Every year for the past two decades, the French Socialist Party holds its summer conference (dubbed a Summer University, to differentiate it from the Party Congresses held every few years which vote on policy and the party leadership) in the Atlantic resort of La Rochelle. I’m here for the weekend to participate in what is designed to be a studious series of workshops and presents tins on the issues of the day. This is however the first conference in ten years where half the government is here. So what use is three days of chatter at the seaside in the dieing days of summer?
This year, about four thousand people have made the journey, with a dramatic resort on the budget hotels of this small town. La Rochelle is symbolic for the socialists, even more so this year. Long a bastion of the Socialsts, the charismatic mayor, Maxime Bono, opens the proceedings, clearly loving every minute of his weekend in the spotlight. Traditionally the Socialist President of the local region, Segolene Royal, also gives a keynote speech of welcome. This year, after her humiliating defeat in the legislative elections in La Rochelle itself at the hands of a Socialist dissident (defeat at e hands of a traitor is all the more bitter), Royal is attending the International Socialist in South Africa, and instead her deputy, Emmanuel Maurel, gave the speech which consisted of a series of policies implemented recently by the “Presidente” (a lot of command-and-control style measures, investing in choice industries, and the ongoing obsession with the electric car).
The attendees here this weekend are a rag tag bunch. Looking at them, you would think you were attending several different conferences cohabiting in the same building: a strong foreign contingent (particularly from Africa – the links between the left in Francophone Africa and the PS are clearly as strong as ever); the under 25s who as usual nowadays are placed in strategic places to allow the cameras to linger over them rather than the rest of the grizzled audience (I include myself in the latter!); the intellectual middle class (I’m currently sitting in a rather ponderous and scientific workshop on the environmental transition of industry and they are ALL here); and last but least in numbers e working class, who for obvious reasons might appreciate the conference being held somewhere more accessible for the rest of the country.
Press teams are running about the place, sticking cameras in faces and asking people the key question: what makes this years conference different to devious years? The answer is invariably the same: now we have real responsibility; it’s not enough to oppose, we have to govern and that means compromise and the inevitable disappointment. The feeling of apprehension is everywhere (except on the faces of the ministers themselves who are thoroughly enjoying being feted by all around them). These conferences are often the opportunity for the extremes of the party (and particularly the hard left, always somewhat marginalised in the PS, particularly now given the views of President Hollande) to shout at the party cadres. The general feeling is that this year, members need to keep a lid on that. Whether this feeling lasts the weekend remains to be seen.