French Socialists face dark night of the soul

The century-old party is in deep disarray amid recriminations over its failure to capitalize on the free market's current bad name.

Rather suddenly, the French Socialists appear to be deconstructing. The grand old party of France is in a dark night of the soul – one that goes past the usual internal squabbling.

Leading lights in the party are conducting a soul-searching in public – that is significant enough to include calls to rebrand the socialist name itself.

With large losses in the June European elections, with French President Nicolas Sarkozy slam-dunking their tactics, with a lack of vision about how the left should respond to the economic crisis and globalization, and with concern that socialist ideas have not kept pace with capitalist power in Europe – the current disarray among Socialists is not surprising, political analysts say.

Yet the depth of disagreement and angst between leaders and well-known figures in the century-old party is a surprise. The rhetoric has quickly become so pointed and tough that even hardened politicians wonder if the breaches can be repaired.

"The word 'socialist' is now meaningless," says Manuel Valls, the Socialist mayor of Evry, who played a role in starting what is now an exercise in sackcloth and ashes in the party.

"We can't sustain a party that now exists in formaldehyde," says former left- wing leader Arnaud Montebourg.

Remonstrations have reached a point where Socialist stalwarts have emerged to criticize the Socialist critics, charging them with adopting faddish and shallow solutions: "Let's change the label, that's the trick!" says the mayor of Quimper, Bernard Poignant, with some irony, arguing that problems are in the lack of a "philosophical rethinking," not image.

"Wrecking crews rarely make good architects," chimes in Christian Paul, a Socialist assemblyman from Nièvre.

Embarrassing losses

Many of the current salvos began this month in exchanges between Mr. Valls, a voluble thinker critical of the Socialists for overreacting to President Sarkozy's politics (and who has made comments seen as anti-African immigrant) – and Martine Aubry, current head of the Socialist Party.

Ms. Aubry sent Valls a party discipline memo after his repeated criticisms in the wake of embarrassing losses in European elections in June: "There is not one day in which you don't tell the media our party is not in crisis … and won't recover."

If Valls really felt this way, Aubry added, he should "leave the party."

The memo caused an uproar in Socialist circles, already sensitive about the party's performance in June.

"The Socialists are deep in a storm, and the Valls case just added salt to their wounds," says Bruno Mattei, a philosophy professor in Lille.

A terrific blow came last Sunday when philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy, a former enfant terrible of the left, now establishment media darling and friend of former Socialist presidential candidate Ségolène Royal – blasted the party he had long supported.

"Is the PS [Parti Socialiste] going to die? No. It is dead," Mr. Levy told the Journal du Dimanche. "No one, or almost no one, dares say it. But everyone, or almost everyone, knows it's true," he added.

The political right gloats

Analysts on the political right are offering I-told-you-so's. Paul-Henri du Limbert of the conservative Le Figaro wrote of Aubry's dilemma Thursday: "One must say her 'comrades' are merciless when it comes to hating one another. They learned the art of internal warfare in the 1990s, when Fabiusians, Jospinists, and Rocardians were trading blows. But … at the time, the socialists were in power and knew what they believed. In 2009, they are entering their eighth year in opposition and going through the worst identity crisis in their history."

On the left, analysts see the crisis as a failure of ideas and ability to confront the 21st century with new resources – that spiraled into ugly personal politics, with younger Socialists now elbowing and sabotaging older colleagues as the crisis unfolds.

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