Friday, November 24, 2006

Segolene's crushing victory: Good or bad news?
by Aurore Wanlin

Segolene Royal’s victory in the socialist party’s (PS) presidential primary last week was widely expected. The scale of her triumph, however, came as a surprise. With 61 per cent of the votes, her popularity can no longer be dismissed as a mediatic bubble. There is more behind Ms Royal’s success than most of her opponents have recognised so far.What does her victory say about the way French politics and her party are changing?

To start with the PS, the process that led to Segolene Royal’s victory marks the beginning of a renewal. The primary has provided the party with both new blood and a new intellectual dynamic. Over the last months, the PS has gained many new members, eager to choose their candidate. The contest between the three main contenders – Laurent Fabius, Segolene Royal and Dominique Strauss-Kahn – has revived the internal debate on a wide range of issues, from education to security or the 35 hour week. Each of them, although relying on the same official programme, has managed to define a specific political line. Although there is a risk that the PS has difficulties to mend its divisions, Segolene now benefits from an indisputable legitimacy. On the other side of the spectrum, some in the UMP regret that they have not had a similar opportunity to discuss the party’s line and choose its champion.

Segolene’s victory also means that the party might shift back to the centre, distancing itself from a more radical rhetoric, hostile to the liberal economy. Unlike most other European left-wing parties, the French socialists have never done their so-called 'Bad Godesberg'. After each electoral failure, the PS, far from choosing a more liberal line, has tended to go back to what it saw as true socialism. Last year’s popular rejection of the EU constitution brought into light the depth of the socialists’ hostility to a liberal Europe. Ms Royal’s victory over Laurent Fabius, former leader of the No camp, as well as her desire to look at what other countries such as Spain or the UK have done, might signal that change is on the way.

But a lot will depend on Ms Royal herself. Key to her success is that she seems different. Not only because she is a woman, nor because she does not belong to the establishment – she does. But because she has a different approach to politics. Her main concern is to reconcile the French with politics, by giving them a say. Take her position on Turkey’s accession to the European Union: the French will decide. Her website, the citizens’ jurys all have a similar objective: give the people the sense that she listens to them. That pragmatic approach has its advantages. Ms Royal knows to talk concretely on issues that matter most to the French.

However, there is a danger that Ms Royal appears as an anti-party candidate. Her success carries a certain vote of sanction. Segolene Royal is right to try to address France’s democratic malaise: populism has been on the rise for several years, social frustrations run high and the French distrust their political class. As a democartic leader whose main concern is to increase citizens’ participation in the political game, she appeals to the French. But as an anti-party candidate, Ms Royal will find it much harder to bring her party back to the centre by giving up the anticapitalist and antiliberal rhetoric that has been so detrimental to it. Her biggest challenge will be to combine her concerns for more direct democracy with an audacious political programme palatable both to the traditional socialist supporters and to voters in the centre. This will not be easy to achieve; but Ms Royal has already shown that she should be not underestimated.

Aurore Wanlin is a reasearch fellow at the Centre for European Reform.

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