Only in France, a Scandal for Policy Wonks

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France's Socialist Party presidential hopeful Segolene Royal speaks during the second of three regional debates, October, 2006

It's a far cry from 'Macacagate', which helped to puncture the expected victory of George Allen in the Virginia Senate race. But if Segolene Royal doesn't win Thursday's first round vote to become the Socialist Party candidate for upcoming French presidential elections, everyone will say what turned the tide was an incriminating video exploding on the internet .

The video is low on action: In fact, it shows Royal addressing a closed meeting of officials of her party, making a statement that would be considered a political liability only in France. There were no nasty aspersions nor revelations about her home life. She merely proposed that middle school teachers should be compelled to be on the job for 35 hours a week. "We have an absurd system where we have companies on the stock exchange that offer catch-up courses for students, and the people teaching those courses are public sector teachers," she said on a tape officially recording a closed meeting of provincial Socialist officials in Angers last January. "How is it they have time to do paid tutoring but no time to help kids in public school for free?"

The videotape picked up the gasps and winces of listeners, who were well aware that most of France's 1.3 million public schoolteachers have always counted on the Socialist party to defend the privileges of French public sector employees. A senator close to Royal's most serious rival, former Finance Minister Dominique Strauss-Kahn, has admitted he procured a copy of the tape for "political friends," but says he had nothing to do with what happened after that. For all its wonkiness, the tape has been viewed 400,000 times since it appeared on the YouTube-like site late last week.

By law, French schoolteachers have to spend 18 hours per week teaching in their classrooms; grading papers, preparing lesson plans and meeting with parents and students is supposed to bring their weekly charge up to 35 hours or more. It's true that some teachers seek supplemental income as private tutors, but most do not, and teachers' union officials, while leery of being manipulated by the anonymous leak, have expressed their disagreement with Royal's proposal. In practical terms alone, they say, few French schools provide any space for teachers to help students outside class.

On the other hand, Royal's basic point is in line with Socialist principles: If paid tutors are what it takes to get through middle school with decent grades, then those whose parents can afford them will fare better, perpetuating the inequities that have kept the underserved urban ghettoes on the boil for years. And the idea of public teachers dipping into the private sector for a little extra cash is bound to strike more than a few French people as downright Anglo-Saxon — or so her supporters hope.

The leak was certainly well-timed: On Thursday, 218,771 card-carrying Socialist party members will vote for either Royal, Strauss-Kahn, or former Prime Minister Laurent Fabius to be their party's candidate in the spring elections; if no one gets 50% of the vote, the top two will face off against one another a week later. How many party members are Socialist schoolteachers alienated by Segolene's impolitic remarks? No one knows for sure. What is known is that some 70,000 members have joined up over the course of a year marked by considerable "Segomania." There are no public polls of members, but the latest look at the broader group of Socialist sympathizers indicates that 58% favor Royal as opposed to 32% for Strauss-Kahn and 9% for Fabius.

By holding a primary at all, the Socialist party has moved a giant step away from the backroom deals through which candidates have always been selected in France. If it were a vote among party sympathizers, as primaries are in the United States, Royal would roll to victory, pulled by polls suggesting she is the only Socialist who can win in the spring. Instead it is a vote among party members, a tighter circle widely thought to include many more supporters of the old guard — not to mention lots of schoolteachers. The results of the first round are expected early on Friday morning; Royal dearly hopes she can nail it this week and avoid a tougher second round.