The Socialists’ Summer Conference last year was a big hit. Turnout was high, the mood was upbeat, and the glow of victory lit up proceedings. A series of crowd pleasing measures in an extraordinary session of Parliament the month before had given the party faithful, firmly anchored for the majority on the left of the party, something to believe in. One year on was always going to be more complicated.
The train ride from Paris to La Rochelle is an exercise in understanding France’s cultural and industrial makeup. Concrete suburbs, factories, the odd nuclear power plant, give way as the tran heads south and west to rolling fields, medieval towns perched upon hills and lazy hamlets where everyone seems to have a plot of land to farm.
The journey is a reminder of the complex makeup of the country and therefore the competing interest groups. The party members here have, for a large part, made a similar journey to me, an a certain fly-over (to borrow the American political expression) mentality is obvious. Questions of town planning and cultural policy are popular; agricultural issues (unless we are talking organic produce) less so.
This year’s conference began with something of a media cacophony over its alleged poor organisation. Turbulence continues to swirl around the somewhat hapless First Secretary of the Party, the likeable, but somewhat out of his depth, Harlem Desir. The programme reflects some of these concerns, being in places a retread of last year’s issues, with a lot of retrospectives on the last year in power (indicating that this conference is perhaps less about getting the message out to the country, but more to convince the party membership that the whole thing has been worth it). There are also fewer “intellectuals” (not an insult in France…) although the welcome addition of a handful of minister and members from the other parties of the left brings a little diversity to an otherwise familiar crowd.
Whilst turnout is down (perhaps a third of last year’s attendees aren’t here) the youth movement, the MJS continues to grow. However there is a febrile sense in the air. The next year brings the local elections, which most seem to assume will be a bloodbath for the socialists. Many of the membership here are close to someone, or themselves, hold elected office. They expect to be out of job next year, with the additional indignity of watching a National Front councillor take their place.
And yet the sun shines on La Rochelle so blissfully, the cafés and restaurants are full and last night the Vieux Port was packed with tourists and party members, enjoying the last weekend of summer. But they can’t help thinking about what this year will bring.