The symbols of the French socialists from the nineteenth century to today
The French socialist party has recently suffered one of the worst electoral results (6.4% of the votes in the Presidential election and 7.4% in Parliamentary elections) since the creation of a unified party in 1905. It is now considering a radical change of name, policies and symbols, while it seeks a united position, long since lost. In its long history, the socialist party has brought important changes to French society (numerous advances in social security and retirement, the introduction of vacations paid by employers, the reduction of working time to 40 hours a week and then 35 hours, the abolition of the death penalty, and many other reforms.)
Dissension and division have always accompanied the history of French socialists and animated its debates, successes and failures. The turnaround after humbling defeats has been surprisingly fast in the past. After the collapse of the Third Republic in 1940, the socialists returned to power in 1944. Again after the humiliating defeat of 1969, when the socialist presidential candidate obtained only 5% of the votes within a divided left, the party was refounded and by 1973 was back at almost 20% of the votes. In 1981, Mitterrand became the successful candidate of a united left. In 1993 the socialists were crushed in the elections by the moderate right, obtaining a mere 57 seats, but just four years later it won 255 seats and led a new coalition government of the united left (gauche plurielle) under Jospin.
Today a diminished socialist party is divided between the social liberals who want to follow or support Macron, a left wing attracted by the uncompromising identity politics of the France insoumise of Melenchon (radical anticapitalist left) and the supporters of a more traditional intermediate policy. Again, this seems an obvious recipe for a disaster. But French socialists have in the past shown an unexpected resilience in the face of fratricide divisions and splits, and also when faced with the unpalatable choice between an alliance with the hard left and one with centrists. Indeed in respect of the choice of alliances, the socialists followed different paths according to circumstances, much more frequently than is often remembered. They governed with the communists in 1936-38, in 1944-46, in 1981-86 and in 1997-2002 but governed with the centre (radical party, the Catholics of the Mouvement républicain populaire or Centre des démocrates sociaux and even with parties more to the right of the political spectrum during the Fourth Republic) in 1936-38, in 1944-58, and in 1988-93.
This note discusses the symbols of the mainstream French socialist party, limited to a small part of the large imagery developed over more than a century, namely the official logos worn by militants or used for flags and propaganda materials.
In the late nineteenth century various organizations and fractions developed but the most common socialist symbols were largely inherited from the iconographic language of the French revolution of 1789-94 (representations of liberty as Marianne, red caps, broken chains, the level as a symbol of equality, clasped hands), whose history was rewritten by the socialist leader Jean Jaurès. The most immediate distinction between the republican left (the radical party) and the socialists was the use of the blue-white-red flag by the former and the red flag by the latter. The red flag had become a symbol of the extreme left as early as 1791, when it was associated with the repression of anti-monarchist manifestations at the Champ de Mars in Paris, carried out by supporters of a parliamentary monarchy. The red flag was been used on the left during the 1848 revolution and the Paris Commune of 1871, acquiring an evident universal meaning of hope and struggle -- or hatred and subversion -- according to the political positions of the observer.
By the 1880s several competing small parties inspired by socialism had emerged. We have here illustrated the badge of the most significant ones, the French Workers Party (Parti Ouvrier Français) created in 1893 by Jules Guesde. It represents a rising sun among the mountains, symbol of hope in the future, and it is superimposed on a red textile cocard.
By 1905 the socialists had finally agreed to set aside their differences and unify under the leadership of Jaurès, Guesde and Vaillant, creating the Parti Socialiste - Section Française de l’Internationale Ouvrière, better known by its initials SFIO. The first symbol of the SFIO adopted in 1906 was a simple variation of the rising sun of the Parti Ouvrier, with the name of the new party replacing the old one, as illustrated here with a button. It was rapidly replaced by a different official symbol, a flowing red flag with a double tail, carrying the initials PS.
Alongside the widely used red flag pin another symbol was used to decorate membership cards between 1905 and 1969. It combined the red flag (but with the initials RS, probably referring to the objective of a social republic), the sun of the SFIO-Parti ouvrier together with a standing figure of Marianne-Liberty, with a red cap, in a bucolic landscape filled with the instruments of labour (an anvil, a barrel, and a bundle of corn). These badges are more rare than the red flag pins, and the authors of the official illustrated history of the Socialist Party for the party’s centenary were unable to find any. The examples in the author’s collection and here illustrated were all produced in Paris by H. Audouin, Boulevard de la Villette, and the style indicates that they were produced in the 1930s.
