French Socialists close to a split

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The Independent Online
MICHEL ROCARD ousted Laurent Fabius as leader of France's Socialist Party, which went down to humiliating defeat in parliamentary elections a week ago, in a stormy weekend meeting which augurs badly for the future of the much bruised French left.

Mr Rocard, 62, the Socialists' most likely presidential contender when Francois Mitterrand steps down in 1995, was made president of the new 'collegial direction' of the party late on Saturday. According to a motion adopted by the Comite Directeur, this leadership structure will remain in place until an emergency party congress meets in July. Mr Fabius was elected first secretary 14 months ago.

The battle that led to Mr Fabius' departure was the climax to a feud between two wings of the party, represented by the two former prime ministers. These are Mr Rocard's supporters and, roughly speaking, those of President Mitterrand, led by Mr Fabius. Mr Mitterrand has taken no formal part in the work of the Socialist Party, which he founded, since he was first elected President in 1981.

Mr Rocard led a galaxy of senior Socialists who lost seats in the National Assembly election on 28 March. The Socialists and their allies ended up with 70 deputies, 200 fewer than in the last parliament. The conservative alliance of Gaullists and the centre-right Union for French Democracy took 484 of the assembly's 577 seats.

In February, Mr Rocard re-invigorated a depressed Socialist campaign by calling for a 'big bang' to regenerate the left, an alliance that would include dissident Communists, ecologists and the centre. Despite a positive media reaction, it did nothing to inspire the public. With the centre well represented in the new government under Edouard Balladur, the Gaullist Prime Minister, this essential component of the 'big bang' is unlikely to be swayed by the left for some time.

The first move at Saturday's meeting came when Lionel Jospin, a former first secretary and education minister who lost his seat, said he was quitting the party leadership and would leave politics for a while. After the voting in the evening, Jean-Pierre Chevenement, the anti-Maastricht and left-wing former defence minister, said he too was leaving the leadership. Mr Chevenement, who kept his seat, said later that he was leaving the party altogether because the meeting had failed to discuss any real issues.

Mr Rocard's take-over brought a flurry of negative remarks from other leaders indicating that, unless there is some quick turnaround in sentiment, his move may have dealt the party a death blow. Paul Quiles, interior minister in the defeated government, said: 'This minutely prepared putsch is unworthy of a candidate for the presidential election.' Jean Poperen, an old-style left-winger and party 'elephant', said: 'It's a total machination, I will not take part in this circus.' Mr Fabius, the main casualty, said 'the left did not need this'.

According to participants in the meeting, Mr Rocard, exacerbated by Mr Fabius' belief that the next presidential election cannot be won by the left - his own last chance - refused to back a motion calling for the July meeting that he himself had planned with Pierre Mauroy, another former prime minister.

Finally, the meeting adopted a motion presented by Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former industry minister, installing a temporary leadership until July. The Rocard faction and the orphaned Jospin supporters split the leadership posts, while Mr Mauroy's allies decided to boycott the process.