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Le Grand Old Party?

What the Republicans can learn from France's Socialist Party.

As the Republican Party in America frantically tries to regroup after its losses in November, it may want to avoid the mistakes of another party that finds itself in a similar predicament: the French Socialists. Last month, Martine Aubry, the mayor of Lille, was elected leader of the party, beating Ségolène Royal, who had previously lost to Nicolas Sarkozy as the Socialist candidate in last year’s presidential election.

Aubry’s election marks the culmination of 18 months of turmoil in France’s largest opposition party. After their 2007 defeat, Bernard Kouchner, now minister of foreign affairs, and others called for a need “to change the software” of the Socialist Party--which the party's outgoing first secretary, François Hollande, tried to do by proposing a clarification of its position on major issues such as labor law reform, retirement programs, tax policy, and European integration. But the quest for clarity soon gave way to a clash of egos that has left the waters more muddied than ever, as the party sought not only a new leader but also a new ideology that could unite its disparate and dispirited base. Like the GOP, the French Socialists must somehow yoke together a rank-and-file that runs the gamut from Jacques le Plombier worried about the decline in the purchasing power of his wages to committed militants whose chief concern is that the party has lost its ideological bearings.

Recriminations began immediately after Royal's loss in the 2007 presidential election--just as mudslinging broke out among Republicans soon after John McCain’s defeat. Royal blamed the party, accurately, for failing to support her. Some in the party blamed her, not altogether unjustly, for running an often incoherent campaign. Two of the Socialists’ elder statesmen, Michel Rocard and Lionel Jospin, both former prime ministers and presidential aspirants, attacked her publicly. Rocard, rather inelegantly, went so far as to reveal that he had at one point in the campaign asked her to step aside and allow him to replace her, since, in his opinion, she was certain to lose.

Royal’s idea in vying for her party’s leadership post was to emulate the man who defeated her in 2007, Nicolas Sarkozy--who had taken control of President Jacques Chirac’s party, the UMP, while Chirac was still in power, and transformed it into his own personal vehicle for winning the presidency. Royal, hoping to lay the groundwork for another presidential bid in 2012, sought to do the same with the Socialist Party. She faced no dearth of opposition, however. Some of it was ideological: Many in the party saw her as “too liberal” in the European sense--that is, too receptive to the free market. Some went so far as to call her a “Blairist,” because at times she indicated an affinity with Tony Blair’s Third Way. These “capitalist tendencies” were anathema to the left wing of the party.

But Royal’s primary challenger, Paris mayor Bertrand Delanoë, took a different tack against her, challenging Royal on her own moderate turf. In a book he published last fall, Delanoë argued that socialism was entirely compatible with “liberalism,” a word that in France carries powerful right-wing connotations. But Delanoë, who is openly gay, emphasized “liberation” rather than the “free market” (libre marché in French) as the essence of the liberal position, thereby reconciling it, he insisted, with socialism. Strengthened by his machine’s impressive victory in the last municipal elections, and popular for crowd-pleasing initiatives in France’s capital, Delanoë enjoyed the backing of senior party figures such as Hollande and Jospin, whose opposition to Royal often seemed more personal than principled.

Early polling made Delanoë the front-runner, but when polls showed him fading, Aubry, who had held back during early jockeying for the leadership post, ultimately put herself forward as the nucleus of a heterogeneous “Anybody but Ségolène” coalition. Best known for implementing the 35-hour work week when she was labor minister in the late 1990s, she had largely withdrawn from the national arena while consolidating her local power base in Lille. The “federation,” or local party organization, in the Lille region, is one of the largest in the party, however, and its backing gave her a good platform from which to launch her bid as a compromise candidate.

The stage was thus set for the party congress in Reims. There, in a surprise upset, Royal--backed by powerful southern “barons” such as Gérard Collomb, the mayor of Lyon, Jean-Noël Guérini, the party chief in Marseille, and Georges Frêche, who controls the Languedoc-Roussillon federation--outpolled all the others. Delanoë fell so short of expectations that he withdrew and threw his support to Aubry, as did two candidates from the party’s left wing, Benoît Hamon and Laurent Fabius. The final runoff between Aubry and Royal proved to be a Florida-style cliffhanger, with a contentious recount giving Aubry the victory by just 102 votes out of a total of some 135,000. Nevertheless, the only clear message of the election is that France’s opposition is deeply, perhaps irrevocably, split.

Like the Republicans, the Socialists have discovered that appealing to the party’s traditional base is no longer a winning formula in presidential elections. Royal’s message to the party has been that, in order to win, it must make overtures to more centrist voters. She envisioned a broad coalition encompassing parties to the left of the Socialists as well as François Bayrou’s center-right but staunchly anti-Sarkozy MoDem Party. Her opponents seized on her refusal to rule out an alliance with MoDem as evidence that Royal was not a true leftist. This ploy was transparently hypocritical, since Aubry herself made an electoral bargain with MoDem in her Lille fiefdom. Nevertheless, the appeal to ideological purity, based on the misleading characterization of Royal as “unsocialist,” carried the day with the party base, if just barely. Similarly, Republicans in America will now have to decide whether they want to spend the next four years bickering over the meaning of conservatism, as the Socialists have spent the last 18 months bickering over the meaning of socialism.

Another point of similarity, perhaps, is that the Republicans are faced with the problem of deciding what to do about Sarah Palin, whose popularity with one segment of the party’s base might be compared with Royal’s. The comparison is actually quite unfair to Royal, who, despite a few notorious slips of the tongue during the campaign, is a reasonably articulate speaker and a graduate of France’s elite National School of Administration. She is also more acceptable to party intellectuals than Palin was to many conservative intellectuals. To be sure, Royal, like Palin, is a governor, who can use her office in Poitou-Charentes as a base from which to maintain her position in the public eye, and both are eyed warily by their potential rivals for the next presidential nomination, with good reason: They elicit a passionate support that other politicians can only envy.

Another point of comparison between Royal and Palin: Both have inspired wickedly devastating impersonators. Americans could not get enough of Tina Fey’s impressions of Palin during the campaign. In France, there is Nicolas Canteloup, whose high-pitched, drawled, almost whining impression of Royal’s voice borders on the cruel.

The Republicans in America, like the Socialists in France, must decide what kind of party they want to be going forward. Their losses in the House and Senate leave them even more lopsidedly tilted to the right than they were before the election. Will they search for a candidate who wants to broaden the party base and craft a less radical platform, as Royal tried to do in France? Or will they circle the wagon, purge the moderates, and respond to economic crisis by reverting to old nostrums of limited government and fiscal discipline? What succeeds with the party rump may well be precisely what is bound to fail in the next presidential contest. There could be a lesson in France for the party that has made France the antithesis of everything it stands for.

Arthur Goldhammer is an affiliate of Harvard's Center for European Studies and the translator of many French works, including Tocqueville's Democracy in America. He blogs at French Politics.

By Arthur Goldhammer