France’s Socialists seek a saviour (but does anyone want the job?)

Once one of France's most powerful political parties, these days the Socialists are seeking a leader to rescue them from a future of obscurity. But it doesn't look like there are many takers for the job.

France's Socialists seek a saviour (but does anyone want the job?)
Photo: AFP
Wanted: A dynamic leader for France's historic Socialist Party, able to rebuild the brand after a year of watching the political ground crumble beneath its feet. Candidates: Not many.
The fact that few Socialists can agree on who might be placed to unite a scattered left just eight months after the party held the presidency under Francois Hollande, has many wondering if the task is even possible.
The leadership doubts come hot on the heels of the forced sale of the party's opulent Paris headquarters for 46 million euros ($55 million) and layoffs for more than half its 100 staff members.
Last week Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, education minister in ex-president Hollande's abysmally unpopular government, announced she wouldn't run for party chief, saying “there are other ways to make yourself useful”.
Her decision turned all eyes toward Olivier Faure, 49, head of the 31 lawmakers — down from 277 — who remain in parliament after Emmanuel Macron's centrist upstarts smashed their way to power last year.
The Socialists have been rudderless since Hollande's decision not to risk standing for a second term in the face of historically low approval ratings.
Najat Vallaud-Belkacem. Photo: AFP   
That opened a rift in the once powerful party of such leftist titans as Francois Mitterand, which newcomer Macron capitalised on in his sprint to the presidency.
Faure has so far kept his cards close as party apparatchiks around him have splintered into different groups.
His associates indicate a decision to seek the party leadership could come Tuesday, now that the path appears clear.
“He has kept his balance perfectly at the centre of the party,” a party source told AFP.
But even if the Socialists can unite behind a leader ahead of their annual congress in April, the biggest obstacle to rebuilding is beyond their control.
“It would take a failure by Emmanuel Macron to revive France for any return of the left to power,” Jean Garrigues, a professor of political science, told the Parisien newspaper Friday.
“But it will not be enough,” he added.
'Lost in a fog' 
For now, only Luc Carvounas, a relatively unknown lawmaker, has announced his candidacy, while aides to former government spokesman Stephane Le Foll suggest his decision could come within two weeks.
Rachid Temal, a party coordinator, said Friday that he would not rule out a run.
“The question is, what would you do as party chief? Which political line, which project for the French?” he told Sud Radio.
But the fact that Vallaud-Belkacem, who had the party in her grasp, backed away suggests few people have a clear idea of what the party should stand for.
“In terms of vision, everybody is lost in a fog,” said Gerard Le Gall, a longtime Socialist Party strategist.
“For now, I don't see any notable Socialist capable of reaching the second round of a presidential election, something which is vital for the future.”
Olivier Faure. Photo: AFP   
An exodus of party lawmakers for either the hard left of Jean-Luc Melenchon, and more often for the centrist movement led by Macron, has deepened the existential doubt.
“I suspect certain elements of this played into (Vallaud-Belkacem's) decision about whether or not the party is a corpse that can be rejuvenated,” said Robert Zaretsky, a historian at the University of Houston who has long studied the French left.
Whoever wins may even be tempted to drop the “Socialist” brand, which may carry too much baggage for a party looking to reconnect with France's lower and middle classes.
“The question is whether we want renewal at any price, or if what we need is a team player who can bring a new generation to the fore,” said one of Le Foll's backers.
But as one of the most visible defenders of Hollande's politics, Le Foll may be tainted in a way that Faure, a loyal Hollande supporter but who was rarely on the front lines, is not.
And for many, Faure, who has blogged about growing up the son of a Vietnamese mother, could help shake off the party's image of old-school leftists representing a France long gone.
“Those who have never lived it can scarcely understand the violence of rejection when it's based on the colour of your skin,” he wrote.
But for Zaretsky, the current turmoil is the latest chapter in a history of triumphs and defeats for a party whose roots stretch back to the early 1900s.
“Funny things happen, things we don't expect, when the odds seem insurmountable, as they do now,” Zaretsky said.
by AFP's Joseph Schmid