Strauss-Kahn’s fall brings the French Left down with him

May 18, 2011

By Ronald Tiersky

Dominique Strauss-Kahn has thrown away a good chance of becoming the next president of France. His demise damages his own Socialist party and the entire French Left, in which the Socialists are the dominant force and the only party that can possibly produce a winning candidate for the 2012 election.

In the half-century since Charles de Gaulle founded the French Fifth Republic in 1958 the French Left has elected only one president — Francois Mitterrand in 1981. Re-elected in 1988, Mitterrand’s political legacy was, at least apparently, to have given France a permanent left/right, Socialist/Conservative alternative. But things haven’t turned out that way.

Something has always been wrong with the French Left’s politics–at least, that is, if its goal was to win elections and govern the country.

During the Cold War, the Left was unelectable because of the strength of the French Communist party — for a while it had almost thirty percent of the vote and controlled the country’s powerful Confédération générale du travail (CGT) labor union. Always linked to Soviet influence, the Communists simultaneously dominated the French Left and made it unelectable. The Socialists were like timid second cousins, a fifteen percent party. It was said the Socialists were like a slice of ham in a sandwich of Gaullists and Communists, and getting thinner all the time.

But de Gaulle, the conservative nationalist, and Mitterrand, the Socialist European advocate, were able to undo the Communists’ voting bloc. De Gaulle took one-fifth of the Communist vote in 1958; Mitterrand took another fifth in the early 1980s. In the process, the Socialist party became the largest party on the Left while the Communists have become the three percent rump of a once fearsome political animal.

Since Mitterrand left office in 1995 the Socialists have not produced a single leader of incontestable stature. This is now heading toward twenty years. Run by an elite group whose primary success is to neutralize each other’s ambitions, the Socialist party leadership has became a bunch of feckless losers having a good time unencumbered by a serious collective will to win and to govern.

Ségolène Royal, the lightweight defeated Socialist candidate for president against Sarkozy in 2007, turned out not to have known that her common-law husband (and party chairman) François Hollande was a ladies’ man until a magazine published a photo of a certain happy-looking couple on vacation together on a North African beach. The less-than-compelling Hollande, by the way, for the moment leads the pack in the race to be the Socialist candidate this time around.

The stolid, hapless current party leader, Martine Aubrey, is another less-than-compelling possible candidate. In addition to being more doctrinaire, she was the primary sponsor of the 35-hour work week law.

With his international prestige and distance from the carnival politics of the Sarkozy presidency, Strauss-Kahn might have returned to Paris like a conquering Socialist party hero — finally a serious Left-wing politician with imposing credentials, demonstrated competence and fire in the belly.

All the more a pity because, although incumbents usually win, Sarkozy could actually be beaten this time. His poll numbers are low (but they will rise as the campaign gets serious) and, on his right, there is a new attractive presidential candidate, Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Front party, which she is transforming from a racist, nationalist, anti-immigrant and anti-European integration fringe movement into a more respectable semi-populist conservative party. (Many of those voters, demographically if not literally, are among those who once voted Communist.)

If the allegations against Strauss-Kahn are true, the first victim of his still-inexplicable behavior is the woman who was sexually assaulted. The second victim is the French Left, that is, French democracy. (The IMF and the international financial system will struggle through.)

Any democratic country suffers when there is no plausible alternative to the party in power. Flourishing democracy implies that power changes hands according to fair elections at regular intervals in which opposing parties have plausibly good chances of winning.

In an essentially one-party system, half the country becomes a permanent political minority whose gut instinct is resentment rather than patriotism. L’affaire Strauss-Kahn is bad business all the way around.

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