Battle Royal

A long time ago, in a year already far away, some commenters were mentionning a recent poll showing that Ségolène Royal was now leading the race to become the socialist party nominee for the 2007 French presidential election. One salient finding of the poll was that she was supported by a plurality of both French voters (36%) and socialist sympathizers (48%).

At this point, even casual observers of the French political scene would to tempted to ask : just who the hell is this Ségolène Royal I have never heard of? Well, I’m glad you asked and I was preparing to bore you with a clumsily written and long-winded summary about the race for the Socialist party nomination and Ms Royal’s short but happy political carreer. But I’ve just found that Doug Ireland has already done it, albeit in a clear way, complete with color pictures, snarky criticism of the French press and the inevitable comparison to Hillary Clinton. So go read him and come back if you really want to know my opinion about Segolène Royal’s chances.

To make a long story short : I just don’t believe that she has any chance of winning the party’s nomination. As Doug mentions, the 130 000 or so card-carrying members of the French socialist party will vote late this year or early next year to decide who will be their candidate in 2007. Such a process is bound to favor party heavyweights (the so-called “éléphants“, in French political jargon) who have built extensive support networks among local members over popular but organisationnaly weak candidates such as Ms Royal.

This was well demonstrated in the 1995 socialist “primary”, when the leader in the polls, former Culture minister Jack Lang, had to drop out of the race due to a lack of support inside the party. Lionel Jospin, who had been a longtime party chairman (from 1981 to 1988) was eventually chosen as the socialist candidate. I don’t think things have changed since 1995 in this regard. As a fellow French blogger noted a few weeks ago, the buzz about Ségolène Royal mirrors that about Wesley Clark in September 2003. In both cases, the prospect of a fight between a batch of unspiring establishment candidates has led the media and the voters to believe that an untested but popular outsider could rescue a party in disarray.

At least Ségolène Royal is more politcally experienced than Wesley Clark. On the other hand, she will have a hard time selling her socially conservative ideas to the party grassroots. Maybe she will surprise the skeptics and prove that she can survive the media limelight and a bruising intraparty fight. But, for the moment, I think that this is still a three-way race between Laurent Fabius, Dominique Strauss-Kahn and François Hollande. And maybe (though I don’t believe it) Lionel Jospin as the “homme providentiel” of the French left if all else fails.

Ok, this where I sign off, my two weeks stint being ‘more than) over. A big thank you to David for his invitation, and to all the Afoe community for its warm welcome and for some productive, if occasionaly heated, discussions. And if you read French, and crave for some half-baked political and economic analysis mainly about France and the U.S., you know you can find me at Ceteris Paribus.

8 thoughts on “Battle Royal

  1. Much appreciation for that illuminating brief from the home front in France. It is more than difficult for remote British observers of France’s politics to comprehend what is going on because of divergent national political cultures. Better understanding is sorely needed.

    Recent press commentary on education issues in Britain has been making the entirely valid point that interest in European history in Britain tends obsessively focus on the Third Reich, at least partly because that is so often the preferred option for school history examination courses here.

    Predictably, some deplore the preference over a period in British history but when one is chosen it is most often the Tudor period 1485-1603, admittedly a period that did much to influence events in following centuries but one that does little to illuminate 20th century issues in Britain or elsewhere.

    There are, of course, perennial cautionary lessons to be learned about the Third Reich but the preoccupation is distorting. In the run up to the German elections last year, I sought out books on modern government and politics in Germany from my (well-reputed) local reference library.

    With the help of a librarian, I easily found dozens of books on the Third Reich but only one on contemporary Germany, a thoroughly respectable university text but not exactly popular reading. I later discovered much the same problem with the library’s resources on French history – dozens of books on the French revolution and the Napoleonic wars but little on government and politics in France today.

    If that is so with nations of the size and international standing of France and Germany in Europe, consider the challenges of trying to better understand the present politics and government of, say, Belgium or the Netherlands.

  2. Bob, you raise some very good points. I still agonize over my secondary school education where modern European society was all but neglected.

    Furthermore, teaching about Egypt, for instance, was all about the pyramids…

    That is why I am so happy that Emmanuel agreed to guest post (a big thank you, Emmanuel!) and that AFOE is trying their best to cover the huge ground of overall Europe, as exemplified by my kindly invited presence here and that of other non-anglophone AFOE-members.

  3. I’m likewise happy to be educated on this.
    Any views on the chances of the eventual socialist candidate winning the presidency?
    The riot-related cultural agenda apparently favours the right (viz Sego’s tactical Hillarylike hardline, as reported by Doug). What countervailing issues would play well for the socialists, and who’s best placed to put them across to voters?

  4. Bert : “Any views on the chances of the eventual socialist candidate winning the presidency?”

    Not that bad, actually. The situation seems pretty hopeless now since there isn’t any clear frontrunner on the socialist side, whereas the current majority has two (Villepin and Sarkozy). But the right-wing governement still faces massive disaproval of its economic and social policy. A recent poll showed that the famed Gene Eric socialist candidate was still favored by voters against both Villepin and Sarkozy.

    “The riot-related cultural agenda apparently favours the right (viz Sego’s tactical Hillarylike hardline, as reported by Doug).”

