For France's Socialists, Grimmer Times Are Coming

It's the French Socialists' last hope. Even though center-right President Jacques Chirac won reelection in a landslide on May 5, leftists such as Socialist Party chief François Hollande have been predicting they'll make a comeback in the June parliamentary elections. Their reasoning: After rallying to support Chirac against far-rightist Jean-Marie Le Pen, the Left is mobilized to capture a majority in the National Assembly, name a new Prime Minister, and compel Chirac to "cohabit" again with a Socialist-led government.

But as the campaign cranks up for the June 9 and 16 vote, the Socialists' chances for a majority are rapidly fading. Recent polls show the Right running ahead by as much as ten percentage points. One reason is that Chirac is using his bully pulpit to seize the initiative on the hot issue of law and order and to defend France's values--even publicly demanding an apology when rowdy fans booed during the playing of La Marseillaise at a recent champion soccer game. Chirac also grabbed headlines by appointing a law-and-order czar, Nicholas Sarkozy, who is setting up special crime-fighting squads. And after his vanquished opponent, Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, resigned, Chirac named the center-rightist Jean-Pierre Raffarin to head the government. A pragmatist from the provinces, he is playing well with disaffected voters.

Even worse for the Socialists, their party is grappling with an identity crisis. Jospin was knocked out of the presidential race after running as a moderate whose views were often hard to distinguish from Chirac's. Now, the Socialists are steering leftward, aiming at the more than 20% of all voters who cast ballots for Trotskyist, Communist, and Green presidential candidates. A new platform, crafted by former Labor Minister Martine Aubry, features left-wing crowd pleasers such as raising the minimum wage and slowing privatization. But such measures threaten to alienate professionals and mid-level managers who often vote Socialist. "They could lose the middle class," warns Pascal Perrineau, director of the Center for the Study of French Political Life.

In contrast to the emboldened Right, the Left appears leaderless. That's ironic, because after five years of running the government, it has a stronger stable of nationally known politicians than the Right does. The problem is that heavy hitters such as Aubry and former Finance Ministers Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Laurent Fabius are competing against each other for influence. That's why party leaders compromised by naming the competent but bland Hollande to lead the parliamentary campaign.

It all leaves voters scratching their heads over who would become Prime Minister if the Left were to win. Aubry is popular with the Socialists' left wing but is generally considered too abrasive to head a "cohabitation" government with Chirac. The Socialists' new hard-line platform would make it awkward for them to put forward a market-friendly figure such as Strauss-Kahn or Fabius.

With their chances looking increasingly grim, some Socialists privately argue that defeat in the parliamentary election should spur a badly-needed shakeup in the party. Strauss-Kahn and Fabius want the Socialists to hold a convention to jettison their hard-left positions and redefine themselves as reformist Social Democrats. But left-wing leaders such as parliamentary finance committee chairman Henri Emmanuelli warn that the party would "dig its own grave" by positioning itself in the center. In this election, the Left seems to be its own worst enemy.

By Carol Matlack in Paris

Edited by Rose Brady

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