France: Red Rose, Blue Grip

France: Red Rose, Blue Grip

Paris: Last year an American socialist on a long stay in France ambled almost daily past the Socialist Party (PS) headquarters of Paris’s fourth arrondissement. He thought to stop in. “What are local Socialist politics like?” he wondered. After all, he came from the United States, where, unlike France, avowed socialists rarely come close to winning elections.

But there was a problem. The PS office was always closed.

Finally, he saw a notice indicating when it was open—one day a week for a half hour. This was a time of massive demonstrations against labor legislation proposed by the conservative government of President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin. The PS is the major opposition party, thousands of new members joined it during the protests, yet it never seemed to situate itself in this broad opposition movement. A year later, Nicolas Sarkozy, of the conservative Union for a Popular Majority (UMP), defeated Socialist Ségolène Royal in presidential elections by 53 percent to 47 percent.

It is unlikely that any other PS candidate would have done better. Royal had to put up with a certain amount of sexism in her own party. Indeed, one could accuse the PS old guard of having taken liberties when it came to equality on behalf of a fraternity. “Who will mind the children?” asked Laurent Fabius targeting also François Hollande, the party’s head, Royal’s (now ex-) companion, and father of her children. Fabius’s own trajectory is indicative of more general PS woes. He positions himself as a leader of the party’s left. Yet, as prime minister in the 1980s, he steered away from left economics at the behest of Socialist President François Mitterrand (in what might be viewed as a Gallic anticipation of Blairism). In 2005, he campaigned against the proposed European Constitution in a PS internal referendum, but promptly disregarded his own party membership, which voted “Yes.” He campaigned for “No” in the national referendum. Then PS voters said “No,” too, pointing to a gap between its broader electorate and actual members.

Still, thousands of young people filled the streets near the PS national headquarters on Paris’s rue de Solferino waiting for the final tally of the presidential election. Red balloons with the PS symbol—a fist gripping a red rose—were in the air. Activists wore T-shirts that said “Fiers d’être Socialiste” (Proud to be Socialist). When the disappointing results came in, they chanted “Merci, Ségolène!” This was obviously the first campaign for many of them. Americans who worked in Eugene McCarthy’s challenge to Lyndon Johnson in 1968 would have found the atmosphere familiar. Sixty-three percent of voters aged eighteen to twenty-four cast ballots for Royal, although only 46 percent of all women did.

Complicating the Picture
The left rebounded in elections for the National Assembly in June. Despite most predi...

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