France: Segolene Royal In Free-Fall

The verdict is quasi-universal on the French left: Segolene Royal — the Socialist Party’s presidential candidate, the first female candidate nominated by a major party, and the “French Hillary” as she is called — is heading for a disaster.

Royal’s stagnation in the opinion polls since the campaign officially opened two months ago has given way to a sharp decline: this week, multiple polls showed that the right-wing candidate, hard-line law-and-order Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, has now opened up a substantial lead of 10 points over his Socialist adversary. In fact, the only good news for the Socialists recently is that the campaign of anti-globalization leader José Bové as the candidate of the “left of the left” has failed to take off in the polls, hardly climbing above 2%. Moreover, Bové has only collected half of the 500 sponsoring signatures he needs from France‘s 35,000 mayors to be given a place on the April ballot (and with less than four weeks to go until they must be submitted, he may not get them.)

What explains the Socialist candidate’s decline in the polls? Ten days ago, Segolene Royal unveiled her new campaign platform designed to jump-start her sagging campaign: her “100 Propositions” (a notion borrowed from the late Socialist President Francois Mitterrand’s “110 Propositions” in his winning 1981 campaign) which she proposed as a “Presidential Contract” with the French electorate. Segolene presented her “Contract” at rally of 8,000 Socialist Party activists bussed to a Paris suburb and carefully chosen to applaud every comma in her endless, two-hour speech. (She even chose the same man who had run the kick-off rally for Mitterrand’s ’81 campaign to stage-manage what was billed as her “comeback:”)

Well, Segolene’s  speech (nationally televised on the French equivalent of C-SPAN may have drawn cheers from the hand-picked audience of “Royalists” in the meeting hall — but with the electorate, it was a dud. Instead of boosting her standing in the polls, as it had been intended to do, post-speech opinion surveys showed it had actually prompted her further decline.

Her “100 Propositions” turned out to be a mix of expensive promises to poll-chosen slices of the electorate (something for the young, something for the elderly, something for the teachers, and the like) which voters know quite well there is no money in the national treasury (groaning under a crushing national debt) to pay for. She reiterated some of her Right-Lite law-and-order proposals, like putting the military in charge of juvenile delinquents, and — as an avowed admirer of Tony Blair — enunciated a number of Blairite, Third Way, pro-capitalist themes, as when she declared that “We need to reconcile the French with business” (with tens of thousands of French workers being laid off or fired each month after plant-closings by rich French-based multinationals who move their factories to low-wage countries, that was a discordant note to strike with the left electorate.) And the rest of her speech was a lot of pretty but vague rhetoric cooked up by her ghost-writers and her ad-agency pals to con various constituencies.

For example, even though the ghetto riots that set cities across France afire in October-November 2005 underscored the exclusion of Franco-Arab and black youth from economy and society and created a national crisis, the word “banlieux” (“suburbs,” where the ghettos are located, and which is the French code word for minority neighborhoods) was absent from her speech. And so was any real program to address the needs of the ghettos — in which there was a major, and successful, voter registration drive in the wake of the riots.

I asked Louis-Georges Tin about Segolene’s speech and her “100 Propositions” — he’s a black academic and author (originally from the French overseas territory of the Antilles) and a rising star of the emerging black movement for equality in France who, in the wake of the ghetto riots, founded the first national organization of French blacks, the CRAN (National Council of Black Associations, representing some 150 local and ethnic organizations). Tin’s verdict was devastating: “In Segolene Royal’s speech there were a few ‘signs’ designed to satisfy blacks and Franco-Arabs: she quoted Frantz Fanon and the mulatto woman Solitude [an early 19th century military commander of a slave revolt against French rule in Guadeloupe], both figures of resistance to colonialism, which was, well, nice. But, more than these ‘signs,’ we want commitments. One cannot make a policy with only ‘signs,’ allusions, and winks — and we’re still waiting for a concrete policy from Segolene.”

Moreover, Tin told me, “we note that not a single candidate wants to openly and explicitly address the blacks and Franco-Arabs of the ghettos, and up until now there has been a lot of abstentionism by them on election day. But a poll we at CRAN had taken by the polling institute Sofres showed that there are 2 million blacks of voting age — and in 2002, [the neo-fascist Jean-Marie] Le Pen beat the Socialist presidential candidate for a place in the run-off by only 200,000 votes. That ought to make Segolene and the other candidates think about us more seriously — but so far it hasn’t.”

A few days after her “Presidential Contract” speech, Segolene’s credibility received a body blow when the Socialist Party’s national secretary for economic issues, Eric Besson, resigned that post. Besson was the man in charge of figuring out how much the expensive promises in Segolene’s “100 Propositions” would cost, and how to pay for them.

Besson, who was also a Socialist député, or member of  parliament, had had what the Socialist Party’s media machine claimed was a “personal dispute” with Segolene’s domestic partner and the father of her children, the Socialist Party’s First Secretary –  and thus its boss — Francois Hollande. But Besson’s resignation as the Socialist’s chief economic expert was widely interpreted as a sign that he refused to say that Segolene’s program would cost French taxpayers what her campaign wanted to claim it did (in other words, he wouldn’t cook the books on her program to make it sound cheaper.)

