The Socialist Party (Parti Socialiste or PS) is the name of the main opposition party in France. It is a democratic socialist party, founded in 1969. It has existed under various names since 1880. For a century, however, it had only fleeting electoral success. In 1981, under François Mitterand, party won both the presidency and (with allies) a majority in the National Assembly for the first time, and held power for 14 years.
France's first socialist party, the French Workers' Party (Parti Ourviere Français) was founded in 1880 by Jules Guesde and Paul Lafargue (the son-in-law of Karl Marx). But in 1882 it split into two factions, a Marxist group led by Guesde and a moderate or "Possibilist" group led by Paul Brousse. Further splits followed, and none of the various socialist groups had much electoral success. They were hemmed in between the middle class liberals of the Radical Party and the revolutionary syndicalists who dominated the trade unions.
In 1899 there was a realignment of French socialism, with the formation of the Socialist Party of France (Parti Socialiste de France) on the left and the French Socialist Party (Parti Socialiste Français) on the right, led by Alexandre Millerand. In 1905, however, these two parties united under the leadership of Jean Jaurès in the Parti Socialiste Unifié. The French socialists were strongly pacifist, but following the assassination of Jaurès in 1914 they were unable to resist the wave of militarism which followed the outbreak of World War I.
The Socialists suffered a severe split over particpation in the wartime government of national unity. In 1919 the anti-war socialists were heavily defeated in elections. The left-wing of the party broke away and formed the French Communist Party in 1920. The right wing, led by Léon Blum, regrouped as the French Section of the Workers' International (Section Française de l'International Ouvrière or SFIO). (Right wing was a relative term: the SFIO was an orthodox Marxist party, but opposed to the revolutionary rhetoric of the Communists.)
In 1924 and again in 1932, the Socialists joined with the Radicals in the Coalitions of the Left (Cartels des Gauches), but refused actually to join the non-Socialist governments led by the Radicals Edouard Herriot and Edouard Daladier. These governments failed because the Socialists and the Radicals could not agree on economic policy, and also because the powerful Communist Party, following the policy laid down by the Soviet Union, refused to support "bourgeois" governments.
In 1934, the Communists changed their line, and the three parties came together in the Popular Front, which won the 1936 elections and brought Blum to power as France's first socialist prime minister. Within a year, however, his government collapsed over economic policy and also over the issue of the Spanish Civil War. The demoralised left fell apart and was unable to resist the collapse of the French republic after the military defeat of 1940.
After the liberation of France in 1944, the SFIO re-emerged under the new leadership of Guy Mollet, who was Prime Minister at the head of a minority government in 1957. But the party was in decline, as were the Radicals, the left never came close either to forming a united front or to winning an election during the Fourth Republic. Under the leadership of Gaston Defferre the SFIO reached its lowest ebb in the 1960s, and in 1969 it was wound up.
François Mitterand, who had been a conseravtive before the war and an independent of the left during the 1950s, took the lead in forming a new Socialist Party (Parti Socialiste) in 1969. He was helped by the near disappearance of the Radicals, although the Communists remained an obstacle to the unity of the left. In 1974 Mitterand came close to winning a presidential election, and the Socialists became the dominant party of the left.
In 1981 Mitterand formed an alliance with the Communists and the left-wing of the Radicals, and defeated the incumbent conservative, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, to become the first socialist President of France. He was re-elected in 1988. During his time as President, the Socialist Party usually had a majority in the National Assembly. Socialist Prime Ministers during Mitterand's presidency were Pierre Mauroy, Laurent Fabius, Michel Rocard, Edith Cresson and Pierre Bérégovoy.
Mitterand was the last elected national leader in Europe to attempt to carry out a socialist program. His first government nationalised the banks, the insurance industry and the defence industries. Workers' wages were increased and their working hours reduced, and many other sweeping reforms carried out. As a result there was a flight of capital from France (the traditional response of the French business class to threats from the left), and a severe economic crisis. In 1984 Mitterand and his second Prime Minister, Laurent Fabius, made a sharp change of course and abandoned any further socialist measures. Since then the Socialists have been in practice a moderate social democratic party.
At the 1995 presidential election, Mitterand retired, and the Socialist candidate, Lionel Jospin, was defeated by Jacques Chirac. In 1997, however, the Socialists gained a majority in the National Assembly and Jospin became Prime Minister, following a policy that was broadly progressive but had little to do with socialism as traditionally understood. Chirac again defeated Jospin in the presidential elections of 2002, and Jospin then retired from politics. The leader of the Socialist Party is now its secretary-general, François Hollande.