1..2..3..And They’re Off – The Left

On the other side of French politics, as I promised, the internal conflicts are if anything stronger. To start with the most important ones, the Socialist Party is about to do something quite rare in its history – have a contested primary election. The only other was that of 1995, when Lionel Jospin beat Henri Emmanuelli to succeed Francois Mitterand. Before that, the candidacy normally went to the party’s first secretary, who was usually Mitterand anyway. (Before 1971, when Mitterand set up the modern PS, the various splinter-groups from the old SFIO that made it up of course had their own arrangements.)

Since the disaster of 2002, though, this looks like it’s going to change, chiefly because there’s a strong external candidate. Ségoléne Royal, the head of the Poitou-Charentes regional government, has been campaigning vigorously all year with some success. The success can be measured, in fact, by the frequency with which she is being accused of “Blairism” by the rest of the possible candidates. This looks like being the content-free insult of the campaign, in fact, as could be seen with the PS official quoted by Libération who remarked that he didn’t want Royal to “come back from London and abolish the social security” – after all, everyone knows that the UK provides no social security whatsoever, right?

It would be more accurate to place Royal on the soft-left. (If anyone’s Blairite in this game, it’s Nicolas Sarkozy – this speech is a classic of early Blairite rhetoric circa 1997.) She is no more “neoliberal” than Lionel Jospin was in government, for example, or for that matter Dominique Strauss-Kahn, and is closer to the Greens than some. She is given to vaguely conservative speaking, but it’s harder to discern where a concern for civisme, secularity and Republican values (in the French sense) stops and where a rather stern law-and-order politics begins in a French context.

However, it looks more and more as if the rest of the party is gearing up for an “anti-Blairism”, stop-Sego campaign. And policy doesn’t matter very much in this sense.

A realistic spoiler will be tough to arrange, though. Why? Because there are too many serious candidates with their own policies, ideologies and followers around. There is Laurent Fabius, for example, keen to profit from what he considers to be his victory over the European Constitution and the CPE through outbidding everyone else in anti-Blair framing rhetoric. Never mind that his term as Finance Minister was devoted to operating a strong france policy and slashing public sector budgets. Never mind his involvement in multiple corruption scandals.

Fabius is unlikely to agree, say, that Dominique “DSK” Strauss-Kahn should be a single anti-Sego candidate. After all, he comes fresh from two years of execrating DSK as a neo-liberal Europhile, and DSK is playing his own term as Minister of Finance, Economics and Industry as a trump card. And the two despise each other. DSK is about as likely to support Fabius as he is Jean-Marie Le Pen, and anyway wants the candidacy himself. His campaign is marked by an emphasis on seriousness, statesmanship, stuff like that – he is keen on employment and energy policy, and boasts of the job creation record of his time in government.

There’s ex-Culture Minister Jack Lang, but then again, he’s almost certain to be unacceptable to one or other of the so-called “elephants.” That leaves one candidate, the current First Secretary, Francois Hollande, who is hardly less liberal than Sego, and happens to live with her. Hollande is also in charge of organising the contest, which may make him the most conflicted man in Europe.

The only way, then, of organising a stop-Ségo candidate is to find someone so anodyne and content-free that they can’t offend anyone in the PS. Sadly, one’s available. At last week’s université d’été, former PM Lionel Jospin made his return to politics with a speech in which he took responsibility for the 2002 catastrophe. A neo-Jospin candidacy would be acceptable to the key players, and if they deliver their own tribal followers, it might even work. He’s just set up a blog, by the way – lioneljospin.parti-socialiste.fr. DSK’s is at dsk.net (nice URL!) and Royal’s is here.

What it wouldn’t be would be measurably to the Left of Ségoléne Royal, although it would surely be marketed as such. It also would be very unlikely to succeed in the real election – you know, the one that decides who’s going to be president. To win a French presidential election, you need first of all to get through the first round. Everyone stands in this phase, even if their party is cooperating with another – it’s considered vital to maintain profile. Hence, the effective winning post is around 25 per cent of the vote, which should see you into one of the top two spots and therefore into the final, a two-horse race.

Now, it is the historic role of the PS to represent the broader Left, the peuple de gauche, in the finals. That doesn’t mean, though, that the Greens, Communists, extreme-leftists, and centrists will vote for anyone other than their own in the first round. Therefore, the PS candidate must mobilise their base enough to get the key 25 per cent out, unable to count on the rest. In the second round, they can count on the Left, but need to capture swing-voters to get over 50 per cent and into the Elysée. Lionel Jospin failed to get the PS support out, relative to the rest of the Left, even after five years in government. I see no reason why he should do better this time, especially if there is a sizeable number of disenfranchised Royal/DSK/Fabius/whoever supporters left over. Another problem will be the possibility of a strong extreme-Left challenge this time around, to be dealt with in another post.

More broadly, a campaign within the PS between a PR-driven Royal bandwagon and a policy-free Jospin camp driven by the party apparatus would be a depressing affair, solving nothing about the real aims of the party or the means to reach them. The PS must go through with a genuine contest.

2 thoughts on “1..2..3..And They’re Off – The Left

  1. One of the reasons for Jospin’s dismal performance in 2002 was his government’s utter incompetence on the law and order front, such as a doubling in the number of anti-semitic acts. Sarkozy promptly reversed the trend after he was appointed Interior Minister. Hence Royal’s emphasis on the subject, as it is an are where the Left is still vulnerable, although less so since the riots in the Banlieues.

    Left-wing candidates with a robust message on law enforcement are not a novelty in France. Rather than comparing Ms. Royal to Blair, a better simile would be to former Interior and Defense Minister Jean-Pierre Chevènement, who memorably described young delinquents as “sauvageons” (savages). Interestingly, Chevènement had a small measure of cross-party appeal to the Right.

  2. Hmm. Chev is much less liberal and pro-European, though. Frankly I find it hard to get a cigarette paper between him and the Gaullists.

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