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The Left: A Tale of Two Socialists

Key questions

  • What does it mean to be on the left in France? How does this change?
  • What are the key values, symbols, and traditions for the French left?
  • Why have there been so few left-wing presidents of the Fifth Republic?
  • What were the strengths and weaknesses of François Mitterrand's presidency?
  • Why was François Hollande successful in the Presidential elections of 2012? What do you think he will achieve as president?


The lecture this week will explore what it means to be on the left in France. It will begin by explaining where the concepts of left and right originated, and how the left has developed from 1789 to the present, with particular attention to its symbolic associations. Then it will describe what it has meant to be on the left at key moments in recent French history: 1944, 1968, 1981, 2002 and most recently in 2012. Through these discussions it will address key questions concerning left-wing unity and success/failure in government, as well as the changing social composition of the left. It will focus in some detail on the case studies of François Mitterrand and François Hollande, as well as discussing more broadly what it means to be on the left in France today.

Download the lecture handout; lecture PowerPoint; lecture recording


In the seminar we will be discussing left-wing presidents, supporters, and imagery by focusing on the 'deux François': Mitterrand and Hollande. We will compare the victory speeches of 1981 and 2012, and watch news clips of contemporary reactions to these two historic moments as a means of identifying continuity and change in left-wing symbols and supporters. To prepare, you should read and reflect on the two victory speeches (9b and 9c in the Sourcebook), and think about the associated questions. Please make sure you also read around the Presidencies of these two Socialist leaders in the secondary literature so that we can discuss them comparatively. The following online articles are particularly helpful:

  • Ronald Tiersky, 'Mitterrand's Legacies', Foreign Affairs 74.1 (Jan-Feb 1995), pp. 112-121. (Use this article to reflect on the political influences on Mitterrand's youth, when and why he became a man of the left, and what he achieved during his presidency.)
  • Nick Hewlett, 'Voting in the Shadow of the Crisis: The French Presidential and Parliamentary Elections of 2012,' Modern and Contemporary France, 20.4 (Nov 2012), pp.403-420

Further reading

John Gaffney's study of political leadership in the Fifth Republic makes interesting arguments about how political leaders 'perform' within what remains an essentially Gaullist system. Have a look at his conclusions on Mitterrand's experience as French President:

  • John Gaffney, Political leadership in France, from Charles de Gaulle to Nicolas Sarkozy (2010)

This will provide a useful link with our reflections on leadership and the Gaullist legacy next week.