The Royal Road to Irrelevance

The ‘French Hillary’ is squandering the Socialists’ presidential hopes

Doug Ireland

French Socialist Party presidential candidate Séloléne Royal visits the Forbidden City in Beijing on Jan. 7.

Voting in France’s two-stage presidential elections begins on April 22 – and the question is, has the Socialist Party, leader of the parliamentary opposition, learned anything from its past mistakes?

The Socialists’ candidate, Ségolène Royal, is the first woman ever nominated by a major party and is often called in the press the French Hillary.” (It’s not meant as a compliment.) A fervent admirer of Tony Blair and his Third Way,” Royal built her candidacy on family values” and a hard line on law-and-order, proposing, for example, that juvenile delinquents be turned over to the military for re-education.”

She faces a formidable opponent: right-wing candidate Nicolas Sarkozy, boss of the conservative UMP party founded by incumbent President Jacques Chirac. A skilled demagogue and master media manipulator who benefits from the favor of the conservative media barons, Sarkozy is a tough, law-and-order interior minister who spear-headed a crackdown on France’s Arab and black immigrants, deporting them wholesale. His borderline racist comments helped fan the flames of the suburban ghetto riots that set France ablaze in the fall of 2005.

The background to this year’s campaign includes two stinging defeats for the Socialists. In the last presidential election in 2002, the Socialist candidate, Prime Minister Lionel Jospin – who governed as a lackluster technocrat and notably opened his campaign by declaring that his was not a socialist program” – was defeated for a place in the runoff against Chirac by neo-fascist Jean-Marie Le Pen. Disillusioned Socialist voters protested against Jospin’s tepid governance by voting for several small Trotskyist parties of the extreme left, which together racked up 10.4 percent of the vote, clearing the way for Le Pen.

Then, in May 2005, the Socialists suffered another slap in the face in the referendum on a proposed European Constitution. The party’s leaders lobbied in favor of the EuroConstitution, but voters – including a 10-point majority of the Socialists’ electorate, two-thirds of salaried employees and three-quarters of the working class – rejected the document as a blueprint for control by multinational corporations. Ségolène Royal and her domestic partner and the father of her four children, Socialist Party boss François Hollande, both supported the EuroConstitution. Hollande went so far as to pose for a photograph with Sarkozy for the cover of Paris Match urging a Yes vote.

There are several reasons why Royal won designation as the Socialist candidate this year, in a vote of the dues-paying party membership (a majority of whom are government bureaucrats or teachers). First, the party initiated a well-advertised join-by-Internet program that brought thousands of new members, mostly yuppies with only the vaguest of socialist commitments, into the party.

Second, as the first credible female presidential candidate she got the kind of massive and uncritical media coverage most candidates can only dream of – for example, France’s largest newsweekly, the mildly-left Nouvel Observateur, ran a series of puff-piece cover stories on Royal. This catapulted her in the opinion polls to near equality with Sarkozy – and, after the 2002 debacle, the Socialists wanted a candidate who looked like a winner.

Third, Royal’s opponents for the nomination were two tired, damaged and all-too-familiar party Elephants” (as the Socialists’ Old Guard is known). One of them was Laurent Fabius, an aging dandy who had been France’s youngest-ever prime minister under Socialist President François Mitterrand in the 80s. Because he had implemented Mitterrand’s capitalist economics, sweeping denationalizations, and a severe austerity program back in the day, Fabius lacks credibility despite having been elected to leader of the party’s left two years ago. 

Royal’s other rival was Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the Jospin government’s minister of finance and leader of the party’s right wing, who had been chased from office after his indictment in corruption scandals (although he was later acquitted). Compared to these two Elephants,” Royal was a fresh face.

Fourth, her domestic partner, Hollande, who controls the party’s apparatus with a firm hand, helped her corral the support of the powerful local bosses of the regional Socialist Party federations. (Indeed, Royal’s campaign for the nomination was marked by accusations of the stuffing of membership rolls, vote fraud and other unsavory manipulations on the part of these local bosses.) 

But since her nomination, Royal’s campaign has been plagued by a multitude of troubles. On many issues she has taken no position at all, endlessly repeating her slogan, My position is the position of the French people.” While a member of parliament since 1988, she lacks any foreign policy experience, which has led to a number of very public gaffes. She made an ill-advised trip to China – with its itinerary entirely planned and paid for by the Beijing government – on which she conspicuously failed to raise the question of human rights (while earning additional derision for repeatedly inventing non-existent Chinese proverbs before the TV cameras). She made an equally publicized trip to Israel, during which she endorsed the Wall of Shame that fences off Palestinians, thus alienating the considerable Franco-Arab vote.

