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Why is the left so gauche?

Patrice de Beer
26 February 2007

The French presidential campaign is a clear example of how difficult it can be for the left, in a democratic country, to achieve power. It raises a perennial question: why is the left always so disorganised, divided by internecine and self-destructive squabbles in countries where the political spectrum is, roughly, equally divided?

In France in particular - which since 1978 has voted every government (left or right) out of office after one term - why does the outgoing interior minister and head of the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP) ruling party, Nicolas Sarkozy, still look the most likely candidate to win in the decisive second round on 6 May 2007? Is it because "Sarko" has banished the old curse that the French right wing is "the stupidest in the world" - or because the French left, in its inability to get rid of worn-out politicians, ideologies, methods and political rivalries, has acquired this unwelcome prize?

The left's responsibility, according to this explanation, is that it has failed to understand that in today's political world there is no more place for messy amateurism, for militants whose party loyalty is in itself not enough to plan a good campaign, organise efficient meetings or visits for their candidate, or answer tit-for-tat attacks by an opponent whose own campaign team is tightly-knit, geared towards success and led by professionals? No surprise that, in French, the word gauche can mean "left" as well as "clumsy".

It is true that, after the disaster of the 2002 campaign of Parti Socialiste (PS) candidate Lionel Jospin (which should be studied by strategists as a good example of what not to do if you want to win an election), the French left seems today as prone to shoot itself in the foot again. In 2002, the left represented 45% of the votes but was split into ten candidates; so Jospin only got 16%.

This time, Ségolène Royal says she has learnt her lesson and is fighting on a very different platform and in a fresher style, with a feminist touch unheard of in this male-chauvinist political world. But she is also plagued on her left by at least seven potential spoiler candidates: three Trotskyites, one communist, one altermondialiste and two greens: divided among themselves, their only power in the next elections could well be to make a nuisance (see "French politics: where extremes meet", 4 December 2006).

Also by Carne Ross in openDemocracy:

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

Among Patrice de Beer’s articles in openDemocracy:

"Paris in flames: the limits of repression"
(November 2005)

"France's immigration myths"
(9 February 2006)

"Law and disorder in France"
(March 2006)

"France’s crisis after crisis"
( April 2006)

"The Ségolène phenomenon"
(May 2006)

Worse, "Ségo" has touched a raw nerve within her own PS by stealing power from the party stalwarts (or "elephants"); just as François Mitterrand did in the 1970s. True, the main "elephants" (former presidential aspirants Laurent Fabius and Dominique Strauss-Kahn as well as Jospin himself) are now - at least officially - part of Ségo's team, and the party is at pains to close ranks against a formidably united right.

But the clouds have not dispelled. The PS's economic expert, Eric Besson has resigned from Ségo's campaign and left the party, accusing Royal of being an "amateur" and of shunning the "elephants". And two socialist think-tanks - one of top civil servants (Spartacus) and the other regrouping ethnic minorities (Prairial 21) - have broken ranks. Even worse, it looks obvious that Ségo's - so far - messy campaign has also been the victim of back-stabbing from within the PS, where some seem to prefer Sarkozy - or centrist candidate François Bayrou - to their party's own, democratically chosen candidate.

Loopy left and ruthless right

Why is it that the prime enemy of leftist militants is so often their closest ally within their own party or political family, rather than their adversary on the opposite, rightwing side?

Will the far left ever learn its lesson? Or will the attraction of splinter, extremist groups making wild promises and advocating ideological paradises (which are, as everyone knows, not of this world) prevail? Will the left continue to prefer the safe comfort of opposition - i.e. the victory of the right they pretend so much to hate - to taking and sharing responsibility?

The paradox is that, even when leftwing parties are attracted by extremism and self-defeatism, their saviours are usually moderates. Here are four examples.

First, Francois Mitterrand led the French left to power twice (in 1981 and 1988). He had started his career on the right of the political spectrum - unlike Jospin who, like many other comrades, entered politics via Trotskyism. Yet Mitterrand was able to put together a formidable war machine and coerce his party's many cliques (as well as other leftist parties) to work, win and govern together - whereas Jospin, who tried to succeed him as president in 1995 and 2002, each time failed to unite his brother enemies.

Second, Gerhard Schröder lost power in Germany in 2005 to the CDU's Angela Merkel thanks to a leftwing split from the SDP under Oskar Lafontaine, whose Die Wahlalternative (WASG) group objected to the chancellor's "liberal" policies. Today, its Linkspartei alliance with the reformed communists of East Germany (pending a formal merger in June 2007) is represented in the Bundestag, but the policy of Merkel's government is even more "liberal". So what?

Third, Britain's Labour Party was plagued by splits from right and left in the 1980s - the Social Democratic Party breakaway and the Trotskyist "entryism" of the Militant Tendency - was ousted from power for two decades by Margaret Thatcher before returning to victory in 1997 under a rightwing, control-freak, authoritarian leader with a iron grip on the party; Tony Blair, thanks to a divided Conservative Party, has since been twice re-elected. In the United States, the only Democrat who was able to wrest power from the Republicans in a quarter of a century was the moderate, "third-way" Bill Clinton; and he owed his success to the fact that the right in 1992 presented two candidates, the independent populist Ross Perot as well as the Republican incumbent, George HW Bush.

Fourth, the centrist Romano Prodi remains the only politician in Italy able to unite the left, and part of the centre, against Silvio Berlusconi. Yet his coalition patchwork is always on the verge of splitting - as happened in 1998, and again in February 2007, in each case at the risk of paving the way for the return of Il Cavaliere. This master of political cocktails - a taste of moderate liqueur, another of leftist hard spirits with a touch of Machiavellian flair - remains the Italian left's best chance to counter a ruthless right; yet the latter is often less dangerous for his coalition than betrayal from his own ranks, usually from unreconstructed communists.

Are there lessons in all this: that elections are more often lost than won; that their winners often benefit more from their adversaries' divisions and mistakes than their own strengths; and that winners must beware their friends as much as their enemies? Just look at the 2000 American elections: would George W Bush been elected to lead the United States and the world to the disaster in the middle east, had Al Gore conducted a better campaign and Green candidate Ralph Nader - both convinced environmentalists - not split the democratic vote?

In France, there is a name for this kind of hard green: Khmer Vert, an echo of the Khmer Rouge tag given to the Cambodian extremists under Pol Pot. Yet if democracy is "one person, one vote", its success depends also on the number of boxes where votes can be cast. If, in bipartisan political systems, two is enough and three can be a crowd, what do the forty candidates struggling to join the first round of the French presidential elections on 22 April - of which a dozen at most will be able to stand - say about the quality of French democracy?

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