Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Incomprehension of the Socialist Party

Le Monde's editorial is correct:

Hormis leur refondateur des années 1970, François Mitterrand, les socialistes n'ont toujours pas compris la nature de l'élection présidentielle française : la rencontre d'un homme - ou d'une femme - et du pays. Plus exactement, s'ils l'ont compris, ils n'assument pas pleinement cette monarchie républicaine instaurée en 1962 et l'aventure singulière, l'ambition individuelle, la détermination sans faille qu'elle suppose.

But the editorial does not pursue this analysis any further. The obvious question to ask is why the Socialists have not grasped the fundamental nature of presidential politics. Mitterrand, who learned the political art in the Fourth Republic, was also schooled by the weaknesses of that regime in the importance of a gravitational center, without which the satellites veer from their orbits and quickly reduce order to chaos. He may have polemicized against the coup d'État permanent, but he knew what needed to be done to govern "le pays de 350 fromages."

But a certain presidential tropism was not the only legacy of the Fourth Republic: technocracy was perhaps its finest product. For most of les Trente Glorieuses, France was in fact ruled by technocrats. The legitimacy derived, after the advent of the Fifth Republic, from the election of a supreme magistrate by universal suffrage only added to the legitimacy of competence that the technocrats derived from their own training and ostensible commitment to the general interest. Mitterrand, recognizing this, surrounded himself with young énarques, who continue to dominate the Socialist Party today. But he squashed the Rocardians, who might have infused technocracy with a bit of political savvy, had they been allowed to develop as a movement, and then Jospin, the best of the remaining lot (with Fabius sidelined by the blood scandal and rightly distrusted for his sinuous political line), was in turn squashed by the Front National, a movement that Mitterrand had covertly encouraged (through his sanction of proportional representation in local elections) in order to divide the right. This left only the small fry among politicized technocrats to run the PS at the national level, while the local federations were ceded to barons who might have been at home in the Fourth Republic: the Collombs, Frêches, and Rebsamens, among others.

There is of course a younger generation of Socialists schooled in a variety of political arts unknown to the énarques. Harlem Désir, another Mitterrand product, came up by way of racial politics. Manuel Valls has been searching for a third way in downtown Evry for years. Arnaud Montebourg, who has studied the secrets of Sarkozy's rise and Ségolène's surprising appeal, would like to be a media darling as well, but he hasn't quite found the trick of it. So the party limps along with out-of-touch énarques at its head, struggling youngsters searching for another way, pollsters endlessly touting Hamlet Strauss-Kahn, who can't decide whether to be or not to be, and the mercurial Ségolène, who alone among the lot has grasped the fact that a president must be the incarnation of something.

And incarnation is precisely what Ségolène has mastered: she has undeniable presence. It's the "something" that eludes her. Exactly what she intends to incarnate has never been clear and becomes less clear with each reinvention of herself. By turns Blairite, gauchiste, 68arde attardée, femme fatale, attack dog, Marianne redux, and Mother of all the French, she retains her spontaneity by avoiding identification with any particular line of policy and her vivacity by refusing to closet herself away with the many dossiers she needs to master if she wants to make her next candidacy more credible than her last one.

In retrospect, one has to admire the genius of Mitterrand, who was able to mold this nébuleux into a vehicle of victory. If only he had been able to pass some of his Florentine subtlety on to his protégés, the party might be in a better position to win an election that would seem, if Sarkozy's unpopularity is any gauge, to be eminently winnable.


brent said...

A fascinating post. At the risk of compromising its subtlety, can I suggest a simple-minded postscript? The 'something' that eludes Ségo is a fundamental choice: in the current conjuncture of retrenchment, one either accommodates the financial class by placing the burden on the contribuables, or one stands with the 3 million in the street and calls for a major restructuring in the interest of a greater égalité.It doesn't work to finesse the difference, as the sad example of the Obama administration would show. Most of the current herd of elephants would prefer the former choice, especially if they can disguise it. Perhaps Hamon, Désir, a certain faction of the party might prefer the latter--and in any case the party can't afford to write off Mélenchon & Cie in the second round, as the former choice would entail. So underneath all the machinations there actually is an ideological, policy-driven conundrum, and it will take a bold personality to cut through it.

Anonymous said...

Someone REALLY doesn't want her to stand:

Mr Punch said...

Mostly true, I think, but too focused on internal PS issues - which may be the real problem. Presidential politics is grand coalition politics; the UMP is a coalition; Mitterand could make deals at the parliamentary level but couldn't go further because his "partners," the Communists, were impossible and unacceptable.

Jospin, a guy who pretended to be a party hack (!), is exactly the kind of unelectable candidate you wind up with in this situation.

Anonymous said...

France Info has a comment: