Successful primaries give French socialists momentum

François Hollande secured a clear victory in France's unprecedented open socialist primaries. Now he

As Hollande stated, the vote was a victory not only for him but also for the French left. Extensive media coverage, a high turnout of 2.7 million voters and a decisive result will give the socialist candidate greater democratic legitimacy and momentum. An incredible 6 million viewers watched the final TV debate on Sunday between Hollande and the runner-up, Martine Aubry.

Known by some as the Iron Lady of French politics (albeit on the left), Aubry was gracious in defeat and immediately called for the party to unite after the primaries. Supporters were singing football and rugby-inspired songs, repeating the slogan "tous ensemble, tous ensemble (all together)" outside the Party's headquarters on the Rive Gauche.

Open primaries were initially suggested by a progressive think tank, Terra Nova, and encouraged by a few reformist leaders with a modernising agenda. Opening up the selection of the Party's candidate, they argued, meant fully embracing twenty-first century politics and would force the Parti Socialiste to go beyond its organisational structure and address the concerns of society as a whole.

Political differences seemed to emerge between the two finalists between the first and second rounds. Aubry was portrayed as the traditionalist left-winger and Hollande the centre-left moderniser. But Martine et François have a lot in common. They are from the same generation, in their 50s. She is the biological daughter and he the spiritual son of Jacque Delors, the former President of the European Commission, and the two of them worked closely with Lionel Jospin. They both attended the Ecole Nationale d'Administration, the elite institution that trains senior public servants. There are a few differences in policy emphasis, but what distinguishes them mostly is their style and personality.

Essentially, Hollande won because he is seen as the candidate best placed to beat Nicolas Sarkozy. He is an impressive orator, a steady and calm figure compared to the hyperactive, petulant President. But will this be enough for the PS to finally return to power next year?

Three million voters took part in the primaries, but 20 million are needed to ensure the victory of the left next year. The French socialists haven't won a Presidential election since the re-election of François Miterrand in 1988. Their last whiff of power came to an abrupt end when the incumbent Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin, failed to get through to the second round in the Presidential elections in 2002. Being beaten into third place by the National Front's Jean-Marie Le Pen is a deep scar in the French socialists' collective consciousness.

Perhaps the left's successive defeats will help Hollande keep the traditionally fractious PS unified. He will probably make use of the defeated primaries candidates during the campaign to show that he is a leader willing to unite and use the talents of his party. The overwhelming feeling within the Party is that unity has to be now or never. The party machine is therefore ready for the battle, with an enlarged army and a solid programme.

In the most recent poll, Hollande is at 63 per cent, with Sarkozy on 38 per cent. But the socialists can't take anything for granted. The President is trying to tone down his hyperactive personality and appear more presidential. The recent arrival of his baby with Carla Bruni will probably give him a bounce in polls.

The media attention and the turnout during the primaries are clearly cause for concern for the French right. Ministers and MPs from the governmental majority -- and even Sarkozy -- successively raised legal concerns, expressed exasperation about the intense media coverage, criticized the candidates and their programmes, but, in the end, proved unable to deal a blow to the left's new found democratic legitimacy.

The right is angry, the left is determined.

Determined to win the Presidential elections for the first time in over two decades.

The primaries were an effective prelude. Now the real battle commences.

Emma Reynolds is the Labour MP for Wolverhampton North East and Shadow Minister for Europe.

Axelle Lemaire is the French Socialist candidate for next year's French parliamentary elections for the new constituency of Northern Europe.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser