A Party at War with Itself

Do France's squabbling Socialists have a future?

France's center-right government has plenty to worry about, with the economy growing at 1% a year and its euro-zone partners stepping up pressure on Paris to control ballooning budget deficits. But at least the rightists don't have to worry about forceful opposition at home. Since losing the presidential and legislative elections earlier this year, France's Socialist Party has failed to pull together--and indeed seems to be coming apart.

Lately, the Socialists have looked like their own worst enemies. In the past few weeks, three different groups of Socialist deputies, including such heavyweights as former parliamentary finance chairman Henri Emmanuelli, have set up organizations aimed at moving the party toward the left--countering efforts by former Socialist Finance Ministers Laurent Fabius and Dominique Strauss-Kahn to recast the party as centrist and market-friendly. So intense is the infighting that on Oct. 9 the party's official spokesman, Vincent Peillon, joined two other deputies in writing an article for the newspaper Libération, saying the Socialists faced a "crisis of confidence" under François Hollande, their chairman for the past five years. In a clear challenge to the party's free-market wing, the three called on Socialists to "fight more effectively and resolutely against the ferocity of the new capitalism and the excesses of deregulation."

Behind the fiery rhetoric is a battle for the future of a party that often lacked clear direction even when it headed a leftist coalition government--from 1997 until last June. The Socialists' former standard-bearer, ex-Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, mediated between the centrist and leftist factions. His government zigzagged between market-friendly reforms such as privatization and leftist crowd-pleasers such as a maximum 35-hour work week. Now that Jospin is gone, each camp is jockeying for position. Hollande is criticized by leftists for letting Fabius and other centrists hijack the party agenda. The fight will come to a head next May, when the party holds its annual convention.

So far, neither faction is scoring many points with the public. Emmanuelli has joined forces with labor unions to protest the government's plans to begin privatizing state-owned utility Electricite de France, but that issue hasn't stirred much interest, even among union members who turned out in low numbers for a protest on Oct 3. As for Fabius and Strauss-Kahn, a poll in early October by Le Journal du Dimanche showed their approval rating standing at 10% to 11%. The Socialists are suffering from a dearth of bold ideas and fresh faces in their top ranks, according to Laurence Parisot, head of the IFOP polling organization. "They haven't been in such a state of confusion since the 1960s," Parisot says.

Pushing the Socialists toward the center won't be easy, even though that would put the party more in tune with an increasingly moderate electorate. Unions and other left-leaning forces still dominate the party structure. For now, the Socialists can't seem to get a break. On Oct. 5, popular Socialist Paris Mayor Bernard Delanoé was stabbed in the stomach by an attacker during an open house at city hall. After emergency surgery, the mayor is expected to recover within a few weeks. The Socialists' self-inflicted wounds are sure to take longer to heal.

By Carol Matlack in Paris

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