PARIS — IF European socialism in general is crossing a difficult pass - with few recent electoral wins to its credit and growing challenges to the welfare state it built - then France's Socialist Party has experienced its nadir over recent months.
After a crushing defeat in March national elections that reduced the Socialists' parliamentary profile from the majority to a marginalized group, many observers wondered if France even had a Socialist Party in its future. A recent poll confirmed that thinking, with a majority of French voters doubtful that the Socialists would return to power until after 2000 at best.
By calling a special party conference over the weekend, the Socialists were out to prove that, to paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of their death were greatly exaggerated. At a convention dominated by a happy-face yellow rather than the militant red of the past, party leader Michel Rocard declared, "The Socialists are back," and, "The left can win again."
And although the three-day Lyon gathering was designed above all as a call back to arms to depressed party activists, it sent at least two clear signals to a France preoccupied with summer vacation: first, that Mr. Rocard, former prime minister, has the party's controls firmly in hand for his race to the French presidency in 1995; and second, that Socialists have the best chance of victory during Europe's deepening economic troubles by veering back to the left.
Until now Rocard had presented himself as the farthest right of France's Socialist leaders. Jockeying to position himself for the 1995 presidency bid, he had spoken little of the "left" and emphasized the need to rally "progressive" forces. But no mention was made at this weekend's congress of his February "big bang" speech, in which he called for creation of a new progressive movement, rising out of the ashes of socialism.
Now the talk is of the left. "France needs the left," Rocard hammered in Lyon, "We need the left to understand the world;" "The left is nothing without us [Socialists]." He closed the meeting by calling on the party faithful to join him in defining "socialism's new frontiers." A congress report called for shorter work time, taxes on job-replacing machines, and stiff penalties for companies relocating abroad.
What remains to be seen is how this new valorization of the left will survive the transition from party congress to the broader stage as Rocard moves toward 1995. "What Rocard realized is that before winning over public opinion, he had to win his own party," says Pascal Perrineau, director of the Center for French Political Life Studies in Paris. Rocard's new vocabulary is mostly "an internal [party] tactic," he adds, "not the kind of thing we'll hear in the presidential campaign."
Still, Rocard is already developing his themes for that campaign, says Mr. Perrineau. One of them will be "that the current economic crisis is to be laid at the feet of the free-market economics" of the 1980s. Another will be that European social-democracy, with its emphasis on solidarity and protection, is what France needs to fight back in a menacing world.