    Absolutely. The right won in 2002 on a “law and order” campaign, and will try to do the same in 2007. They don’t have much choice, considering their pretty dismal economic and social record. As in the U.S. for terrorism, the dilemma for socialists is whether to try to neutralize the topic by shifting rightwards and changing the subject to social and economic policies or to try to hit back on civil liberties, at the risk of being labelled “soft on crime”.

    “What countervailing issues would play well for the socialists, and who’s best placed to put them across to voters?”

    An excellent question. A big problem in this regard is the first-round/second-round format of the French presidential election, compounded with the shrinking of the socialist core electoral base since the 1980s. Jospin tried to appeal to the center for the first-round in 2002, and didn’t make it to the second, a lot of “natural” supporters preferring to vote for leftist candidates instead. Presumably, the socialist candidate will then have to appeal to the left on the first-round and then move to the center for the runoff. That’s a very hard trick to pull.

    Presumably, the socialist candidate will thunder against the neoliberal economic policies of the government, and the danger of an Americanization of French society under a Sarkozy presidency. That’s the easy part. The real challenge will be to offer a compelling vision of what France could be like under a socialist government.

  5. I guess the refinement of the themes for the socialist campaign will also depend on whether Villepin or Sarkozy is the conservative candidate. The strategy you outline in your final paragraph targets Sarkozy (or the self-created caricature Sarko) more effectively than the more familiarly Fifth Republic figure of de Villepin.

    I’m interested that you put Fabius in your top three, and wonder if broadening the onslaught against neoliberalism to include the EU might provide the socialists with a distinctive populist message. A high-risk approach, that could backfire horribly (continuing the US analogy game, how about Howard Dean?).
    Last time out the PS was deserted by first-round voters attracted to the anti-establishment alternatives. I have a bad feeling that the Fabius faction may convert a large following with this line of reasoning, with bad results for France’s role in Europe. Does this sound plausible?

  6. I am going to bring some contradiction about the chances of Ségolène winning the candidacy.

    I believe it is necessary to remember that it is extremely probable that the cadidate will be designated by PS militants. If only for this reason, neither Fabius nor Lang are credible cadidates to cadidacy (to answer bert question more precisely, Fabius’ support within the party is way to weak for him to hope winning the candidacy). More precisely, the “motion A” (the current dominant position within the PS, that of Hollande, Royal, Strauss-Kahn, Lang…) seems to be able to win the cadidacy race even against a challenger representing both “fabiusian” tendancies and NPS (Nouveau Parti Socialiste). However, should the motion A present two cadidates, then it is possible (though not sure) that a sole alternate candidate could win the candidacy. I believe the motion A is able to think that through for itself. So I believe it will strive to choose one champion.

    Who will this champion be? In my opinion, Strauss-Kahn or Royal are the only choices. I believe (or maybe I hope) Hollande knows he is not charismatic enough. It seems to me possible that Hollande will use his influence on federations to promote the candidacy of his wife and offering prime minister status to Strauss-Kahn in exchange of him stepping down of the presidential race. I even think that Hollande can engineer the support of Fabius himself by offering him an important position in the possible future government (I would bet on Travail Affaires sociales).

    As an aside, I personnaly believe that should the motion A have two candidates (say DSK and Royal), one of them could still win against Fabius.

  7. “To make a long story short : I just don’t believe that she has any chance of winning the party’s nomination……Such a process is bound to favor party heavyweights (the so-called “éléphants”, in French political jargon)”

    I think we need to be just a little careful here. In principle you are, of course, right. But when the elephants fight, and there is no clear victor, then the mouse has a chance :).

    If you look at recent changes on the European left: Blair in the UK and Zapatero in Spain, these changes have definitely come from outside the party machine.

    Cameron-o-mania in the UK may also have an influence: do we want to win this election, or do we simply want to see our candidate in the ring so that *they* can be the one to receive the KO. Also there is the female vote factor. Whatever happened to Aubry Delors?

    No. I wouldn’t call this one over till it’s over.

  8. Bert : “The strategy you outline in your final paragraph targets Sarkozy (or the self-created caricature Sarko) more effectively than the more familiarly Fifth Republic figure of de Villepin.”

    Actually, I can’t see any reasonable scenario in which Sarkozy isn’t there for at least the first round. So running on an anti-Sarkozy platform seems to make sense no matter what.

    As for Fabius, I did mention him since he has clearly a important and organized following inside the socialist party. That said, I don’t see his chances of being nominated very high : the radical wing of the party still distrust him and the social-democratic wing now hates him more than ever. Another big differences with Howard Dean is that only card-carrying members of the PS will vote. His only chance, IMHO, would be to profit from a split between “motion 1″ candidates. And even in that case, there still would be a second-round…

    W : I agree for Fabius, though I have a hard time imagining any candidate being able to represent both the NPS and the Fabiusan supporters. Too much bad blood here. Ain’t gonna happen.

    Holande is an enigma. Clearly uncharismatic but electorally very successful. I won’t count him out yet, though I won’t be enthused if he were to be the socialist candidate. I think that DSK has indeed the best chances. But I’m biased, here…

    Edward : you’re right. And I’ve been wrong so many times in the past to caution people against taking my predictions too seriously…

    Aubry is still one of the perennial plausible candidate but few, if any, think she will run for the candidacy. Her defeat in a 2002 legislative election has badly damaged her political career and her popularity has been hit (quite unfairly, I’d say, but that’s another debate) by her association with the 35-hours workweek law.