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Socialists play the name game

Observations on France

The high drama during the French Socialist Party's recent leadership election goes far beyond the quaintness of French politics. It is symptomatic of the bitter struggle in one of the last mainstream European parties to call itself socialist.

Even Nicolas Sarkozy, who has controlled the news agenda in France since he was elected president in May 2007, could not overshadow the war raging at the party's headquarters on the rue de Solférino in Paris.

For two weeks, world recession and financial meltdown had to wait. All eyes were on the Parti Socialiste, or, as the daily newspaper Libération rebaptised it, the Parti Suicidaire. Who would succeed François Hollande, the departing general secretary who had overseen ten inglorious years at the helm: Ségolène Royal the reformist, or one of her arch-rivals: the economically liberal mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë, the young left-wing MEP Benoît Hamon, or the apparatchik mayor of Lille, Martine Aubry? All polls pointed to a Delanoë victory but unexpectedly Royal's manifesto of fraternity and alliance with the centre right put her first, with 30 per cent of the vote. Delanoë and Aubry garnered 25 per cent each, followed by Hamon with 19 per cent. If the Paris mayor had proved the loser, Royal was not the clear victor.

A fin-de-siècle spirit presided over the party's conference in Reims. As the hours passed, it seemed obvious that la bande des quatre could not agree on a unity candidate. Delanoë threw in the towel but the other three maintained their candidatures. As the chefs couldn't decide, the members would have to.

In the first round, Royal went ahead of Aubry, while Hamon had to bow out. The second round should have been straightforward: Delanoë and Hamon had called on their supporters to back Aubry. Instead, when the result came Aubry was ahead by only 42 votes out of 137,000.

Both teams claimed tricks and cheating and denounced the other side. Insults flew, lawsuits started. Then Royal accepted the verdict of the party: that Aubry had won. The hatchet was buried, over the leadership, at least.

Aubry, who is the daughter of the former EU president Jacques Delors and introduced the 35-hour week as minister for social affairs in Lionel Jospin's government, is a reformer like Ségolène - although, unlike Royal, she believes in doing politics at the grass roots, away from the limelight.

Yet the issue of the party's title remains. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, nearly every European parliamentary party of the left changed its name - but not the French. In Italy, the words socialist and communist became such terms of abuse that in the early 1990s both those parties felt they had to change their names, resorting to neutral-sounding, floral expressions - "Olive Tree", the "Daisy" party - with which to drape their social and democratic concerns. By not changing its name, the French Socialist Party proves that it is anchored in the 20th century, or, more precisely, in that century's first decade, when it joined the Workers International. It has remained Marxist in spirit to this day. This is where the trouble begins.

No other European parliamentary party of the left is Marxist. The liberal pro-market mantra has been swallowed by most social-democratic leaders in Europe. France's Socialist Party is the only one of significance to oppose that view and promote regulation in all matters, from the economy to the arts to universities.

Today, just over half the Socialist Party under Aubry takes this line while the rest, represented by Royal, wants to move on to what it believes to be a post-Marxist world. Royal's deputy, Manuel Valls, in a book called Pour en finir avec le vieux socialisme, advocates that the party change its name. Tout est dit. Enough said.

This article first appeared in the 15 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The power of speech