Scandals and infighting are stopping the Socialists cashing in on Sarkozy’s huge unpopularityby Tim King / November 17, 2010 / Leave a comment
Published in December 2010 issue of Prospect Magazine
Dominique Strauss-Kahn: can he challenge Sarkozy?
In theory, the times could not be more propitious for the Socialist party in France. President Nicolas Sarkozy has virtually dropped off the bottom of the scale in the opinion polls, and although he managed to push his pension reform through parliament, it has been at great cost. “He thinks he’s won,” cries the left, “but come 2012 we’ll show him.” Unfortunately, they don’t specify who will be doing the showing.
The Socialists are the only party big enough to challenge Sarkozy’s centre-right UMP (Union pour un mouvement populaire). But its glory years were between 1981 and 1995, when its leader, François Mitterrand, was French president. Mitterrand’s greatest talent was uniting the left and, 14 years after his death, the Socialist party has 20 official courants (coteries or clubs). Each has its own take on dogma, a name either stirring (“Utopia,” “Act for Equality”) or desperate (“Hope for the Left”)—and each is led by a figurehead jostling for power.
For many outside France, the most credible challenger to Sarkozy is Dominique Strauss-Kahn, head of the IMF. But Socialists tend to be ideologists, with a kneejerk hatred of liberal economics. Their 2010 manifesto proposes state-funded finance for industry since “capital has taken precedence over the workers.” It will be hard for them to accept a man so used to handling the world’s private capital. And DSK would have difficulty forming an alliance—essential in the second round of the presidential elections—with the Green party (Europe Ecologie).
The reason goes back to 1999, when Strauss-Kahn resigned as minister of finance over two charges of financial misconduct. Neither case came to court and they should be buried. But Eva Joly, the examining magistrate who conducted the investigation and brought the charges (see Prospect, January 2004), is now presidential candidate for the Greens. The memory of the investigation still pains Strauss-Kahn, and Joly maintains her intransigence against corruption—endemic, she believes, in the highest reaches of society. In September she won the Press Club’s annual award for political humour for her remark: “Yes, I know Strauss-Kahn. I brought charges against him.” No one has dared ask DSK’s opinion of her.
DSK is known as an inveterate womaniser—a reputation which generally helps a French politician win public sympathy, bringing them closer to the average voter, who would like to be seen in the same light. It’s a trait that also brings him in line with previous French presidents. According to claims in a recent book by an anonymous insider, though, DSK’s womanising is an obsession: when he enters a café or office and spots his prey, he bombards them with texts, usually starting with “I want you.”
In 2008, the IMF board investigated allegations that Strauss-Kahn had had an affair with a senior economist who left the institute with a larger than average severance package. It eventually decided that DSK had not abused his position, but one of Sarkozy’s advisers has said they have recent evidence of DSK leaving a prominent wife-swapping club and will release it online if he takes the Socialist ticket. Such a puritanical smear campaign would be deeply un-French, though, and Strauss-Kahn’s people would shrug it off by saying: “Everyone goes to that club.”
An alternative candidate would be Ségolène Royal, runner-up to Sarkozy in 2007. Much of the blame for her defeat lies within her own party, who sabotaged her whenever she made a mistake. In particular, Royal blames the party leader at the time, by unhappy coincidence her partner and father of her four children, who she broke up with during her campaign. For the old guard, Royal is too modern, too authoritarian—and a woman. She has never shaken off the aura of that defeat yet sees herself as the obvious candidate next time. Recently she boasted Barack Obama had based his 2008 campaign on hers, though the result was somewhat different. In fact, said one of Obama’s team, they had studied her campaign—to avoid the same pitfalls and incoherence. If she were chosen it would be by default. If she is not chosen, she may leave and form her own party.
Which leaves one other obvious candidate, Martine Aubry, the party’s leader. It is hard to believe she could win. She was elected first secretary two years ago in fractious circumstances: Royal won the first round, Aubry the second by 42 votes out of 135,000. A recount increased Aubry’s lead to 102. The catty insults exchanged did nothing for the party’s image of solidarity. In the European elections a year later it got a shameful 16.5 per cent of the national vote, only 0.2 per cent ahead of Eva Joly’s Greens. In this year’s regional elections the Socialists did much better, winning 20 of the 26 regions.
Aubry is best known for pushing through the 35-hour week in 1998. At the time she was heavily criticised by Strauss-Kahn, who kept telling the press he would have done it better. However, things seem to have improved since: DSK has boasted to reporters that his relationship with Aubry was now “more than friendly.”
The main criticism against Aubry is that as party leader she has provided little opposition. Before details of the pension reform were known, she said she “would be happy to contribute” to the policy. Retirement at 61 or 62 was inevitable, she added. Few on the left could believe their ears. If they were united on anything, they thought, it was that Mitterrand’s gift of retirement at 60 was a sacrosanct “acquired right.” The Socialist spin doctors spent months back-pedalling—Aubry retired to her corner, her voice scarcely heard during the strikes. Her colleagues took up the mantra that retirement at 60 was not negotiable, but the few concessions Sarkozy made were to the trade unions, not the Socialists. The only (mild) opposition in France is the press, and Aubry shuns media attention. Without it, she is finding it hard to reach out to those who want to vote left.
The ineffectiveness of the Socialists has been engineered by Sarkozy. He got Strauss-Kahn the job at the IMF, knowing it would disqualify him in the eyes of the far left. By stealing four leading socialists for his government, he not only sealed their fate as individuals, he weakened the idea of opposition. The main casualty is democracy, and a large section of French society is, in effect, disenfranchised. Unless the Socialists come up with a candidate who unites not only their own party, but also the smaller, vital, also-rans, Sarkozy will be re-elected. Faute de mieux.