Georges Frêche, 71, is living proof that French Socialists do not have to be dull. Three years after being thrown out of the party for making racist remarks, he has provoked a blistering quarrel which threatens to split France's main opposition party, not on ideological lines, but between Paris and the provinces, North v South.
Mr Frêche, president of Languedoc-Roussillon, has been called the "Le Pen of the left". He is a virulently pro-Israeli politician who makes seemingly anti-Semitic remarks. He is a pro-business ex-Maoist who attacks the "anti-market" tendencies of the French Socialist Party but wants to erect a statue of Lenin in his home city of Montpellier.
As a young man, he fought the police on the streets of France in the cause of Algerian independence. He has since become a political Godfather of the expelled white Algerian ex-colonists or "Pieds-Noirs".
He is a university professor and expert on Roman law who likes to present himself – and talk – like a grumpy old man drinking a pastis on a shaded bar terrace in the South of France. He is also given credit, in his 27 years as Mayor of Montpellier, up to 2004, for developing the city into one of the most attractive and commercially thriving in France.
Outside his home region of Languedoc-Roussillon, stretching along the Mediterranean coast from the Rhône delta to Spain, Mr Frêche is a figure of fun or hatred or incomprehension. Within his region, he remains the dominant political figure and odds-on favourite to be re-elected regional president at the head of a rag-tag, centre-left coalition next month.
That coalition contains almost all the local chieftains of the Parti Socialiste (PS), despite the fact that the national party expelled Mr Frêche in 2007 for suggesting, inter alia, that there were too many black faces in the France football team. On Tuesday night, the national bureau of the Socialist Party, meeting in Paris, expelled all these local party dignitaries – 59 in all. They include the secretaries (bosses) of all five local Socialist Party branches in the region; two presidents of départment (county) councils; a senator and a score of mayors. In other words, almost all the leaders of one of the strongest Socialist regions in France have been kicked out of the Socialist Party – temporarily at least – for supporting Mr Frêche.
The family argument could not come at a worse time for the Parti Socialists and its national leader, Martine Aubry. The main French centre-left party seemed to have begun to lay aside its perennial internal struggles. It could, with its allies, sweep the board, and deeply embarrass President Nicolas Sarkozy, in the regional elections on 14 and 21 March. Sweep the board, that is, in all 21 regions of metropolitan France, save Mr Frêche's Languedoc-Roussillon.
Originally, the Socialist Party, at national level, had agreed reluctantly to back Mr Frêche's centre-left coalition, or "list". Last month, Mr Frêche once again outraged the leadership of the national party – and many other people in France – by making what appeared to be an anti-Semitic remark about the former Socialist prime minister, Laurent Fabius.
Mr Fabius is from a Catholic family of Jewish origin. After he had criticised Mr Frêche during a radio interview, the president of Languedoc-Roussillon retaliated by saying that the former prime minister had a "tronche pas très Catholique" – literally a "not very Catholic mug or hooter".
This may seem a trivial insult. Mr Frêche says that it was a version of a well-known phrase in the French south, "pas très Catholique", meaning not entirely straightforward. This is disingenuous. By referring to the "tronche", the face or nose, of Mr Fabius, Mr Frêche was indulging in just the kind of insidious, nudge-nudge anti-Semitism which still thrives in bourgeois, Catholic France, north and south.
This was far from Mr Frêche's first lapse. He has been accused of making anti-Semitic remarks before, despite being a strong supporter of Israel. He once referred to two ex-"Harkis" – Algerians who fought on the French side in the colonial civil war – as "sub-humans". In 2007, he repeated a complaint once voiced by the far-right leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, that there were too many black players on the France football team.
Both supporters and enemies of Mr Frêche in Languedoc say that creative inconsistency – being left-wing in his policies and right-wing in his language – is the secret of his political longevity. There is anti-Paris feeling in all French provinces but none more so than Languedoc. Mr Frêche has skilfully exploited this resentment over the years. His status as a martyr for southern plain-speaking against Parisian political correctness has brought him many votes from the centre and further right.
In a book published this week – with quite coincidental timing of course – Mr Frêche attacked what he sees as the sterile moralising of the national leadership of the PS. "The party has erected itself into a vehicle for universal values: anti-bigot, anti-alcoholic, anti-smoking, anti-racist, pro-homosexual, pro-black, pro-white, pro-yellow, pro-red, pro-Jewish, pro-Muslim, pro-orthodox, pro-Japanese, pro-garden gnome, anti-pitbull, anti-unhappiness, anti-anger, anti-vulgar..."
"I am from the South and I will stay a man of the South... My angry tone of voice, and my accent itself, get up the nose of [the Parisians] but I don't give a stuff. I have other business to take care of."
Mr Frêche also accused "little" Martine Aubry of attacking him to promote her own hopes of becoming the Socialist presidential candidate in 2012. Ms Aubry, who was elected national party leader in a disputed (and rather doubtful) poll a year ago, has been left in a very difficult position. She decided three weeks ago to put her increasing authority on the line and order all Socialists in Mr Frêche's campaign to switch to a hastily organised official Socialist "list". Almost all of them refused. Opinion polls show Mr Frêche's list far ahead of the pack and the official Socialist list trailing in seventh place.
On Tuesday night, the national bureau of the Parti Socialiste reluctantly agreed to support Ms Aubry – and its own rules – and hurl its disobedient southern chieftains into outer darkness for at least two years. It was announced, however, that the party would investigate, or reconsider, the whole affair once the elections are over.
A judgement of Solomon? That was the intention but ex-Socialists in Languedoc were still spitting blood at the national leadership and threatening counter legal action yesterday.
The wit and wisdom of the Languedoc man
"In this team [the France football team], there are nine blacks out of 11. The normal would be three or four. That would reflect our society. I'm ashamed of this country. Soon, there will be 11 blacks. When I see some football teams, it upsets me."
Replying to two Harkis (Algerians who fought on the French side in the 1950s and 1960s colonial war) who heckled him: "They massacred your people in Algeria and you are going to lick their boots. You are nothing. You are sub-humans. Nothing at all."
On the electorate
"I have always been elected by a majority of cons [arseholes] and that is not going to change."
On Laurent Fabius
"If I was in upper Normandy, I don't know if I would vote for Fabius. I would have to think about it. This bloke worries me. He has a not very Catholic hooter [ tronche]."
"I should really stand for election in Toulouse. When I was a student in that city, I screwed 40 per cent of the women."Reuse content