French MP Harlem Désir set to become first black man to lead a major European political party


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The Independent Online

The French Euro MP Harlem Désir appears certain next month to become the first black man to lead a major European political party.

After weeks of wrangling, Mr Désir, 52, was today named as the official choice of the hierarchy of the French Socialist party to replace Martine Aubry as its “first secretary” or national leader. The ruling party’s annual conference, set to take place between 26 and 28 October, is expected to endorse the choice overwhelmingly, giving Mr Désir a position once held by the late President François Mitterrand, the former Prime Minister Lionel Jospin and the current President, François Hollande.

Mr Désir is seen as a safe pair of hands and competent administrator rather than a man likely to emerge as Mr Hollande’s successor as a “French Obama” or the Next Big thing on the Left. His choice is, nonetheless, a significant event in a country in which racial minorities have only recently started to play leading political roles.

Born “Jean-Philippe” in Paris in 1959, with a West Indian father and a Jewish mother, Mr Désir emerged in the 1980s as a Trotskyist, student and anti-racist activist. He changed his first name to “Harlem” in homage to African-American political leaders.

Mr Désir’s nomination today by the outgoing first secretary Ms Aubry and the Prime Minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault follows weeks of in-fighting by the many clans and political tendencies of the Socialist party. His final, defeated rival was Jean-Christophe Cambadélis, who was once a lieutenant of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the disgraced former head of the International Monetary Fund.

Under undemocratic rules adopted by the Socialist to avoid the vicious, internal conflicts seen in the past, there will be no leadership campaign. The 175,000 party members will vote to endorse – or not - the choice of the party leadership on 18 October and the results will be announced at the national conference in Toulouse eight days later.

Despite his rabble-rousing beginnings, Mr Désir, has long been seen as a loyal and consensual party apparatchik rather than a political thinker or potential president. Although polls suggested that he was the overwhelming choice of party members, he was today described by Socialist parliamentarians as a “leader minimo” and “first secretary default”. In a rare flash of humour, Mr Désir said of himself recently: “Whenever people talk about me, they say: ‘he was once young and handsome. Now he is serious and a pain in the arse’.”