In addition, her elitist campaign – Royal has insisted that her campaign headquarters’ switchboard phone number remain unlisted – has been an organizational disaster. Run by her hand-picked cronies and flayed with charges of amateurism from party leaders who felt excluded, her campaign treasury was so depleted by early misspending that little money was left for campaign literature and posters – the staples of French election campaigns.

Royal tried to jump-start her uninspiring, centrist campaign by unveiling a nationally televised Presidential Pact,” a grab-bag of vague rhetoric (the ghettos went unmentioned, and she marked her pro-capitalist bias by proclaiming, We must reconcile the French with business”) and expensive promises that tap-danced slightly to her left. But it was worse then a dud – a week after its announcement, …ric Besson, who had been in charge of figuring out how much the Presidential Pact’s promises would cost and how to pay for them, very publicly resigned. France’s national treasury is groaning under a crushing national debt. Besson had refused to cook the books to make Royal’s program sound cheaper.

As a result of all this, with Royal either stagnant or declining in opinion polls, by early March even the pro-Royal Nouvel Observateur was reporting that panic has taken hold of the Socialist Party’s elected officials,” and that, without a total overhaul of her campaign, her failure is assured.” Royal subsequently announced a renewal” of her campaign that brought Fabius and Strauss-Kahn on board in more public roles, but the campaign apparatus and strategy changed little. Sarkozy now leads her in a head-to-head match-up by between 6 and 8 percent in the polls.

There is even the possibility of a replay of 2002, with the Socialist candidate being shut out of the runoff – not by Le Pen, but by the centrist François Bayrou. Leader of the small UDF party founded in the 70s by President Valéry Giscard-d’Estaing, Bayrou didn’t even garner 7 percent in the 2002 elections. But in recent weeks his campaign rejecting the failed traditional cleavage of left-right” has brought him a rapid rise in the polls tripling that figure, bringing him within striking distance of Royal. One poll showed them dead even as In These Times went to press. Bayrou, an attractive TV presence, has been courting the left electorate, even saying he would appoint someone from the left as his prime minister (most likely, Dominique Strauss-Kahn). A leader of the Socialists’ left wing, Senator Jean-Luc Mélenchon, has issued a public cry of alarm, saying that Bayrou’s powerful rise in the polls threatens to turn the political landscape upside-down.” Indeed, the polls show Bayrou beating Sarkozy by as much as 10 points in a runoff, while Royal loses to him. And the more the left electorate – which fears and loathes Sarkozy – becomes convinced that Bayrou, not Royal, is more likely to beat him, the more they will continue to desert to the centrist candidate.

The same polls also show that only between 32 and 36 percent of voters are now saying they intend to vote for a left candidate in the first round of voting – the lowest level since 1969, when the left was eliminated from a runoff between President Georges Pompidou and the centrist Alain Poher. The tiny Trotskyist parties of the extreme left – along with the independent, anti-globalization and environmental leader candidate José Bové; Green Party candidate Dominique Voynet; and the Communists’ Marie-George Buffet – are all stuck this year at around 2 percent or less. This means, as Le Monde puts it, that the conundrum which now perturbs the Socialist leadership is: how to simultaneously rally all of the reduced left electorate (including voters for the left-of-the-left parties) while at the same time appealing to the voters attracted by the centrist, and have enough votes in reserve for Royal to win the run-off” – assuming, of course, that she is even in it. That simultaneous appeal to the radical left and the center will be difficult for Royal to pull off. And even the Socialists’ resident polling expert, Gerald Gall, has warned party leaders that there’s a real possibility Royal could be knocked out of the run-off by Bayrou.

There are large unknowns – 40 percent of those polled say they still haven’t decided whom they’ll vote for. As for Le Pen, who is between 13 and 15 percent in the polls, opinion surveys have traditionally underestimated his vote, since many are reluctant to say they’ll vote for an openly racist candidate. So the final outcome of France’s presidential election is, at this point, unpredictable. It will be an interesting race to watch.

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Doug Ireland has been writing about power, politics and the media since 1977. A former columnist for the Village Voice, the New York Observer and the Paris daily Libération, among others, his articles have appeared everywhere from The Nation to Vanity Fair to POZ. Hes a contributing editor of In These Times. He can be reached through his blog, DIRELAND.
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