Meet Harlem Desir, the evoquatively named new Europe Minister and former General Secretary of the Socialist Party. Pity Harlem Desir, who seems fated to do jobs that are just beyond his level of competence.Shooting to national fame as the effective leader of SOS Racisme in the 1980s, Desir rose through the Socialist Party ranks rapidly through the 1990s and 2000s, a welcome non-white face amongst the Socialist cadres. He served in the European Parliament for two terms (although his record there is often contested as being somewhat lacking) and developed a specialisation on globalisation and trade issues. His ideological underpinning is fuzzy however; he frequently sounds more left wing than he subsequently acts and his voting record shows a centre left politician who flirts with social democracy.
Desir’s skill has been to ally himself with powerful figures within the party who have often pushed him forward. His former life as an anti-racism activist and his open and easy-going nature make him personally popular. His ideological flexibility make him inoffensive. Having been taken under Martine Aubry’s wing in 2008, when she became General Secretary of the Party, he became the easy choice for her successor when she stood down after President Hollande’s election in 2012.
And yet this likeable, flexible, wily figure failed to make his mark on the Party. The task was daunting. French politics has not yet found a way for the turbulently independent political parties to co-exist with governments of their own colours. The Socialists are an agitated bunch, with internal debates transforming into disputes on a regular basis, occasionally pushing the party into crisis, such as after the 2005 European Constitution referendum. As in most large families, after while the different political streams (courants, in French) tend to kiss and make up, such as the 2011 Primary campaign which brought together a party in whose diversity Francois Hollande found his strength.
Added to the uncertain status of the head of the majority political party, who holds no cabinet post and lacks automatic access to the President, was the radical shift in position and programme of the Ayrault, and now Valls governments. Moving away from traditional leftist positions to a more openly Social Democrat programme (the French talk of prioritising “offer” over “demand”), the Party found itself left behind. Desir was unable to convey what this change meant and why (if this was possible at all) it was compatible with the Socialists’ core principles and with Hollande’s Presidential programme. It is perhaps worth noting that the fact that so many within the party elected Hollande during the Primary elections, means that the feeling that they have been left behind in this ideological shift (betrayed is a word that some activists use, but it would be a grave exaggeration to say that is the feeling within the party…for now) is all the more personal.
Desir has now moved to a position within government as Europe Minister. His nomination to this position, whilst being totally absent throughout the European Election campaign, is confirmation of the depoliticisation of this position in the cabinet. Given the issues that Europe must grapple with over the next few years, which may extend to the very survival of the Union, the idea that a junior Minister will be the leading figure negotiating for France is laughable. Rightly so, Europe policy will be led by the President, the Prime Minister and the Finance Minister. Many political scientists have long questioned why the job exists as a separate portfolio, given that Europe’s role extends across government. Desir’s role could have been to lead the election campaign, and it was thought that he would lead the Socialist list in the Ile de France region (Greater Paris and its surroundings). At the last minute instead Pervenche Beres, the highly competent sitting member of the European Parliament was chosen instead. Desir was neither seen nor heard during the campaign. Instead, the new party chief, Jean-Christophe Cambadelis, a longstanding party man with a hawkish attitude to all forms of opposition (internal or external) reached out to the party base in a series of interestingly candid emails and speeches, and Manuel Valls made a serious of campaign appearances. Neither have been (nor should be) blamed for the debacle that was the result, with that being firmly left at Hollande and Desir’s door.
Desir and Hollande share a certain number of traits: both have been men of consensus; both rose during the 90s and 2000s in the party by being affable and flexible; both are difficult to pin down ideologically. And yet, one has been put in the cupboard, the other remains in his top job. One has proved to be politically dyslexic. Time will tell if the other is too.