française de l’Internationale ouvrière, the forerunner of the Socialist Party—tallied 5 percent. The journalists Albert du Roy and Robert Schneider wrote in Le Roman de la Rose (1982) that few observers imagined the Socialists would be in power within ten years of Épinay; many thought that the party was “killing itself” by allying with the Communists. The Communists initially dominated that alliance, “but then the leadership changed,” Martigny told me. Faure seems to “believe, in a way, that the situation is not that different today.”
The political climate is of course very different today. After last year’s presidential runoff between Macron and Le Pen, much ink was spilled on the idea that the traditional left–right economic axis structuring French politics had been displaced by something new. Then again, Mélenchon—a left-wing candidate who talks frankly about economics—could easily have made the runoff if a version of the NUPES had been in place in time for the election. The claim that the French left needs to unite to stand a chance in a majoritarian system was valid in 1971 and has now come back around. In between, the Socialists were hegemonic on the left. They certainly aren’t anymore. But their importance to the new French left still seems to be up for grabs.
In October Olivier Pérou, a journalist at the French newspaper L’Express, published a book about the Socialist Party with the pungent title Autopsie du Cadavre. While it mostly offers behind-the-scenes nuggets about the disastrous 2022 presidential campaign, the book is structured as a whodunnit, each chapter weighing whether a leading figure in or adjacent to the party—Mélenchon, Faure, Hollande, and others—delivered its fatal blow. I won’t spoil the ending, not because doing so would be churlish but because the book’s premise—that the Socialists are dead—is contestable.
There is weighty evidence that the party is, at least, severely wounded. Its membership is moribund and it has few rising stars. The brand is battered and musty. And it has been squeezed by other left-wing parties, not only La France Insoumise but also the Greens. The Socialists are still comparatively well-represented at the local level, but as Pierre-Nicolas Baudot, a researcher at the Centre d’études constitutionnelles et politiques at the Paris-Panthéon-Assas University, told me, its candidates for municipal and regional posts tend to run on managerial competence rather than as Socialists per se. (It’s notable that many of Faure’s strongest internal critics, including Mayer-Rossignol and Geoffroy, are local officials.) “There’s a disconnect,” Baudot told me. “Local Socialist strength can’t be mobilized nationally.”
But experts I spoke to for this piece agreed that the party still has a pulse. The internal debate is over the best way to revive it. Hollande and other éléphants find Faure’s approach fatally misguided; they would seek a degree of unity with other left parties, but a unity anchored in social democracy rather than in Mélenchon’s populism, which they see as repulsing more moderate voters who left the Socialists for Macron in 2017. Since Macron can’t run again, that disaffected group will be up for grabs at the next presidential election in 2027 if, as is currently likely, his successor in his movement emerges from the political right.
But the Socialists have alienated much of their traditional working-class base, too, and the éléphant strategy seems out of step with the increasingly insecure times, as exemplified by the furious reaction to Macron’s pension law. “The country is now torn between the temptation of the extreme right” and a comparatively youthful and radical “pro-feminist, pro-climate, anti-racist stance,” Martigny told me. “The idea that some sort of mild social democracy could appeal again to a majority of voters is an absolute mistake.” Voters on the French left, he added, are mostly unified around the idea of “a radical break with capitalism—not in an old Marxist style, but rather in some kind of green renovation of what the free market means.”
A recent study from the Jean Jaurès Foundation, a think tank traditionally close to the Socialist Party, showed that voters who sympathize with the party are clearly on the left when it comes to economic, social, and cultural issues. The study showed that many of the same voters deeply distrust Mélenchon and his movement, with a slim majority of respondents characterizing La France Insoumise as a threat to democracy. This would seem to present a dilemma: the Socialist Party’s natural voters, these days, are of the left but seem to hate Faure’s principal bedfellow in his effort to keep the party left-aligned. And yet this state of affairs isn’t necessarily set in stone. The balance of power between La France Insoumise and the Socialists was heavily one-sided when the NUPES agreement was struck, but public support for the two parties has since converged somewhat—although per the Jaurès study both poll in single digits.
Nor is La France Insoumise quite a monolith in Mélenchon’s image. Faure is clearly hoping that a post-Mélenchon succession war—and further tightening between the parties in the polls—could put the Socialists in a position to present one of their own as a shared presidential candidate in 2027. Doing so would situate the Socialists within a broadly popular left-wing bloc while leveraging their history as a responsible party of government—precisely what some fear La France Insoumise is not—into a claim to lead the bloc and, they hope, the country. This path, it must be noted, is narrow and strewn with pitfalls; for now, the Socialists haven’t escaped Mélenchon’s hulking shadow. But it is at least visible, and looks wider than the route of once again going it alone.
Faure could even put himself forward as the NUPES candidate come 2027. But he is still little-known on the national stage—since taking over the Socialist Party, he has let others be its standard-bearers in elections—and, as the recent leadership election showed, he barely has control of his own house, let alone the alliance. When the subject of personal ambition came up in an interview with Le Monde last year, Faure replied that for him, it’s not a question of “C’est moi ou le déluge.” The idea, he said, “is to avoid le déluge.”