The French Socialist party, known as the SFIO from its official name Section française de l'internationale ouvrière [French section of the Worker's International], was formed in 1905 by a merger of various socialist groups that had long quarreled over tactics. Led by Jean Jaurès and Jules Guesde, the SFIO became a major political force. In 1914 the party supported French participation in World War I, accepting ministerial posts.
The duration of the war and the example of the Russian Revolution stimulated the growth of a pro-Bolshevik element in the SFIO. By 1920 the Communists held a majority in the party, and a split was unavoidable. The minority, led by Léon Blum, reconstituted the SFIO and in 1924 it joined a coalition government. In 1936, faced by economic depression, government corruption, and the rise of French fascism, the Socialists, allied with Communists and Radical Socialists, won election as the Popular Front; Blum was premier (1937–38).
In World War II the SFIO played a heroic role in the French Resistance, emerging in 1945 as one of the strongest government parties. But, flanked by Communists on the left and conservative parties on the right, it gradually lost strength, although it frequently was the leading party in governing coalitions. Split over support for the Fifth Republic in 1958, the party made a succession of alliances, unsuccessfully opposing the ruling Gaullists. It was reorganized in 1969 as the Parti Socialiste.
Socialist candidate François Mitterrand, was only narrowly defeated for the presidency in 1974, and in 1981, again with Communist support, he defeated Gaullist President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, then led his party to an assembly majority. The Socialists governed, with Pierre Mauroy and then Laurent Fabius as premier, until 1986, increasing social benefits, nationalizing industrial and financial enterprises (later reprivatized by the successor government), and promoting devolution to local governments. However, its austerity policies cost it an assembly majority; a center-right coalition
cohabited with President Mitterrand until 1988, when Mitterrand was reelected, and the party regained a majority. Michel Rocard became premier and established a minimum guaranteed income, but deficit-driven public-sector wage cuts cost him support. He was replaced by Edith Cresson in 1991, and she by Pierre Bérégovoy in 1992.
By the end of 1992, the party was divided in the face of a united conservative opposition, which triumphed in the assembly elections of 1993. The Socialists also lost the presidency in 1995, but they returned to power in the assembly in 1997, and Lionel Jospin became premier. In 2002 Jospin failed to win the presidency, placing third, and the party subsequently lost control of the assembly. The party's 2007 candidate for the presidency, Ségolène Royal also lost. In 2012, however, François Hollande, the Socialist presidential candidate, defeated the incumbent, Nicolas Sarkozy. They subsequently also won control of the assembly, but reforms enacted under Hollande proved unpopular with the party's traditional supporters. In the 2017 elections the party's presidential candidate placed fifth, and it did poorly in the legislative races.
See H. G. Simmons, French Socialists in Search of a Role (1970); S. Williams, ed., Socialism in France (1983); D. S. Bell and B. Criddle, The French Socialist Party (2d ed. 1988).
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