France’s socialist crack-up

Patrice de Beer
17 December 2008

The efforts of France's hyperactive president Nicolas Sarkozy to become an indispensable and omnipresent global actor continue to be aided by the disarray of his domestic political opposition.  The internecine war for the control of the principal leftist movement, the Parti Socialiste (Socialist Party / PS), is emblematic of "Sarko's" luck. While the world's economic and social situation enters into ever-deeper crisis, denting incomes and threatening millions of jobs, the socialist leaders' dispute has offered a bathetic contrast. Indeed, coincidence of the G20 summit in Washington and the PS's gathering in Rheims gave the French media ample opportunity to contrast the grand scale of global challenges with the petty partisan warfare into which the congress descended.Patrice de Beer is former London and Washington correspondent for Le Monde

Among Patrice de Beer's articles in openDemocracy:

"Calle Santa Fé: between Chile and freedom" (16 January 2008)

"Sarkozy and God" (6 February 2008)

"May ‘68: France's politics of memory" (28 April 2008)

"Nicolas Sarkozy, the frenetic leader" (25 July 2008)

"Nicolas Sarkozy: world leader, local problem" (12 November 2008)

The internal agony of France's main leftwing party is severely disillusioning to many observers. The credibility of politics in France is at its lowest when it is most needed. The French used to say they had the "most stupid rightwing in the world". Now, when the PS is split between leaders who loathe each other much more than they do Sarkozy, and the extreme left is fragmented into multiple rival groups (while engaged in a hopeless search to coalesce into a single force that could overtake the PS itself), can it also be said that they have the "dumbest left in the world"?

A dubious affair

Maybe, but also maybe not. Yes, the PS has a new first secretary, Martine Aubry, who defeated her rival, Ségolène Royal by a few dubious votes after an election that some compared to what happened in Florida in 2000 when George W Bush was sent to the White House instead of Al Gore. The margin - a majority of forty-two of the 137,116 votes (out of 232,912 paid-up PS members) - was narrow enough to reinforce rather than quell the tensions that had preceded the result.

"Ségo", the socialist presidential candidate defeated by Sarkozy in the election of May 2007, took a few days to overcome suspicions of what she called a "stolen victory" before reluctantly acknowledging her rival's close win - without, however, shedding her ambitions to reform the party and lead it towards the presidential elections of 2012.

Martine Aubry, the mayor of Lille from a strong political lineage (as the daughter of Jacques Delors, and labour minister in the Lionel Jospin government of the late 1990s who introduced the now almost defunct thirty-five-hour week), has offered to cooperate with a rival she detests while promising those who supported her leftist platform the lion's share of the party's leadership. It is hard at this point to say whether a harmonious "wedding of the carp and the rabbit" (as the French saying goes) is possible, or whether the devastated image of a party that has lost touch with the real world as well as with voters can recover.

All this looks like a recipe for political disaster. But this is only half the story of a PS drama marked by dubious tactics and irregularities. How, after all, to describe a process where full election results are not published more than a week after polling-day? Where widespread suspicions of fraud in regional constituencies have not been seriously investigated? Where results can only be challenged before a national body where the majority will obviously vote for their candidate rather than for the truth?

Both the definitive results of the 21 November members' poll and those of the PS national council on 25 November, remain in doubt (the council, controlled by Aubry's friends, increased her majority to 102 after days of consultation). No wonder there have been references to Tammany Hall, French-style - although it is worth mentioning too that the PS is the only major French party to hold real elections, even if they are messy; Nicolas Sarkozy's Union pour une Mouvement Populaire (Union for a Presidential Majority / UMP) is all but run by the president himself.

Patrice de Beer is former London and Washington correspondent for Le Monde

Among Patrice de Beer's articles in openDemocracy:

"Calle Santa Fé: between Chile and freedom" (16 January 2008)

"Sarkozy and God" (6 February 2008)

"May ‘68: France's politics of memory" (28 April 2008)

"Nicolas Sarkozy, the frenetic leader" (25 July 2008)

"Nicolas Sarkozy: world leader, local problem" (12 November 2008) 

All Against Ségolène

If the melancholy current condition of France's main leftwing party is worth a longer look, it is in part because the media-circulated image of political mud-wrestling between two ambitious prima-donnas - whose social-democratic platforms are, in truth, not that far apart - conceals a more interesting reality.

