John Lichfield: Why is the French left so gauche?

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The big question in French politics used to be: “Why is the French right so stupid?” The new big question in French politics is: “Why is the French gauche so gauche?” Not gauche, in the sense of leftist, but gauche in the sense of clumsy, maladroit, irritating and incapable of seizing its opportunities.

The Parti Socialiste, France’s main opposition party, has, for once, had a goodish idea. The idea is not new. It has been borrowed from the United States, an unconventional place for French socialists to seek inspiration. It is a goodish idea all the same.

Next year, for the first time, the Socialists will hold an open primary election to choose their candidate to challenge President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2012. The choice will not be restricted to paid-up party members, as it was in the past. Any registered French voter can take part by paying at least one euro and by signing a pledge that he or she “shares the values of the Left”.

The intention is to ensure that the Socialists approach the presidential election behind a single, strong candidate, acceptable to a broad slice of French public opinion. Instead of spending most of 2011 attacking and insulting one another, the many, mutually hating Socialist barons and baronesses agreed to unite early behind a plausible, attractive nominee who would attack and insult the President.

Unfortunately, the Socialists’ goodish idea has become a vehicle for prolonged party civil war, which may last until next November at least. Instead of uniting early behind a single leader and an alternative programme for government, the party looks likely to spend most of the coming year in a Punch and Judy show starring an all-too-familiar cast of time-honoured characters.

There is the “woman in white” (Ségolène Royal, now 57, the defeated candidate in 2007), who is, depending on your viewpoint, Snow White or Snow White’s scheming stepmother in a Gérard Darel suit. There is the “king over the water” (Dominique Strauss-Kahn, 61-year-old head of the IMF), who is the opinion-poll favourite but would perhaps prefer to remain the world’s unelected financial nanny rather than risk the vilification, or the sweat, needed to become the elected monarch of France.

There is the “queen at the end of the motorway” (Martine Aubry, 60-year-old mayor of Lille and the party’s first secretary), who is accused of spending too much time on her day job in northern France to impose herself as the natural choice as presidential candidate.

And there is “nature’s first husband” (François Hollande, 56-year-old ex-first secretary, ex-partner of Ms Royal) who is accused of being sensible but dull but is the only “serious” candidate who attempts to define how a Socialist government might do things differently (differently from Mr Sarkozy and differently from previous Socialist governments).

Of these, only Ms Royal has officially declared herself to be a candidate, breaching an understanding that all the big-hitters (“elephants” in the party jargon) would wait until the deadline for entries in June. There are also a half-dozen younger candidates, minor candidates or maybe candidates. The campaign will, in theory, begin “in the autumn” with a final, nationwide, two-round vote in late October or November.

The whole process has been delayed – fatally, according to some Socialists – to allow Mr Strauss-Kahn more time to make up his mind. This also suits Ms Aubry, who has a pact with Strauss-Kahn. Only one of the two, whichever is “best placed”, will run.

Such a pact violates the principle of primary elections but that is not so surprising. Having stolen the idea from America, the Parti Socialiste has taken little notice of how American primaries work.

If there are more than five candidates, as seems likely, there will be a series of regional, eliminatory rounds. But all candidates will, in theory, be bound by a single-party programme. Rather than test-marketing fresh ideas, or encouraging attractive, new faces, the system seems to have been designed as a kind of reality TV show for the “late-fifty- or early-sixty-somethings” who have already dominated the party, and the nation’s screens, for 20 years or more.

Rather than creating a rolling consensus behind a “French Obama” or even a “French Cameron”, the primaries could become a machine for reminding the French electorate why it already dislikes “all of the above”.

The most important quality any politician, or general, can have is luck. Above all, you must be lucky in your opponents. President Nicolas Sarkozy, although floundering in the opinion polls, is a very lucky man indeed.

The wrong kind of snow and ice?

A couple of inches of snow fell and civilisation ended. More than 10,000 motorists were stranded. Airports closed. Even the underground railway was in trouble. (Furious question: How can an underground railway be stopped by snow? Weary answer: Some parts run in the open.)

The same grumble could be heard everywhere. How come the Canadians and Swedes survive 50 feet of snow every winter when a few flakes bring us skidding to a halt?

All of this is not a description of Britain but of France, at the end of last week. Despite what The Daily Mail and others say, it is quite normal for temperate, Western European countries to be caught out by the occasional blizzard.

A very cold Christmas indeed

Blizzards are not enough for Alan le Tressoler and Julien Cabon. The two thirty-something French explorers plan to spend six weeks alone at the North Pole from March. To practise, they are spending Christmas living in a giant warehouse fridge in Finistère in Brittany at temperatures of minus 25C.

So what. I have heard tell of many family Christmases that have turned out far chillier than that.