Once the US had elected Barack Obama-with unanimous approval by the French, or so it seemed after months of preoccupation with the campaign-attention here turned to the second best political story. And that was the Socialist Party’s full frontal confirmation that its factions oppose one another with more energy and determination than they do Nicolas Sarkozy and his government.

The PS (Parti Socialiste) is “in crumbs”, wrote Le Point after the Socialists’ contentious assembly at Reims at which they favored (just barely) Ségolène Royal’s platform for the party’s future but elected (just barely) Martine Aubry as the party’s leader. The tandem votes were anything but a compromise that might pave the way to party unity.

Patrick Devedjian, who until recently headed Sarkozy’s center-right party, the UMP (Union for a Popular Majority), expressed apprehension that the Socialist Party was on the verge of implosion, which would be bad for democracy. The French concept of alternance depends on the viability of the party out of power and on the criticism and ideas that a united loyal opposition can bring.

Devedjian’s statement was no doubt a partisan one, intended to underscore the divisions in Sarkozy’s opposition, not to deplore them. But the party’s parlous state is regrettable. Its preoccupation with its internal divisions and near silence on the global financial crisis suggest unreasonably misdirected energy. (Devedjian, meanwhile, has been named to a new cabinet post charged with economic revival.)

Protestant churchmen in the American South used to talk, and maybe still do, about a “swarming” when a congregation split apart, with one group of the faithful following a theological conviction out the door and into a new hive. There’s a lot of buzzing among France’s Socialists at the moment. And clearly there are two queens.

For example, after the rejection at Reims, Ségolène Royal first sent word through her lieutenants that she would welcome a role in the new national committee that Martine Aubry would form as a first order of business. Aubry responded that of course the Royalists would be welcome. But it didn’t work out that way-Royal subsequently said that the “appropriate elements were not in place” for her to have a seat at that particular table. I was reminded of one particular panel in that charming Petit Nicolas parody of the French political situation published last spring in which la petite Ségolène takes her toys and leaves the playground when she doesn’t get her own way.

Michel Rocard, former prime minister and one of the party’s seigneurs, in an interview with the news channel France 24, spoke of the fractious history of the party since its founding more than a century ago as inevitably consigning it to a fractious future.

Maybe it’s history, or maybe it’s ideology. Whereas the goal of political parties elsewhere is, traditionally, to win office, the goal of French parties is to assert a particular ideology. Think not of Barack Obama disappointing Democratic ideologues as he filled his cabinet with pragmatists. Think rather of America’s vociferous Christian Right rejecting any candidate who does not pledge to reverse Roe v. Wade.

And then again, in this case maybe it’s neither history nor ideology, but just the cult of personality. That seems to have been what the contest at Reims was finally about- personality, not policy. As Aubry, Royal, the Paris mayor Bertrand Delanoë and two other candidates competed to be elected first secretary, their platforms talked of the immensity of the task the party faces. But beyond the noble statements of purpose, their comportment made it clear that a big chunk of that enormity lay in knocking all the other competitors out of the ring.

Though Ségolène Royal wasn’t chosen first secretary, she has consistently been the most effective in cultivating her own powerful mystique and using that to rally supporters. Her message is a sort of “let’s love one another” mantra, and her delivery can seem borrowed from American-style televangelism. Martine Aubry’s personality is much less New Age. Elected head of the party by a very narrow majority that was assembled from her own supporters and other anti-Royal factions, Madame Aubry now faces what is likely to be a long Royal insurgency. Though she has pledged to unify the party, it’s hard  to see how she might pull that off. It is a given that the party is in shards. It is apparent that Ségolène Royal is a proven vote getter. And it is often pointed out that Madame Aubry is doctrinaire and authoritarian. She talks of the strengths of a more centrist social democracy, but she will be under pressure to reorient the PS firmly on its leftist base.

The international financial meltdown contributes powerfully to that pressure. The United States is blamed, both for the specific origins of the crisis (justifiable) and for imposing on the whole world a rampant, unregulated capitalism (arguable). America-bashing might be the one unifying policy among the Socialists but it won’t end the disarray. That’s going to require comity, and the right leadership.

During Ségolène Royal’s campaign against Sarkozy in 2007, it was common to compare her to Hillary Clinton-two powerful and ambitious women wanting to be president of their respective republics. But the comparison that I thought a better match is between Hillary and Martine Aubry. Clinton was attempting to rewrite America’s health care laws at the same time that Aubry was strong-arming the 35-hour workweek onto the books. Both were regarded as not just tough but uncompromising.

Clinton’s manner was tempered, first by the repudiation of her health care experiment and again by having to win a Senate seat from New York State’s demanding electorate. But if Madame Aubry has mellowed the news hasn’t spread beyond Lille, the northern city where she is mayor. In that persistently Leftist redoubt, she still has a reputation for brutality in her political confrontations.

Such comparisons are obviously invidious, since they are between apples and pomegranates. But the French preoccupation with American political personalities invites me to renew my own initial conviction-there’s more of the old Hillary’s doctrinaire authoritarianism in Madame Aubry than there is in Ségolène Royal. And neither of the feuding Socialist leaders shares Barack Obama’s “bring them together” pragmatism.

In current shorthand the primary motivation of the coalition that put Aubry in office was “TSS”-tout sauf Ségolène. Meaning anybody but Royal as the party’s candidate against Sarkozy in the 2012 presidential race. If that is still the primary goal of the Aubry faction, rather than party unity, it will be as hard to achieve as pulling the party together. As Royal finally bowed out, after threatening legal action over Aubry’s squeak-in election at Reims, she made it clear that she wasn’t beaten. “We will fight on,” she said. “2012-that’s tomorrow.”

But in fact three-plus years is a very long time in politics anywhere. In the French practice of the art it is unknown for an obscure candidate with no national identity to ride in from some distant province, as Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton once did, and totally captivate the electorate. Royal has an undeniable national identity and her supporters are committed. Other Socialist leaders may detest her, but none appear strong enough to keep her from getting the party’s nod in 2012.

Could she beat Sarkozy the second time out? As of now, my bet would be no.

One of the reasons is that, despite all his objectionable personal characteristics, Sarkozy is seen as managing well in thefinancial crisis. He has teamed up with Gordon Brown of the UK both to set an example for the US and to pressure Angela Merkel of Germany to match the efforts of Britain and France. Sarkozy has described his own actions as quick and his strategy as forceful. No one has said otherwise. And the Socialists have barely commented on the larger crisis at all.

 

Originally published in the January 2008 issue of France Today.

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