France's Left Tries to Find Its Way Against Sarkozy

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Ségolène Royal (C) walks for giving her final speech, on November 16, 2008 on the last of a three-day conference for France's opposition Socialists

It's not just lobbyist row on Washington's K Street that is resounding these days with recriminations over the aimless failure of a grand political party. In France last weekend, the once venerable Socialist Party gathered in the northeastern city of Reims, the world capital of Champagne, in what they'd hoped would be the beginning of their counter-offensive to recapture power from President Nicolas Sarkozy's conservatives in 2012 elections. (See photos of the Sarkozys in London.)

It was, to say the least, not a happy gathering, and there were scant grounds for cork-popping celebration.

"With leaders like ours, who only think of their own personal ambition of controlling the party, I don't see how we'll ever get back into power again," lamented Fouzia Benyoub, a Parti Socialiste (PS) member. Her glumness typified the mood at the party's 75th congress in Reims on Saturday. Many of the party's brightest lights seemed to be competing in the increasingly bitter battle for the position of first secretary, with an eye to launching a presidential bid of their own against Sarkozy in four years. And those who weren't were keeping busy dishing out venom at those who were.

"At times you think the PS defeats itself like this out of some perverse desire to help the right stay in power forever," commented Benyoub, who traveled to Reims from her home in suburban Paris. "The leaders are no better than their backers: it's all about beating the person next to you to get control of the party, and to hell with bigger priority of a unified left getting back into power. Sarkozy has to be looking at this and laughing."

It is, to be sure, not exactly a novel tableau, but only the most recent display of the fierce internecine struggles that have left the PS divided for the past decade. Heavyweights have dedicated so much time to battling one another that the party has rarely managed to make itself heard above the constant bustle of Sarkozy and his ruling conservative party, the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP).

Reims offered little evidence that that will soon change. A quartet of aspirants came to the Congress hoping to dominate. Three of them had only one clear common purpose: to deny victory to the fourth. That would be defeated 2007 presidential candidate Ségolène Royal, who enjoys support from a slim plurality of 30% of PS members. Also arrayed against her is the current first secretary, François Hollande, her now estranged partner and father of her four children. Whatever else motivates their opposition, there is a pervasive sense that Royal, for all her personal charm, has failed to articulate a clear ideological line for a party that cares deeply — perhaps too deeply — about ideology, nor propose a platform the PS can present to voters as a blueprint for governing.

The scene was surreal on Saturday evening, when supporters of the triad of challengers — Paris mayor Bertrand Delanoë, 35-hour work-week architect Martine Aubry, and youthful left-winger Benoît Hamon — waged vocal battle with Royal's backers during her address, which was characteristically thin on concrete policies. Lusty waves of booing as Royal spoke were followed by standing ovations from her supporters; jeers unleashed by her calls for a coalition with centrists were quickly challenged by Royal supporters chanting "Sé-go-lène!"

The passions unleashed eventually spilled out of Reims' convention center and into town. Heading back to the city center as speeches wound down Saturday evening, one feisty PS dowager took an entire municipal bus to task. She harangued puzzled passengers about "this Socialist circus where everyone is so busy attacking everyone else that we leave the right in peace," before herself having a go at "the morons who back Royal instead of someone capable of advancing a real leftist program for once!" "I like Royal, and I'm not a moron," resisted a small, snowy-headed man who had also attended the congress, before he fell silent again under another barrage from his intimidating PS camarade. (See pictures of the Pope in France.)

The epic battle of Reims was merely a prelude to the choice of a new head of the party. Final voting for the position of first secretary takes place Nov. 20. After dropping out of the race and initially refusing to back any of his rivals, Delanoë on Monday endorsed Aubry, who favors a more orthodox leftist counterattack on Sarkozy's neo-liberal, pro-market reforms that might also win support of Green and Communist Party voters who resent the PS's recent drift toward the center. However, it's uncertain that Delanoë's more moderate but now angry supporters will back Aubry in sufficient numbers to deny Royal — especially with Hamon splitting the party's left flank. So in the immediate wake of the Reims congress, the PS remains a party in search of a unifying leader, a popular program, and a credible strategy for winning back nation power. Sound familiar?

"I'd rather be compared to the Democratic party than I would to the Republicans," says Socialist official Manuel Valls. "But, indeed, the PS is in a difficult situation."

See pictures of France's Bastille Day celebrations.