Such a date is important because it corresponds with the Great Depression, during which many rightwing anti-parliamentary Leagues were created in France. The Leagues made massive use of badges and insignias, often of military origins, as part of their campaigning presence in the streets. In February 1934 the Leagues organized a mass demonstration against political corruption and attempted a coup d’etat, trying to occupy Parliament. The attempt caused bloodshed and failed but created as a reaction a unified left wing alliance against the risk of Fascism, which became the Front Populaire associating socialists, communists and radicals. In 1936 the Front Populaire won the elections and Leon Blum became the first socialist Prime Minister in France. The Leagues were finally banned in 1936, first by the centre-right and then by the left.
The SFIO reacted after 1934 to the deluge of symbols of the extreme right (but also to the hammer and sickle of the French communists), which were already an imitation of the successful practices of Italian fascists and German national socialists who had conquered power in 1922 and 1933 respectively. In a decentralized way, the socialist organizations started using a new antifascist party symbol, the three arrows. They had been originally adopted by the German social democrats in 1931 to cover the Nazi swastikas in the streets of Germany, following an initiative by the Russian propagandist Sergei Chakhotin. The adoption of the symbol in France by the SFIO was not initially an official decision, given that the red flag remained the official symbol.
As one of the examples of other alternative socialist symbols we have here also illustrated a red cocard of the 1930s, with a profile of Marianne and the initial L.P., possibly used for the party’s newspaper Le Populaire.
An attempt was made to remove the three arrows and return to an official socialist symbol during the participation of the socialists in a coalition government at the end of the Nazi occupation of France in 1944, through the Comité de Liberation Nationale. The new symbol was meant to associate the red cap of liberty and the cocarde tricolore with the initials of the party. The decision of the leadership was, however, rejected by militants who considered the new symbol to be too close to the one traditionally used by the Radical Party.
The three arrows therefore remained in use until the end of the life of the SFIO in 1969. They were associated, according to circumstances and fashion, with industrial wheels, circles, squares, globes, red caps, and profiles of Marianne.
One of the unexpected effects of the events of 1968 was a rout of the socialist movement at the French Presidential elections of 1969, when Gaston Defferre obtained only 5% of the vote, leading to the demise of the SFIO, until a new Socialist Party was formed again under the leadership of Francois Mitterrand in 1971 at the Congress of Epinay.
The new party borrowed its symbol from one of the associated clubs, the Centre d'études, de recherches et d'éducation socialiste (CERES), animated by Chevènement. It was a red rose held in a fist, associating the traditional colour red, and the peaceful and hopeful message of the flower, with the fighting spirit of class struggle of the closed fist, traditionally agitated by the left during meetings. This symbol has so far accompanied the recent history of the socialists but has not entirely resisted the fashion for restyling symbols and weakening their ideological message. In 2010, the socialist logo was restyled to give visibility to the letters PS, limiting the rose in the fist to a marginal visual role, like a post-ideological afterthought.
After several years of the unpopular presidency of Francois Hollande, the change was reversed in 2016. To give more visibility to the new political vision associating socialism and environment, the rose in the fist became larger and the initials smaller, while a giant green leaf emerged behind it, in order to reinforce the point made by introducing under the logo the term “Social-Écologie”. Hollande had in fact already, in 2015, entertained a project of shitfing the programme and alliances of the Socialist Party to the centre, making it more liberal as well as environmentalist, with the idea of renaming the party as Parti progressiste. The creation by his former deputy secretary general at the Elysée, Emmanuel Macron, of the movement En Marche in 2016 continued the project of Hollande and of his Prime Minister Valls, but pushed it further to the right, thereby devastating, in the process, the old Socialist Party.
Today the leaders of the social liberal wing have left the party (Hollande has withdrawn from politics, Valls has left the socialists to follow Macron), and the same choice was made by the leaders of the left wing dissidents within the PS (Hamon and Montebourg). A new refounding will be required, new organizations, names and symbols will appear, but the Socialist Party is a phénomène de longue durée, and it will probably not disappear, despite challenges on the radical left by Melenchon and on the liberal centre by Macron.
Luca Einaudi, Centre for History and Economics
Centre for History and Economics,
Cambridge CB3 0AG, UK
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