Jacques Julliard, a respected political analyst from the left-leaning weekly Le Nouvel Observateur, writes that the Aubry-Royal contest was less a left-right spat, or a war of the new vs the old (as in Britain's "old" and "new" Labour) and more an "anthropological" fight. Julliard, citing French philosopher René Girard's "theory of sacrifice", added that the PS's old guard - known as the "elephants" - chose to assemble behind Aubry and the "TSS" banner (Tous Sauf Ségolène [All Against Ségolène]) because they had been "looking for an expiatory victim to slaughter in order to ensure tribal cohesion and [the] regeneration of [the groups'] members".

But this still begs the question: why, if indeed the two "queens of the rose" are ideologically so close to each other? The answer is that the real issue at stake was not control of the party or clash of personality (even if civil wars are often bloodier than "normal" wars) - but Ségolène Royal's ambition to change the PS from top to bottom. This involved a great internal shift:

▪ transforming a party where one-third of members are party officials and elected officials into a mass movement where membership-fees would be slashed to attract new and younger voters less ideologically minded and more interested in societal issues than in class warfare

▪ opening it towards the centre in a country where all the "lefts" put together only represent 40% of voters, and where moderate votes are needed to win a majority in a presidential election.

This ambition, to the "elephants" that control the party machinery and are weary of members' unpredictability, represented a betrayal, a mortal sin and even more, a mortal danger. So they united to thrash the female troublemaker.

It was a fearsome sight to see such unlikely comrades cohere around the TSS cause: pro- and anti-Europe figures, pro- and anti-globalisation - from leftist ex-prime minister Laurent Fabius (who helped ensure a "no" vote in the 2005 referendum on the European constitution) to centrist former finance minister Dominique Strauss-Kahn (now International Monetary Fund director-general, and a European integrationist); from outgoing PS first secretary (also Royal's ex-partner and father of her four children) François Hollande to the failed candidate in the presidential election of 2002, Lionel Jospin.

The insults flowed freely; the mildest being that "Ségo" was stupid, mad or unqualified. "Who is going to take care of the children", said Fabius. Jospin went even further, comparing her with "neo"-socialists who collaborated with the Nazis during the second world war.

After the elephants

The elephants' confident rampage convinced them that Ségolène Royal would lose decisively. In the event, she actually won the first round of voting with 29% of the votes. This provoked a quick rearrangement of tactics in which the old guard tried to unite the three other factions - represented 71% of the votes - against her. Indeed, these managed to go as far as adopting a common platform, but failed to agree on a common candidate before finally rallying behind Martine Aubry. This did not stop "Ségo" winning again in the initial direct contest with her main rival, before they were virtually tied with 50% each (which meant that Aubry's vote had declined from 71% to just over 50% between the two rounds). The more Royal was attacked, the more she gained support - and she remains the favourite to be the left's presidential candidate in 2012.

Indeed, the results even at their provisional stage showed that she carried a majority of rank-and-file voters against a worn-out party machine which had failed for more than a decade to undertake any imaginative ideological and practical work to adjust the party's platform to the realities of the 21st century.

True, PS members do not always agree with her not-so-original political rhetoric; nor with a very personal, almost messianic style that has some resemblances with the style of campaigning familiar in the United States. But what unites them - another echo of the Barack Obama phenomenon - is their hope for a long-delayed modernisation of the PS, weariness with a generation of feet-dragging old men who always seem to be looking in the rear-mirror, and desire to move beyond the tired slogans and deal-making politics among different political courants (streams).

But, at this stage at least, Ségolène Royal has lost her political battle. Will Martine Aubry be able to open up the PS and break free of the shackles held by her "elephant" supporters. or will Royal build on her near success and carry the day in the battle to come; will the PS become an efficient national opposition party ready to retake power or remain a coalition of local "barons" just needing a common brand-name to support their local ambitions?

Even at the end, the questions outnumber the answers. But if the credibility of politics in France is to revive, at some point the new way of doing and thinking about politics that Ségolène Royal reaches towards must find expression - of a kind that can find a way to challenge both the PS's elephants and Nicolas Sarkozy.

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