Saturday, October 29, 2011

The French Socialist Party is in many ways the most archaic in Europe

The French like to think they are better than other Europeans at resisting Americanization
writes Christine Ockrent in the International Herald Tribune as she discusses France's main opposition party.
So don’t tell the Socialists they have given in, first by holding France’s first-ever party primaries, and second by embracing the mantra of their newly anointed champion, François Hollande, about reviving the “French Dream.” In contrast to the American Dream (whatever has happened to it), we’ve not heard much about a French one. In France individualism and self-improvement are supposed to be sacrificed for the common good on the altar of “la République.”

In any case, Hollande has every right to savor a personal victory few people bet on last summer, and to hear the change in the way people talk of him. Gone is the unfocused, indecisive, inexperienced party bureaucrat. The 57-year-old member of the National Assembly from central France is now hailed as “a true statesman” by former Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, who never gave him a government post. To some of his former rivals, now eager to gather under his banner, Hollande is a “born leader,” a pragmatist clever enough to bury the ideological party platform they prepared in deference to the imperatives of the current crisis.

Europe has a long tradition of alternating conservative and left-wing governments. France has been doing that since the 1980s, which makes it more difficult for either side to blame the other for a huge increase in the national debt or unemployment.

Still, the French Socialist Party is in many ways the most archaic in Europe — riddled with Marxist-tainted platitudes, reluctant to adjust to the more mainstream social-democrat stance adopted long ago in Britain and elsewhere on the Continent. So it is worth noting that Hollande’s team now calls him “a true social-democrat” — something that not long ago was almost an insult in the official party lexicon.

This stance explains in part his victory over the official party leader, Martine Aubry, the mayor of Lille and a member of governments under François Mitterrand and Jospin. Hard working, stubborn, possessed of an acid tongue, but warm with the few she trusts, the woman who implemented the 35-hour work week is the daughter of Jacques Delors, the former president of the European Commission who opted out of the French presidential contest in 1995, to the despair of the pragmatic left. Hollande, clever, agile and humorous, has long posed as the political heir to Delors — the spiritual son against the true daughter.

Hollande and Aubry have always disliked each other intensely. Their fight for the nomination was both brutal and constrained — Aubry more on the left, doctrinaire side of the party, Hollande more to the center, smooth, cautious, conciliatory, calling constantly for party unity.

His campaign for the primaries was a good indication of the course he will follow to try to reach the Elysée Palace. Thinner than before, his hair dyed dark, with custom-tailored suits and new spectacles, Hollande imitates Mitterrand, copying his gestures, even his rhetoric, as if to revive memories of gentler economic and social conditions. From the start, he has been pleading for a “normal” presidency, far from Nicolas Sarkozy’s frenzied and chaotic performance. He thus appeals to a kind of French conservatism which has more to do with style than politics, a longing to be comforted rather than challenged.

The socialist candidate seems to have caught the mood of a nation more anxious than most about globalization, torn between universalism and provincialism, plagued with economic frailties that no government has been brave enough to confront. Even if their country is not the worst off in Europe, opinion surveys show that the French are the most pessimistic about the future, and consume the most anti-depressants.

What will be Hollande’s platform? To win the primaries, he never went far from his party’s mantra — create jobs without increasing public debt, foster economic growth, take money from the rich and regulate the banks, retire at 60 as if there were no demographic and financial constraints (although he was more cautious on that score than his competitors). But the gravity of the economic crisis is bound to have a sobering effect on the campaign. Hollande is a pragmatist. That is why he is such a dangerous adversary for Sarkozy, who will have to be making difficult decisions right up to the spring election.

The conservatives at first sneered at the Socialist primaries, then quarrelled over the need to do the same. In the end, Sarkozy has let the opposition monopolize the discussion, and blame the crisis all on him. In the meantime, scandals have stained his entourage; his party leaders keep bickering; his rating in public opinion polls is lower than ever, and he appears to have been rejected by many of those he seduced four years ago, including traditional conservatives.

Were the election held today, polls show that Hollande would win by a 10 percent margin — and that’s without a clear program. There are still six months to go. Sarkozy is a formidable campaigner, but he has a difficult uphill battle to fight.