Socialists disunited

For the second time in fifteen years, France’s Socialist Party has deadlocked over the election of its secretary, revealing deep division over its future direction. (See my preview from last week for the background.)

At the Rheims congress back in 2008, the position was fought out between former presidential candidate Ségolène Royal, representing the party’s social democratic wing, and the more left-wing Martine Aubry, mayor of Lille. Aubry was declared the winner with 50.04%, a margin of just 102 votes; the Royal camp claimed irregularities and never accepted Aubry’s legitimacy, paralysing the party’s operations for a year or more.

Unity of a sort was only restored in 2011, when an open primary endorsed Royal’s former partner, François Hollande, as the party’s candidate for president (after the implosion of the previous front-runner, Dominique Strauss-Kahn), beating Aubry in the runoff with 56.6%. He went on to win the presidency the following year.

But it’s been pretty much all downhill for the Socialists since then. Hollande, facing certain defeat, chose not to recontest in 2017; the party repudiated his policies and chose a left-winger, Benoît Hamon, as its candidate, but he could only manage fifth place with 6.4%. Worse was to come. Last year, with the more centrist Anne Hidalgo, the party’s vote plunged to just 1.7%, leading to its legislative alliance with the far left and the current crisis of conscience.

And now, another knife-edge vote. In the leadup to this week’s Marseille congress the runoff for the secretaryship was between incumbent Olivier Faure, proponent of the NUPES alliance, and Nicolas Mayer-Rossignol, supported by Hidalgo and other critics. Chaos ensued on Friday when both sides claimed victory by tiny margins.

Eventually, after reviewing the votes, a party committee ruled Faure the winner with 51.1%, a margin of 513 votes. (Turnout was 56.1%, only a small increase on the first round.) But Mayer-Rossignol’s supporters refused to participate in the decision, and he has denounced the result, insisting that he stood for respect for democratic process, and reserving the right to take legal action.

It’s no surprise that Le Monde headlined its editorial “The Socialist Party’s endless descent into hell,” and described it as “a crisis of governance worthy of banana republics.”

Even more remarkable is the fact that it’s not just the Socialists this keeps happening to. Their Gaullist opponents (now the Republicans, then called the UMP) had the same experience in 2012, when Jean-François Copé was declared the winner of the election for party president by just 98 votes, or 50.03% (a recount later revised that to a still wafer-thin 50.28%). His rival, François Fillon, refused to concede and eventually secured a compromise power-sharing arrangement.

Since then the Republicans have flirted with moderation, but keep gravitating back to the more hard-right line that Copé represented – most recently with the election last month of Éric Ciotti, a doctrinaire conservative, as their new president. He won with 53.7% of the vote: not in the same league of narrow margins, but still something much less than a heartfelt endorsement.

Both of the two traditional parties (it seems absurd to continue to call them “major parties”, since last April they could not reach double figures between them) have faced since 2017 the same basic problem. Tacking towards the centre risked reducing them to irrelevance as a sort of auxiliary of Emmanuel Macron; tacking away from Macron risked putting them at the mercy of the extremists on their own side, Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s LFI on the left and Marine Le Pen’s National Rally on the right.

It’s an unenviable choice, and it’s not surprising that both parties are deeply divided. But it’s the Socialists that have the more immediate problem: how far to continue down the road of a broad left alliance, and how to reconcile their own divergent answers to that question.

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