Monday, 17 November 2008

Socialist soap opera

Say what you will about it, but you can't say that French politics is boring. Just as the country is in the midst of speculating which government official is responsible for the unmarried Minister of Justice Rachida Dati's pregnancy, the Socialist Party conference this weekend exploded with a cacophony of backstabbing, intrigue and humiliation involving jilted lovers and feuding siblings. It was, as one French friend amusingly put it, "quite the shit show."

The party conference, similar to a party convention in the US, was supposed to signal the return of a strong and confident Socialist Party that would be capable of challenging French president Nicolas Sarkozy in 2012. The reality was anything but. Though it took place in Reims, the capital of France's tranquil Champagne region, there was little celebrating going on for the main party of the French left. The intention was select a new leader for the party now that François Hollande (above left) is stepping down after 11 years. Of course "leader" is a subjective term here, it would probably be more accurate to say he held the party together as it teetered on the brink of collapse for the past decade.

Bertrand Delanoe, the openly gay mayor of Paris, was supposed to be the front-runner going in, the clear establishment favourite. But as the party voted ahead of the conference last week on each candidate's proposals, a major upset occurred. Delanoe's proposal received only 25 percent of the vote, and shockingly, guess who emerged out of the darkness to claim first place? None other than our old friend Ségolène Royal, who was the Socialists' unsuccessful presidential candidate against Sarkozy in 2007. She garnered 30 percent of the vote. With no clear majority allowing the party to select a leader this weekend, the rank-and-file must now vote on Thursday to select one.

The result was surprising for many reasons. As the person who lost the last presidential election for the Socialists (the third election in a row they've lost in the past 15 years), Royal's perceived "lack of substance" had angered many in the Socialist party elite. After the election she has dramatically alienated herself from the party's leaders, going rogue with a populist, moderate message and even proposing that the party merge with the centrist Democratic Movement. And to add a personal element to all of this, following the election she had a very public split with her life partner of many years, none other than the current leader of the party Francois Hollande (seen together in the photo above). Hollande and Royal have children together and had a reportedly acrimonious split. Hollande, along with the rest of the party elite, was backing Delanoe instead of his former partner who has gone rogue.

After his humiliating poll loss Delanoe bowed out of the leadership contest. So now the race is between two women who appear to absolutely despise each other, Ségolène Royal and Martine Aubry. The contrast between the two women couldn't be more stark. Royal is a charismatic and moderate leadership figure who was dubbed "Madonna" during the presidential campaign for her fashionable attire and attractive appearance. Aubery, the mayor of Lille, is a loyal foot soldier of the trade unionists, a gruff no-nonsense woman who was the mastermind behind the 35-hour workweek. The barbs exchanged between the two women and their backers during the conference were intense. Royal's enemies have formed an "Anyone but Segolene" coalition to make sure she doesn't win.

There is a third person in the running who could pull off a surprise upset. Benoit Hamon. an MEP (member of the European Parliament) from a working-class family in Brittany, got a strong 19 percent. At 41, Hamon is a representative of the younger generation and is the freshest face available among the candidates. But he is also a far-left ideologue, uncompromisingly and aggressively socialist. Many believe that this is exactly what the party needs after the failure of Royal's moderate, watered-down platform in 2007. If Hamon is selected on Thursday it would be a real shock to the system, as he is completely outside the inner circle of the Socialist elite. He's so new that his English wikipedia entry only has one paragraph!

The Challenge Ahead

Whoever does win the leadership contest will face a daunting task: rescuing a party which has almost completely lost legitimacy and relevance with the French public. France's socialists have watched helplessly as a situation which should have given more credence to their political philosophy - the global collapse of the free-market economic system - has instead benefited their conservative rival Sarkozy. Even as the socialists were holding their conference this weekend Sarko was in Washington using so many of their slogans and ideas. The president is considering the partial nationalization of banks, promising subsidized jobs and proclaiming ambitious plans to "reshape capitalism" through such proposals as a global regulatory agency. Though Sarkozy was swept into office with a message of free-market liberal reforms, now that the global economic crisis has hit he has instead become a world champion of increased government involvement in the financial system.

So where does this leave the Socialists? In effect, it makes them almost completely irrelevant. Stuck between the far left and the moderate center, the party still can't decide in which direction to go. It seems unlikely that the selection of either of the two women who are the main leadership contenders will resolve the issue, as each woman comes with a cadre of enemies with the knives already out. It's possible that the selection of Hamon could be such a shock to the system that it could force the party into such a state of shock that the construction of a coherent message would possible. But that message could end up being so far to the left that it is unpalatable to the majority of the French public, or inconsistent with the realities of the 21st century. With so many rifts within the party, it is by no means certain that it could survive such a shock.

It will be interesting to see what news Thursday brings.

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