One Year On – Another Weekend By The Sea

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.

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Happy Anniversary

It has been a little over a year since the election of France’s second Socialist president. However, now that the left occupy the executive and legislative branches, there seems to be some buyer’s remorse.  Whilst few would have predicted that the return of the left to power would be at a time of economic crisis, social turbulence and an opposition both more divided and more visceral than ever before, added to that are historically low approval ratings, making a dangerous cocktail.

This first anniversary of the Socialist administration has been met with an orgy of circumspection, analysis, debating and soul-searching on the left, the right and centre as to the meaning to be found in the first year of this new Socialist government.  The right has characterised the first year as a “total failure”, with the country verging on collapse. The centre has largely tacked with the right. The far left has screeched at broken promises and betrayal. But where does the truth lies in all of this? Continue reading

Shame

1850745_3_e4fb_francois-hollande-et-jerome-cahuzac-le-4_a74d414ac4ad8ec942dc00f15809453cIt would appear that shame is an emotion that is not in sufficient quantity in some quarters of French politics.  In a stunning turn of events, the rising star of the Socialist government, Jerome Cahuzac, who resigned from his Budget portfolio last month over allegations that he had hidden money from the tax authorities in a foreign bank account, who had spent months denying the allegations, on radio, television and even in the National Assembly, who had begun libel proceedings against the news organisation that led with the accusations, has now admitted that he has an account with some 600,000 € squirreled away and that he has repeatedly lied to all concerned over its existence.  He has been charged with tax related money laundering and risks prison.

The government is reeling from the betrayal and brazenness of Cahuzac.  What should happen now? Continue reading

After the Interview

Last night, the hysterically hyped interview with President Hollande aired on national television.  It was followed by an evening of commentary and debate.  Whilst Hollande had not made a major television appearance since his press conference of 13 November 2012, which was largely hailed as successful, he has not been absent from the media.  Some outlets recalled that he has made five major appearances now since his election in May 2012.  Add to that numerous speeches  visits and quick answers to journalists, he has scarcely been absent from the evening news.

Yet the grandiose and revered role of the French head of state, both monarch and head of the executive, means that only the most stunning intervention by the head of state will meet the expectations of the press and the people, and last night, by most accounts, the President failed to make a mark. Continue reading

Impressing the Press

The French press are an impressively febrile bunch.  Like the British press (although they would never admit stooping so low) they love to build up only to knock down.  Nicolas Sarkozy’s roller-coaster ride, from golden boy in 2002 to the devil in 2012, was more extreme than most.  The general impression one has from looking at a broad cross-section of the French press in its coverage of François Hollande is disappointment, and a little boredom.  The new President isn’t sexy or dynamic.  Even his controversial partner has turned out to be better behaved than they had anticipated.

And so this week’s Presidential press conference was a key test for Hollande.  He didn’t simply have to convey his message to those who were watching at home, but to the most important constituency in modern politics: the Presidential corps of journalists.  So how did he do? Continue reading

The Gingrich Maneuver

Newt Gingrich ran for the Republican Party nomination this election cycle, and, despite being tipped for a brief period, eventually ran out of money and ended his campaign.  Before doing so, however, he had become one of the most effective and powerful voices of criticism against Mitt Romney, the eventual unsuccessful candidate.  Gingrich went on to support Romney (of course) but his advocacy for the Republican ticket was forever tainted by the memories of his previous attacks.

The vote for leader of the French conservative opposition UMP party is due this Sunday, and the two candidates are busy ripping chunks out of each other in a much more personal competition that anyone had anticipated.  The front-runner, François Fillon, is trying hard to stay above the mud slinging (his surrogates are trying less hard…), but underdog Jean-François Copé is adopting the Gingrich Maneuver: attack hard and personal.  But the same fate that belied Mr Gingrich could very well reward Mr Copé for his efforts.  Will Copé really damage the UMP in the way Gingrich bruised the GOP, and will the electoral fate be the same? Continue reading

A weekend by the sea, part three: Plastic Carrots and Paper Sticks

Since their creation as organised movements in the latter half of the 19th century, political parties have depended on a measure of discipline within the ranks to maintain their structure. Whether appointed in smoke filled rooms or elected by powerful union backers or just e membership, the leader’s legitimacy was to be respected and their decisions implemented without question for the good of the party. The American political system, now so dependent on the two party system, used to be a prime example of this trade off: everyone gets to shout, but when the top take the decision, the bottom quietens down.

But something has gone wrong with this system in French politics. The malaise in party discipline can also be seen in the US and the UK. Political parties are struggling to adapt to the new relationship between the base and the leadership. This weekend at La Rochelle however, after an embarrassing defeat in this very town during the legislative elections, the party cadres seem to have recognised that it’s time to reassess the old means of control over the members. Continue reading