After its drubbing in this year's elections, the French left began searching for ways to mount a vigorous opposition to the victorious conservative forces. But leftist parties still seem to find more to argue about among themselves than with their rightist rivals.
At the center of debate is the question of whether progressive forces can embrace the market without compromising their social priorities–or losing their political souls. The inability to resolve that conundrum has bled France's once-mighty Communist Party to near extinction. Disgruntled working-class voters have increasingly sought ideological solace in Trotskyist movements–or defected to the thuggish populism of Jean-Marie Le Pen's National Front. Other members of the leftist coalition have experienced a similar flight. The Green Party, for instance, found that the pragmatism required to be in government alienated many of its members, who had expected uncompromising policies. As elections neared, both the Communists and the Greens sought to exculpate themselves with voters by accusing their Socialist partners of selling out–a maneuver that failed to boost Communist or Green candidates but did manage to undermine Jospin.
Following Jospin's loss and immediate retirement from politics, Socialist Party leader François Hollande has led the search for lessons amid the ruins of the election. During their summer congress in La Rochelle, Socialist leaders issued a mea culpa, resisting efforts by some officials to lay all the blame on Jospin. Party members gave a sour reception to former cabinet member Marie-Noëlle Lienemann, whose recent book My Own Inventory not only found Jospin's government too market-smitten and his election campaign muddled, but also denigrated him as "not quite having what it takes to be President."
The vast majority of party members and officials expressed disdain for Lienemann's accusations and stressed the urgency of restoring unity and cohesion. But successive speakers also made it evident that the Socialist Party–like the French left in general–is split between market-friendly "modernizers," such as former Economy Ministers Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Laurent Fabius, and harder leftists like former Employment Minister Martine Aubry and party heavyweight Henri Emmanuelli.
"The Socialists and other parties of the left must decide whether they can accept the market and reforms or revert to the doctrinaire social democracy of the 1980s," says Alain Duhamel, who co-authored the book in which Jospin spelled out his presidential platform. "If they choose to modernize, they may rally rather quickly. If they opt for antiquity, they'll lose moderate leftists without luring back voters they've already lost." With local, regional and European elections set for 2004, France's leftist parties must decide which direction they'll take if they hope to recover soon. How they do in those contests, meanwhile, will help determine whether they can unite in time for presidential and legislative races in 2007.