So Why Doesn't Sarko Move Right?

France’s opposition Socialist Party is now waging a holy war with itself, apparently leaving a clear field for President Nicolas Sarkozy to follow his more right-leaning promise.  So why wouldn’t Sarkozy  — so widely admired by conservatives in other countries such as the U.S. — now actually do something conservative?

Instead of trying to enhance global control over businesses or strengthen the International Monetary Fund as he did at the recent G-20 summit in Washington, “Sarko” could pursue a capitalist agenda at home and at least trim down France’s statist society.  

So now is the time for Sarkozy to perform, as his left-of-center opposition appears on life-support.

 In choosing a new First Secretary, the opposition Socialist Party found itself so fractured and factionalized at its convention in Reims early this month that they called for a primary for Thursday, November 20th.  The primary necessitated a run-off the next day between the top two-vote-getters.  In results that Socialist leaders dreaded, leftist Lille Mayor Martine Aubry clung to a microscopic lead of 42 votes out of more than 134,000 cast. The outcome was considered a shocker because of who Aubry’s opponent was:  Segolene Royal, by far France’s best-known politician after Sarkozy and the Socialist he defeated to become president in ’07.

“I will not take this lying down!” Madame Royal told reporters when the final votes were tallied at 5 A.M. Saturday.  Charging fraud, the “Royalists” called on their followers within the party to rebel and demand a new vote.  

As usual, the most cogent political post-mortem came from SW (Smarter Wife): “She doesn’t take disappointment well, does she?” SW asked, referring to Royal’s response to the vote.  A recount by the Socialist Party’s National Council on Tuesday showed that Aubry had actually won by 102 votes.  Royalists cried fraud again and are seeking action and a new vote from the magistrates, just like Franken.

Although there are obvious questions about any vote that is so close, one also has to wonder why this particular vote was close in the first place.  The 58-year-old Aubry, daughter of revered former European Commission President Jacques DeLors, is best known as the Labor Minister in the last Socialist government who fashioned the 35-hour work week now under assault from Sarkozy.  Regarded as a bland and plodding campaigner, Aurbry has never won anything outside of her constituency in Lille.

In striking contrast, “Sego” drew 47% of the vote in the ’07 presidential election.  She had earlier won her party’s nomination for President in a runaway over three male opponents with more substantive resumes.  Arriving at the party conclave in Reims, the fashionable Royal was forced to take twenty minutes to get to her hotel as a sea of papparazi snapped her picture.

That a relatively colorless pol could even come close to such a glamorous figure must speak volumes about Madame Royal — or at least about where France’s left is these days.

Admittedly, Segolene is a difficult person to deal with.  “A messianic figure with a Joan of Arc complex” is how the Guardian characterized the way opponents within the Socialist Party view the 55-year-old Royal.  Last year, she had a very public breakup with her longtime partner (they are not married) and father of her four children, outgoing Socialist Party First Secretary Francois Hollande.  Seeking to succeed Hollande at the party helm, Royal repeatedly attacked him and his allies as “elephants” — the old guard.  Hollande, along with Paris Mayor and former First Secretary candidate Bernard Delanoe, back Aubry for First Secretary.

But Royal’s apparent undoing could also be due to her identification with the “Third Way” — the brand of ideology that embraces the center and dilutes the left in a center-left party.  In the 1990’s, Third Way politicians flourished in western industrial nations: Bill Clinton in the U.S., Tony Blair in Britain, and Gerhard Schroeder in Germany.   When all three leaders stepped down, the left seemed to resume its control of their respective parties.  

Now the “Third Way” appears to be enjoying a revival.  President-elect Barack Obama, long considered a man of the left, has brought in many moderate figures from the Clinton Administration for his Cabinet.  Britain’s Prime Minister Gordon Brown, considered to the left of old rival and predecessor Blair, just brought back an architect of their party’s centrism, Peter Mendelsohn, as his business secretary.  Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD), many of whose leaders considered Schroeder a traitor for supporting spending cuts, have recently nominated for chancellor Foreign Minister Franz-Walter Steinmeier, Schroeder’s onetime chief of staff.

Segolene Royal’s elevation to the party leadership would have been the next logical step in this “Third Way” revival.  She often complained that the left undermined her campaign against Sarkozy and has eschewed leftist rhetoric about taxing the rich and Aubry’s own alliance with labor unions.  Instead, Royal would like the Socialists to ally with Francois Bayrou, the third-place finisher in the ’07 presidential race and founder of the new MoDem Party.  

For now, Socialists are turning left and not center.  According to Edward Cody in the Washington Post,  Sarkozy is “reveling in the open battle” among the opposition party.  If ever there was a time for the French President to please his conservative fans and pursue genuine free-market reforms, that time is clearly now.