Rocard hailed as dejected party's leader: France's Socialists seek to prove that there is life after electoral defeat

Click to follow
MOST OF them turned up in the end. There was Laurent Fabius, ousted as French Socialist Party leader three months ago. There was Jean Poperen, who said then he would 'not take part in this circus' when Michel Rocard wrested the top job from Mr Fabius. There was Paul Quiles,the former interior minister who said Mr Rocard's 'minutely prepared putsch' was unworthy of a presidential candidate.

The only notable absentee was Jacques Delors, considered the French left's other most serious candidate for the next presidential election in 1995. Suffering from sciatica, the European Commission president had not been expected, although Martine Aubry, his daughter and former labour minister, did attend.

The event was the Etats Generaux of the Socialist Party, an event organised by Mr Rocard, 63, as part of his campaign, which he himself dubbed the 'big bang' before the Socialists suffered a humiliating defeat in parliamentary elections in March, to re- invigorate the French left. Drawing on the name of the pre-revolutionary meetings organised to discover the grievances of the ordinary citizen, Mr Rocard's 1993 version was an attempt to hand the stage to the grassroots.

With nearly 3,000 militants in a congress hall in the suburbs of Lyons, it was also the public consecration by the rank and file of Mr Rocard as party leader and, unless Mr Delors mounts a strong enough challenge in the meantime, the Socialist candidate for the Elysee Palace in two years' time.

'The left lives,' Mr Rocard told the meeting in his closing speech yesterday. 'You have just brought the proof. The left can win again. You are going to bring the proof.' In his opening speech, in one of the twists of language for which the former prime minister is renowned, Mr Rocard said it was time to give the French 'concrete utopias'.

With the Socialist Party reduced to 70 seats in the 577-seat National Assembly after being the biggest party in parliament for 12 years, such hopes appear to have little chance, even if Mr Rocard, a long-time rival of President Francois Mitterrand, has achieved his short-term aim of taking control of the party. He became the president of a 'collegial direction' after a bitter fight with Mr Fabius at a leadership meeting the weekend after the elections, in which Mr Rocard and a host of other former ministers lost their parliamentary seats.

Since the elections the outlook for the French left has remained bleak. In his original call in February for the 'big bang', Mr Rocard held out hopes of forming an alliance with the ecologists, dissident Communists and the centre.

Now, however, the ecologists, previously split into two parties, have become even more divided by leadership struggles. And the centrists, a component of the centre-right Union for French Democracy (UDF), are strongly represented in the conservative government of Edouard Balladur, the Gaullist Prime Minister. This has meant that the Socialists have little option but to try to re-structure from within.

A key element would have been to try to eliminate the courants or factions whose existence has dogged the work of the Socialists since the modern party was founded by Mr Mitterrand in 1971. Originally reflections of the various groups which had united to form the new party, they later became 'presidential stables' headed by various leaders seeking to take over the party and become its presidential candidate.

Jean Glavany, the party spokesman, indicated over the weekend that little of this would change and that the practice of splitting up leadership posts among the factions according to the weight of each within the party was likely to continue.

France, which has the world's third-biggest atomic arsenal, called yesterday for a global nuclear test ban in response to President Bill Clinton's decision to freeze US tests until at least September 1994, Reuter reports.