Over the weekend, I represented the Labour Party at the French Socialist Party Congress
in Le Mans. It was both a political and a cultural experience!
The latter is best illustrated by the lunch arrangements: a nearby sports hall has great long tables set for no fewer than 2000 people to have a sit-down four course lunch complete with aperitif, wine and coffee - all delicious and served within 1 1/2 hours. Not quite what we're used to in Blackpool or Brighton!
Outside the Conference Hall, just like at Labour Party Conferences, there are stalls displaying the wares of think tanks, campaigns of all kinds, the Young Socialists, and so on. I find the exhibition of the history of the French Socialists most interesting - it makes splits in the Labour Party seem like genteel nuances in comparison.
The bookshop is a revelation - it seems to be de rigueur for every MP and MEP to have published a book. Works that I'd never seen before by most of my colleagues are on display. Elisabeth Guigou and Bernard Poignant kindly give me autographed copies of theirs.
Most delegates do not seem to regard Labour as a role model, considering us to be neo-liberal. I am, however, taken to meet one deputé (MP) who, I am told, is “very close” to us - but it turns out that this “closeness” is simply geographical as he represents Calais!
The conference itself is in a massive arena, where one can best see the speakers on big screens above the centre of the hall. Most delegates and others spend much of their time milling around, chatting, plotting and so on in the arena itself. TV interviews, including one with me, are carried out live in the middle of all this. The ambient noise level is therefore high and distractions plentiful. It's a bit like the European Parliament when the tail end of a debate is just before voting time - except that here in Le Mans, massive amplifiers ensure the speakers can be heard. Whether they're being listened to is another matter!
This changes when a major figure speaks - every third or fourth speech seems to be from someone hoping to be the Socialist candidate at the next Presidential election. The style is then like that of the Leader's speech at party conferences in Britain, albeit from aspiring leaders rather than serving ones. The French socialists only have a party congress every three years, and then only for three days, so it is a rare opportunity to appeal directly to members. The speeches are strong on rhetoric and short on detail: “nous ne sommes pas un parti fataliste mais un parti socialiste” (Fabius), and “Il faut élargir le domaine du possible” (Straus-Kahn).
Prodi was the principle foreign guest speaker, ostensibly because he represents the next likely victory for the centre-left in Europe, but in fact (I was told) because Hollande thought he well illustrated the need to be open to alliances with centre parties and to be pro-European. For this reason, apparently, Fabius refused to shake his hand!
The politics are complex. Prior to the conference, different factions (”courants”) table general motions each covering all policy issues. The membership then vote on these at local meetings held simultaneously across the country. The tally each motion gets then determines the strength of each faction and the number of delegates from each at party congress (and subsequently the proportional share of candidates on party lists at elections).
This time, several major figures (Hollande, who is the First Secretary i.e. current leader of the Party, Straus-Kahn, Royal, Guigou, Lang) had come together behind a common motion which obtained an absolute majority by itself. I gather this means they could constitute a “homogenous” party executive. However, the big issue is whether to negotiate a “synthesis” resolution with the two main minority factions (whose motions obtained just over 20% each) to show party unity and to bring some of their representatives onto the executive too. The leaders of each faction apparently want this, but the grass roots don't - especially from the majority who don't see why they should concede ground to the others, particularly those eurosceptics who broke from the party line (determined by a vote of all members) in the referendum on the European constitution. One of these Eurosceptics, Laurent Fabius, gave a speech claiming that he was not anti-Europe at all, but the reaction of many from the floor showed that his U-turns had left much bitterness.
During the last night of the Congress, the leaders of the three courants did nonetheless negotiate a “synthesis” resolution, which was approved by 571 votes to 3 with 18 abstentions and 22 “refusals to vote”. This compromise now constitutes party policy. On Europe, it affirms the party’s support for a federal perspective, a strengthening of the common external tariff to protect European industry, democratic control of the Central Bank, the adoption of a directive to safeguard public services from competition, opposition to the Services Directive, the drafting of a new constitution focussed on the values and institutions of the Union, and an increase in the EU budget to 2% of GDP, notably through additional corporation tax.
The choice of the party's candidate for President will only be made next year through a vote of all party members. All the names mentioned above (and more) are in the running. I find the idea of a President called Royal quite intriguing - and entirely appropriate for the monarchical style of the French Presidency! There is extra intrigue here as her husband is also an aspiring candidate – Francois Hollande.
There is just one problem: their voting system to choose the candidate. Just as for the Presidential election itself, the internal party ballot has two rounds, with the top two candidates going through to a run-off. But with so many candidates, what if the top two are from the extremes of the party with, say, 18% each, the mainstream candidates splitting the majority courant into several scores of around a dozen % each? After all, this is what happened in the Presidential election proper three years ago, letting Le Pen through to the last round. Shouldn't they introduce, I asked, transferable preference voting at least for their party ballot? I was mostly met with blank looks as this system is not known to them, but some at least asked me to explain how such systems work. I assure them that if the Labour Party can use it there should be no problem for their members either to get used to it.