John West - Labour supporter and journalist

Currently living in Paris, I'm a Labour member, activist and freelance journalist. I'll be writing mostly about missed opportunities, as I see them, and the necessity to rebuild Labour as a cohesive movement. We mustn't lose sight of reality, but we should sometimes challenge it.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Parti Socialiste: an outsider's observations

Today, members of the French Parti Socialiste (PS) vote in their regional wards for the motion they want to act as the guiding document in their run-up to the presidential election of 2007. This vote will be reflected in the party conference, to be held in Le Mans 18-20 November 2005.

For the benefit of those not utterly familiar with the party, its general secretary (the closest thing they have to a leader) is Francois Hollande, who is an uncharasmatic but trustworthy and intelligent socialist. His former deputy, Laurent Fabius (also a former prime minister of France) was thrown of the PS' leading council for advocating a "no" vote in the campaign for the EU Constitution (the PS backed a "yes"). Both are advocating different motions with very different strategic approaches, but the current political climate and the poisonous division created by the "yes/no" split has hampered meaningful debate.

Seeking to unite the left in the wake of the Jospin debacle of 2002, and thus avoid not having a candidate in the final two, Fabius' motion calls for the selection of the PS candidate by something resembling primaries. This would be of great benefit to him in his desire to be the presidential candidate as this would give the other left and far left groups with whom he campaigned against the constitution some say in the matter. The problem for many socialists is that, in reality, Fabius' track record makes it hard to believe he is really at home with his new friends on the left (he's no rightist, but he has been seen as more right than Hollande in the past) and his conversion looks mightily opportunistic, as did his "no" campaigning.

Hollande's motion is a robust statement of belief and policy, and talks grandly of reuniting the left, but has no strategic innovation to speak of. And here lies the problem...

In effect, the EU division in the left is a smokescreen for various vested interests. In reality, little differs the rhetoric of the two groups: both want a strong Europe that safeguards certain social standards. With the exception of a tiny minority of extremely fruity nutters, all they really disagreed about was what the effect of an extremely vague and rambling document, as the proposed constitution was, would be. Some thought it would destroy the social aspect of Europe, others that it would defend a base level. This is a reason to vote yay or nay, but it is a strategic question, not an ideological one. Both groups would almost certainly agree on a constitution explicitly to their liking in five seconds flat.

But it has been in the interests of certain egos to push this division as a serious fault line, and the more it gets talked about like this, the more people believe it - even if they're not quite sure why!

Why is this relevant? Because the sensible questions about strategic focus that Fabius has raised are seen as an opportunistic ploy and the prinipled policy of Hollande is caricatured as the work of a jobsworth who is still cowering from the "no" vote inflicted on his leadership by the French people. In truth, both positions are not true, but have the essential element of truth that ensure a certain credibilty - and the exasperation of the average PS activist.

This shadow of a debate has swallowed the possiblity of real debate on the substantive policy and strategy issues. It is in this sorry context that we should understand why the French left, so naturally in tune with the people of France, has been so quiet in its denunciation of the dreadful UMP government and so anonymous in the wake of recent violence.

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