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France: Divided Opposition Socialists Seek To End Quarrels

  • Joel Blocker

France's Socialist Party, in opposition since two decisive electoral defeats in the spring, is seeking to unite its quarrelsome leadership. But RFE/RL reports that a Socialist meeting held over the past weekend was marked largely by doctrinal splits and disputes over whether former Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin was responsible for the electoral setbacks.

Paris, 3 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Its three-day so-called "Summer University" meeting this past weekend (30 August - 1 September) provided the French Socialist Party with its first opportunity for public stock-taking since its disastrous losses in the presidential race in April and the legislative elections in June.

Socialist Party (PS) First Secretary Francois Hollande called for what he called a "new departure." He warned his colleagues: "The most serious decisions are being prepared [by the ruling conservatives]: the calling into question of the 35-hour [workweek, enacted by the previous Socialist government,] and, above all, just before the new educational year begins, the reduction of funds for public education -- the calling into question of measures that we decided upon, [such as] creating new [educational] posts. [That's a] terrible image for a society: adding new security and penitentiary posts, while reducing the number of jobs for teachers and nurses."

Hollande was, perhaps understandably, exaggerating. If Jean-Pierre Raffarin's center-right government ever considered reducing France's teaching corps of close to 2 million -- most of them civil servants -- once the news was leaked to the media, it was vigorously denied by Education Minister Luc Ferry. And the modifications the Raffarin government hopes to make in the 35-hour workweek law are so small that France's chief association of employers, known as the MEDEF, complained vigorously this week that the government's proposals do not go nearly far enough to suit business leaders.

Naturally enough, Hollande sought to concentrate the meeting's criticisms on the conservatives. So did Laurent Fabius, a former prime minister who is now in effect the party's number-two man -- and a likely candidate for the 2007 presidential elections. Fabius recalled that conservative President Jacques Chirac had been called a "super-liar" because of his alleged involvement in an illegal diversion of funds while he was mayor of Paris. Now, Fabius said, "it is to be feared we have, in addition, a super-smooth talker [in Raffarin]."

Chirac and his aides have consistently denied any wrongdoing while he was Paris mayor for some 20 years. Raffarin, a former public relations executive, has been criticized by opposition spokesmen as well as some centrists for being more of a "talker" than a "doer."

Hollande and Fabius are now clearly in tandem as the Socialists' top leadership, and intend to make a tour of France's regions before the party's next congress of militants, which is scheduled for May 2003. They represent the French equivalent of liberal-minded social democrats in other European Union countries. But many militants who identify with "left Socialists" such as Henri Emmanuelli, Jean-Luc Melanchon, and Julian Dray contest the Hollande-Fabius leadership and their views.

At the "university" meeting, Emmanuelli told the press: "Sectarianism is over in the PS. Instead of waiting for the right to exhaust the French, we propose to bring the left together in moving the PS's center of gravity toward [the] left." The weekend meeting also displayed some personal quarrels among Socialist leaders. Former Socialist minister Marie-Noel Lienemann, who recently published a pamphlet criticizing both the achievements of the five-year Jospin government and the former prime minister's presidential election campaign, was booed when she took the stage.

Two of Jospin's ministers -- former Finance Minister Dominique Straus-Kahn and former Labor Minister Martine Aubry, the chief architect of the law imposing the 35-hour workweek on most businesses -- later defended him. "History will not be kind to those who built what we did in five years -- for which we have every reason to be proud -- and abandoned it in the middle of the campaign [when Lienemann made her views clear]."

"For me, loyalty and fidelity are the essential qualities of political life." Next month, all of Western Europe's socialist and social democratic parties are due to meet in London in an effort to come to grips with the reasons why many of them -- in Spain, Italy, and France, to mention only three -- have been voted out of power. For many years, Western Europe was largely "rose" in political color. Now it is, in the French term, "blue" -- that is, right or center-right.

For the French Socialists, a turn toward social democracy may be the only route back to power. But several media commentators have said it could take up to five years in opposition for the Socialist Party to resolve the battle between its doctrinaire leftists and its incipient social democrats.

Few doubt, however, that eventually, the social democrats will triumph. That is, unless the party's militants, who will make the final decision, decide to commit what Fabius, Hollande, and Straus-Kahn, among others, consider collective political suicide.