Segolene and her campaign didn’t take this latest in an unappetizing series of very public blunders very well, and (Besson later claimed) began spreading unfounded rumors about marital difficulties between Besson and his wife to explain his resignation. This incensed Besson — who this week got his revenge when called a press conference to noisily announce that he was resigning from his Socialist Party membership, withdrawing from his re-election campaign as a député to return to the private sector, denounce the “incoherence of the themes, discourse, and  propositions” of Segolene’s “incompetent” campaign, underscore that the cost of the program put forward by Segolene — like the programs of “all the candidates and parties” — was “under-estimated,” and (the final blow) made it clear he could well decide eventually to support a candidate other than Segolene. He even said nice things about Nicolas Sarkozy, the dangerously demagogic conservative presidential candidate and the man the left loves to hate. Ouch!

The campaign took another big hit today with an op-ed piece in the daily Libération, signed by 30 high-ranking civil servants, grouping themselves under the name “Spartacus” and describing themselves as “Socialists and French of the left,” declaring bluntly that, “We believe that the incoherent and erratic candidate of the Socialist Party is leading the French left to an inexorable defeat” –  and declaring that “the only useful vote to block Nicolas Sarkozy” is a vote for the centrist candidate Francois Bayrou, “who alone can beat the conservative candidate.” Indeed, one of the reasons for Sarkozy’s new big lead over Segolene in this week’s polls is the continued rise of Bayrou, whose percentage of the April 22 vote in the opinion polls has just risen to 16% — ten points more than he received in the 2002 presidential race. Nearly all of Bayrou’s new support has come from  disillusioned Socialists and the left electorate, which Bayrou has been aggressively courting — earlier this week, he declared that, if elected president, he would probably appoint a prime minister from the left (in the occurrence, former Socialist Minister of the Economy Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who, as head of their party’s right wing, unsuccessfully fought Segolene for the Socialists’ presidential nomination.)

With all of this going on, even the tepidly-left Nouvel Observateur, France’s largest-circulation newsweekly — which had played a major role in boosting Segolene for the Socialist Party’s nomination with a series of uncritical cover-story puff pieces — has been forced to concede that the “Royalists’” elitist campaign is slaloming downward. In an article that hit the newsstands today entitled Sego’s Blunders,” the Nouvel Obs (as it is colloquially referred to) reported: “The panic that has taken hold of the Socialist Party’s elected officials translates very well the climate that reigns in the party — something between anger and dismay at the campaign’s disorganization, its improvised air, its lack of transparency, its amateurism. For nearly a month the same criticisms have been pummeling the candidate and her entourage. For example, at the end of January, one of the pillars of her campaign told Segolene right to her face: ‘There are three people I can never get on the phone: your chief-of-staff and your two campaign managers!’” Even the telephone number of her campaign headquarters is unlisted and supposed to be kept secret. And, the magazine declared, without a total overhaul of her campaign, “her failure is assured.”

Meanwhile, “Sarko,” her right-wing opponent, has been enrolling under his banner well-known figures of the traditional cultural left: in the last few weeks he’s won the very public support of the Communist actor Roger Hanin — former Socialist President Mitterrand’s brother-in-law and intimate friend, and a cinema star in France since  the 1950s who today is more popular than ever for his title role in the long-running TV cop series “Commissaire Novaro,” now in its 16th year; of the equally popular Algerian-born pied noir singer Enrico Macias, with hit records since the 1960s, and a Jew who can sing of Algeria in Arabic (making him a favorite of the older Franco-Arab generations) — Macias also for years has been a fixture of the anti-racist movement and left street demonstrations; and of the black hip-hop recording artist (and TV fixture) Doc Gyneco. Being on the left and for Sarkozy is, with cover like these celebs, becoming more and more respectable. (At the same time, Sarko — noted for his pro-Israel positions — has garnered the endorsements of the even more ardently pro-Israeli “Nouveaux Philosophes” André Glucksman and Pascal Bruckner, while another of their number — Alain Finkielkraut — has incessantly banged away at Segolene.)

Segolene Royal is set to announce a campaign shakeup today, with enlarged roles for her former opponents for the Socialists’ nomination, Strauss-Kahn and former Mitterrand Prime Minister Laurent Fabius — but does anybody care about these “inside-baseball” maneuvers? Will they stop her free-fall in the polls? In a much-watched TV appearance on February 19, Segolene tried tacking a bit to her left. But with only eight weeks to go until the voting begins, may it not be too late? And, given her centrist political history, will anyone believe her mild-left facelift? Stay tuned


FOR MORE INFORMATION, see my previous reports on France‘s 2007 elections: February 9,France: Bad News for the Left“; February 1, “Jose Bove Complicates the Contest.” 

Doug Ireland, a longtime radical journalist and media critic, runs the blog DIRELAND, where this article appeared Feb. 22, 2007.

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