French Socialists hope Jospin has winning ways

Mary Dejevsky in La Rochelle sees a party with an identity problem attempting to present a united front
Four months after losing power, French Socialists yesterday greeted their failed presidential candidate, Lionel Jospin, as saviour of the party and paved the way for him to be elected leader in an all-party ballot next month. The current first secretary, Henri Emmanuelli, announced his resignation, ''not without regret'', but "for the good of the party''.

In a gesture of unity and continuity, the two men shared the platform at the closing session of the Socialists' "summer university" - a cross between a summer school and a party conference - at La Rochelle. Their pledges of renewal and appeals for a concerted opposition to the Chirac presidency, however, could not mask the mood of dissatisfaction among some Socialists and a vein of opposition to Mr Jospin's modernising ascendancy.

The "Jospin question" is only a symptom of the general crisis of identity and policy afflicting the Socialists, whose main hallmark is the split between traditionalists and modernisers. The rift, partly generational and partly ideological, has much in common with the division in the British Labour Party over Tony Blair.

Discussing the French Socialist Party's future this weekend, the traditionalists said it would recover lost ground only if it reinforced its existing structures and discipline and tried harder to represent the working-class. The modernisers insisted that the left had to adapt to a new political world.

"This is a new age of democracy, opinion polls, scepticism and individualists," said Henri Weber, a leading moderniser, "and this has serious consequences ... especially for the left." In the two days before Mr Jospin and Mr Emmanuelli arrived, strong opinions had been voiced on Mr Jospin's role and the future direction of the party. The immediate cause of the unhappiness was an announcement last week by a committee set up to consider what to do about Mr Jospin after his creditable 48 per cent of the vote in the presidential election against apparently hopeless odds.

Meeting behind closed doors, the committee had decided that a ballot of all party members would be held in October to select a new party leader, followed by a national convention on 14 October to declare the winner. Not stated, but taken for granted, was that the single candidate would be Mr Jospin, and that the selection process would be not for a first secretary, but for a president.

Last weekend, however, some members of the party's traditionalist wing fought back, canvassing the idea of nominating a candidate to oppose Mr Jospin. They dislike the idea of a party president - a title which, for them, smacks of American politics and personalised power. As one activist said: ''The concept of a constitutional monarch is bad, even if the monarch himself is good.''

But they dislike even more the notion of one-member-one-vote ballots. "A direct vote," said one traditionalist, "effectively removes all power from local sections".

Mr Jospin's election as the party's presidential candidate was the first time such a mechanism had been used and the result was seen as a victory for the rank and file over the apparat.

What neither side disputed was the struggle the Socialist Party faces if it is to return to power. Activists heard Michel Rocard, a former prime minister who is on the Jospin wing, observe that the party's support had been badly eroded in two crucial areas: it had lost working-class votes to the the extreme right National Front, and middle-class voters had been alienated by high taxation.

While some older activists denied that anyone who voted for the Front could ever be a "real Socialist", many other participants saw its strength, especially in traditionally Socialist recruiting-grounds like factories and council estates, as the biggest challenge facing the party. ''We have no one who can speak to the kids on the estates in language they understand,'' said one disillusioned member, ''and no policies that address their problems.''