French Socialists face split over soul of party

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Left-wing and nationalist Eurosceptic factions within the party will try to humiliate and destabilise the centrist party leadership and prepare the ground for a hard-left, anti-European coup at a crucial party conference in November.

The pleasant term "summer school" fails to convey the depth of personal hatred and political division likely to be revealed within the ranks of the Parti Socialiste (PS) when they assemble in La Rochelle for three days from tomorrow.

Since the Socialists quarrelled over the referendum on the European Union constitution in May, a vicious four or five-way battle has raged for the soul of the party and - implicitly - the main centre-left nomination for the presidential elections of 2007. There is even serious talk of the Parti Socialiste splitting permanently into at least two parties.

A number of hard-left factions hope to turn the PS into an anti-globalist, anti-capitalist and anti-European party, in alliance with the Communists and Trotskyists. If so, two of the party's elder statesmen suggested this week, centre-left reformers should be ready to form a social democratic party of the centre.

The former prime minister Michel Rocard said that the endless quarrel between the so-called "realist" and "real" Left within the PS must be settled once and for all. It would be better to split the party than to talk in endless circles, without addressing the true problems of France.

He was supported yesterday by the former health minister Bernard Kouchner, one of the most popular political figures in France.

"I approve Michel Rocard's idea that we should confront the pseudo-Marxists and their shabby utopias," said M. Kouchner, the founder of Médecins sans Frontières. "Should we risk a schism in the PS? Yes. We have gone past the time for surface reconciliations."

Officially, the party's uncharismatic, competent, centrist general secretary, François Hollande, holds the allegiance of a majority of Socialist deputies and almost two-thirds of the 102 regional federations. At the grassroots, however, party members are increasingly tempted by the anti-market, anti-EU rhetoric of a group of mutually distrustful and ambitious leaders.

The hard or "real" left within the party is divided between at least three "currents", or factions, led by the former prime minister Laurent Fabius, the former party treasurer Henri Emmanuelli and, an unctuous, rabble-rousing young lawyer, Arnaud Montebourg. At least two of these factions are divided within themselves. These divisions within the hard left - and a grassroots instinct to preserve a façade of unity - may save M. Hollande's job at the conference in Le Mans in November.

But M. Montebourg this week accused M. Hollande of leading the party to "two disasters": the split over the EU referendum and the failure of the Socialist Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin, to reach the second round of the last presidential election in 2002."We cannot build anything with Hollande," M. Montebourg said.

To which the party spo-kesman, Julian Dray, said: "It is a pity some of my Socialist friends have not used their well-earned holidays to increase their wisdom. It seems some of them would have done better to shut up." Anyone for summer school?