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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Les cinq raisons de la défaite

by Sébastien Crépel and Rosa Moussaoui

The Five Reasons Why Ségolène Royal Lost her Bid for the French Presidency

Translated Monday 21 May 2007, by Emma Paulay

Deciphering. The second part of our study: how the left, by underestimating the ideological counterattack from the right, failed to substantiate a progressive project of wide appeal.

The weaknesses of the Royal candidacy

From the beginning, on the evening of 6 May, the critics were aplenty within the PS (Socialist Party), to say that Ségolène Royal’s campaign lacked coherence and a “collective” dimension (see below). It is a fact that Ségolène Royal’s bid to come out from under the protection of the PS to engage what she calls a “renewal of politics” ultimately failed in the ballot boxes. This approach had been triumphant when she was designated candidate by the socialist militants, enthusiastic about her free speech and the promising polls. As the campaign continued, her strengths changed into weaknesses in the face of Nicolas Sarkozy’s UMP steam roller.

Ségolène Royal’s supporters had an easy time reproaching her rivals in the race for investiture, especially the Fabius supporters, for their insufficient implication in the campaign. Especially since the criticism which began in her own camp during the preliminaries was a breeding ground for the attack on her incompetence subsequently led by the right. All the same, Ségolène Royal was let down by the vagueness of her project and her “participative” approach was largely perceived as improvisation with no clear directive and disoriented the leftist voters.

In February 2007 a study highlighted a spectacular loss of interest on the part of the PS electorate. “[It is]within the traditionally die-hard socialist categories – teachers and intermediate professions – that the rate of distrust has increased the most in the last year”, the CEVIPOF barometer showed. “It is important to grasp the significance of these results, which are loaded with meaning: in February 2007, there are only 44% of socialist sympathisers who have faith in the left to govern the country”. Premonitory…

A major weak point of the “Presidential Pact” was the absence of any clear indication of the financial or democratic means of change. This fed the doubts about the credibility and the sense of her project, which was confined within the “liberally” correct dogma of stabilising public spending and the level of fiscal deductions. The last minute announcement during the televised debate of a “tax on stock market revenues” to finance retirement with no details of figures, by no means gave Ségolène Royal the advantage. On the contrary, it reinforced the feeling of improvisation.

The right’s counter attack after the “no” was underestimated

Although the left could have made the victorious “no” to the European Constitution the basis of their success in the 2007 electoral calendar, Nicolas Sarkozy skilfully turned to his advantage what was actually a repudiation of his politics. This turnaround was a wake up call to the left wing “no” supporters who had successfully dictated both the rhythm and the main themes of the referendum campaign.

United in the refusal of a neo-liberal Europe, they went on to prove themselves incapable of ramming home the advantage and presenting a positive alternative project. In the absence of such a dynamic political project, the fundamental questions raised in the spring of 2005 such as “in what sort of society do we want to live?” and “which economic model should we adopt?” seemingly disappeared into thin air as soon as the election was over. The disunity of those who had shown a glimmer of hope of a unitarian anti-liberal candidature completed the disorientation of a part of the leftist electorate.

The PS, for its part, remained more deeply marked by the rifts opened by the referendum than the party congress in Le Mans would have us believe. This congress was a play-act of “synthesis” between “yes” and “no” supporters. Ségolène Royal tried to make her candidature a “reconciliation” of the two sides. With mitigated success. Like Nicolas Sarkozy, she thought herself worthy of the “no” voters by playing up the nation theme, putting forward the idea that “one of the motivation of working class categories who voted “non” to the European Constitution was an existential question on whether or not France was going to be diluted within Europe”. An interpretation which disconcerted the socialist sympathisers who chose “yes” as well as the leftist “no” supporters who were more concerned by the social question raised by the constituion. The ambiguities cultivated by the socialist candidate on the future of the European Constitution left the path open to the demagogy of Nicolas Sarkozy, who did not hesitate to pose as spokesman for the France who voted “no” all the while intending to have a mini-treaty ratified by Parliament.

Left wing values demolished

“The real subject of the campaign is values,” remarked the UMP candidate the day before the first round of the presidential election. A subject on which the left did not manage to oppose the coherence of a system of ”order”, “merit”, “effort”, the “liquidation of the remains of May 1968” defended by Nicolas Sarkozy. The ambiguity of the concept of “orderly fairness” defended by Ségolène Royal, disoriented the traditional left wing electorate and reinforced this imbalance, as did the famous episode of the French flag and national identity over which she fought Sarkozy.

In a society falling prey to the social anguish brought about by globalization, the values of equality, redistribution of riches, sharing, solidarity, openness to the world and to others appeared to be losing ground. All the more so that they did not have an audible or credible outlet in the campaign proposals. These last years have been marked, despite a few large-scale social mobilisations, by a complete breakdown in positive attitudes towards collective commitments. This inward turn towards private circles undeniably favoured the welcome of individualist solutions advocated by Nicolas Sarkozy.

Another source of difficulty was the acceptance, by a section of the governing left, since the 1980s, of an outline of liberal consensus. The resulting blurred guidelines have made it difficult to affirm the fundamental principles of the left, sometimes qualified, even from its own benches, as “archaic”.

The void left by the collapse of the communist party, in particular on the subjects of employment and working classes, remained unfilled. A vehicle of values and a political framework for working class categories, this party long favoured a reading of its experience in terms of social classes. A reading to which the conservative right intends to substitute the glorification of “national identity”.

The unproductive effect of the “useful vote” and the bipartisan temptation

Resolved to qualifying their candidate for the Presidential election run-off with the highest possible score, the socialist leaders took the argument of a “useful vote” too far with the leftist electorate, playing on the largely illusionary fear of a re-make of 21 April 2002 and on the “anything but Sarkozy” attitude. The energy used in so doing had a negative effect, in giving greater importance to those who were already completely behind Ségolène Royal for the run-off, and not enough effort was put into raising the credibility of the socialist project to prevent the undecided and the hesitators from voting Bayrou. At the end of the day: Ségolène Royal’s good first round score was founded on the lamination of the other left wing candidates. She did not succeed in captivating a larger left wing audience and so was too weak in the run off.

This undertaking was facilitated by the incapacity of the self proclaimed anti-liberal left wing candidates to create an electoral dynamic. They failed to challenge the bipartisan logic preferred by the UMP and the PS, who suffocated any confrontation of alternative projects. The raison d’être of the first round was questioned by the tactical choice in view of the run off. In the end, the machine turned on the left and the PS with the appearance of a third force in the person of François Bayrou, who thwarted Ségolène Royal’s victory plans.

The centre. A trap for left wing voters

François Bayrou went the whole hog on the ambiguity of his “centrist” position and his pretend “anti-system” protestation claims. His irrepressible rise was made possible by the massive support from left wing voters unconvinced by Ségolène Royal’s ideas. At the origin of this loss of affection are the weaknesses already mentioned : unclear project, decline in left wing values, the unrelenting accusations of incompetence from the right – all contributed to Ségolène Royal’s loss of credibility. The bombardment of polls in favour of François Bayrou set him up as Nicolas Sarkozy’s most serious challenger. This dispersion of votes seriously weakened the socialist candidate for the run off and forced her to court a part of the electorate which should never have left her. Ségolène Royal attempted the impossible: to bridge the gap between concessions to the UDF (Bayrou’s party) and remaining steadfastly on the left. This worried her first round voters and did not help her make up any lost ground against Nicolas Sarkozy.

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