Socialists split in battle for the soul of French opposition

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French Socialists came for a coronation – or at least a shotgun wedding – but many party members left their conference today convinced that they had attended a funeral.

The former presidential candidate, Ségolène Royal, 55, is likely to emerge as the new leader of the Parti Socialiste by the end of this week, but a three-day congress in Reims failed to heal visceral personal hatreds and strategic rifts within France’s main opposition party.

The Mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë, one of the weekend’s great losers, said that the Socialists were “seriously ill”. Others spoke of the possible “death” of a party which has been the spine of the French left for three decades.

Mme Royal – an inspirational leader to some, a figure of contempt to others – will be challenged for the party leadership in a vote of grass-roots members on Thursday by Martine Aubry, 58, a former employment minister and architect of the French 35-hour week. She will also be challenged by Benoît Hamon, 41, a relatively unknown Euro MP, and standard-bearer of the traditional left.

Even her enemies expect Mme Royal to win. Even Mme Royal’s most loyal supporters know that the vicious in-fighting will continue.

The Reims congress refused to give its backing to Mme Royal’s part-pragmatic, part-poetic vision of the future of the centre-left. She was given a standing ovation by half the hall and whistled and booed by the other half during her final speech yesterday morning.

Mme Royal’s typically religious language seemed calculated to annoy her critics, who accuse her of being simplistically emotive. “We have to heal ourselves of all these small and great wounds that we have inflicted on one another,” she said

However, the anti-Royalist forces failed acrimoniously on Saturday night to agree on a single, alternative platform or a compromise standard-bearer. As a result, Mme Royal is expected to be elected first secretary by the 230,000 party members.

M. Delanoë’s camp were incandescent with rage yesterday. Their target was Mme Aubry, who had refused to join a common front against Mme Royal unless she was accepted as its leader.

The Mayor of Paris, whose hopes of emerging a senior figure in French politics were destroyed by the conference, said the Socialists were “seriously ill”.

The conference attempted to agree a majority position, which would allow a clear leadership candidate to be rubber-stamped by party members on Thursday. In the absence of any agreement between the principal factions, the membership now has three days to decide on its own who can best save the party.

Behind the splits lies a failure by the Parti Socialiste to find a convincing, modern voice for a would-be party of government. Most of the party, dominated by teachers and civil servants, rejects the anti-capitalist rhetoric of an increasingly powerful French far-left. They refuse, however, to move wholeheartedly towards the pro-market managerialism of the main left wing parties in Europe.

Mme Royal’s vision of a new, grass-roots social democratic movement, allied to the centre, appeals to some younger Socialists. It is detested by many others. “We are watching live the death throes of the Socialist Party,” said one moderate member, Michèle Sabban. “We are going to have a schism.”