A party divided

June 18, 2004

The European Council adopts a modified version of the European Constitution. The original version had been agreed on by an ad hoc pan-European convention of senior politicians and had been well received, at least by the media. The revised version, adopted after some nasty negotiations among heads of state typical of EU summits nowadays, is generating less enthusiasm than the original version, but little controversy.

June 28, 2004

Laurent Fabius, the number two in the Socialist Party hierarchy, has invited his supporters in the party to a get-together in a restaurant in the Bois de Boulogne to explain his position on the Constitution. I’m invited. I have supported Fabius ever since 1988 when President Mitterrand made it known that he preferred Laurent as his successor. But recently, Laurent has been voicing strange ideas, saying the proposed Constitution has serious flaws, and the Socialist Party would have difficulties in supporting it. I decide to go, though mainly out of curiosity. I’m what we call a federalist, and have been strongly in favour of the European Union ever since I can remember. Indeed, it was the main factor in my getting involved in politics and joining the Socialist Party in the first place, as a reaction against the crazy nationalist policies of President de Gaulle.

Laurent knows that many people in the audience will need convincing. Most of the people present are technocrats and bureaucrats from the ministries, hardly the most likely people to support an anti-establishment stance. There are few party stalwarts from the provinces. He is extremely cool and collected, as always, but also quite funny. He explains that the Constitution, if approved, will be nearly impossible to reform, and make it harder to get the necessary approval for the famous “coopérations renforcées,” under which some countries can move forward on their own. (France has always been rather sceptical about expansion to eastern Europe, and it looks back longingly to an idealized vision of a union composed of the original six: France, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and Italy.)

Laurent then addresses the looming problem of the “délocalisations” of factories from France and western Europe generally to eastern Europe, North Africa, China or wherever. While most experts ignore the anxiety this is generating among workers, he insists that it is a real problem with real consequences in much of the industrial heartland, and that it is not going to go away. It is related to lack of fiscal harmonization so that eastern European countries attract investment thanks to extremely low levels of taxation.

Fabius stresses the fact that the forthcoming referendum is a trap for the Socialist Party. Our party is divided on the issue, and our voters unenthusiastic at best, as the referendum on Maastricht in the early 1990s made abundantly clear. “One thing is certain,” he concluded. “We must talk about the issue as little as we possibly can.” Of course, we shall have to make a decision as a party, but we must do so as late as possible, for as of that date we shall be prisoners in Chirac’s hands, since he sets the calendar. In the meantime, the party must talk about things that our voters, and indeed French people generally, want to hear: pensions, deficits, unemployment, health care and housing.

I come out of the meeting shaken in my convictions. Three or four days later, my decision is made: I’m against this Constitution.

July 14, 2004

Jacques Chirac announces that there will be a referendum, something he did not have to do. Most European states leave the decision to Parliament. Politics had something to with it since Chirac’s UMP party was savaged in the three most recent elections (county councils, regional councils and the European Parliament). With the polls saying that the vast majority of French people will vote Yes, and the Socialist Party left wing opposed to the Constitution, it presents Chirac with, apparently, an ideal opportunity to divide his opposition and gather his own rather fractious majority around him.

August 27, 2004

At its annual Summer University gathering of leaders and rank and file at the start of the political year at La Rochelle, without warning, our leader, François Hollande, declares that the Socialist Party will hold an internal referendum on the European Constitution on December 1, and that he will lead the Yes men (and women), i.e. campaign for a Yes vote. Clearly he expects the party to support him, and the French to vote Yes massively, with the result that his potential rival for the party nomination in the next presidential election, Laurent Fabius, will be marginalized. I leave the meeting with some foreboding: the party will be talking about nothing else for the next eight or nine months.

November 2004

The battle lines inside the party are drawn. Everybody is telling us that the Yes vote is supported by all and sundry on the European left, apart from a few mavericks like us in France. I decide to check for myself. My old friend Arjen Berkvens, from the Dutch Labour Party, tells me there will be a “consultative” referendum in his country (how can you have a referendum and then refuse to take the result into account?) and the most probable result is that the Dutch will vote No. I’m astounded. No newspaper has ever mentioned such a possibility. My Swedish contacts tell me there will be no referendum, in spite of many people demanding one. But, if there were a referendum, the Swedes would vote No. Further research again shows that in Poland and in the Czech Republic, the issue is far from certain, while the referendum stands no chance in Britain. My colleagues at head office share my concerns, but the leadership will not listen.

December 1, 2004

After a hectic campaign that started on a high note with a stimulating debate, but deteriorated into incessant intimidating calls from the leadership to unite behind them for the good of the party, the party referendum (with a relatively heavy turnout of 78 per cent) gives 58 per cent for the leadership and the Oui. But the National Bureau, the regional presidents, the headquarters staff and even the parliamentary group are split, with 40 to 50 per cent for the Non. The divisions run deep after three months of campaigning. How are we all going to be able to unite behind a common position?

December 17, 2004

The European summit in Brussels decides to open membership negotiations with Turkey. Chirac approves, even though his own party is at best lukewarm. The Socialist Party remains divided on the issue.

The Non surges ahead

January 2005

It is already abundantly clear that getting the party to unify behind the majority position after a heated and hard-fought three-month debate is going to be no small feat. One of my friends, former chief of staff during Mitterrand’s first term, had made it clear if the Non vote won, she would leave the party; she wasn’t the only one on either side.

February 2, 2005

The ruling council of the CGT, probably still the most important trade union in France, meets. Its leader, Bernard Thibaud, who favours the Oui, proposes that the union not take a position on the Constitution. He is repudiated: 81 votes against the Constitution to 18 in favour with 17 abstentions. This was a wake-up call, and increasingly Socialist leaders start voicing their penchant for the Non. Proponents of the hard Oui, led by former finance minister Dominique Strauss-Kahn, call for sanctions against those who break party discipline. François Hollande, as always, seeks compromise. When Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a left-winger and senator, comes out publicly and unequivocally for the Non, the leadership, after some delay, issues a reprimand, but no real sanction is imposed against him. All of this at a time when the media are increasingly focusing on the looming economic crisis, the délocalisations and the Bolkestein Directive (see the accompanyiong article by Henry Milner).

February 20, 2005

Spain, our friendly southern neighbour, ratifies the Constitution (76.7 per cent in favour, but only 42.3 per cent turnout). As in Spain, the churches in France are in favour of the Treaty. But support of the Catholic Church is not entirely a blessing in France, which is deeply secular. And when it appears that the most militant Muslim organizations are also campaigning very actively in favour, questions are raised. Could it be that the ambiguous phrasing of the Constitution will allow French laws on laïcité, which in the schools in particular symbolize for many the very essence of the Republic, to be overruled?

February 28, 2005

A joint meeting of the Senate and National Assembly modifies the French Constitution to make it compatible with, and subservient to, the European Constitution, 730 to 66 against, with 96 (mainly Socialist) abstentions. Comforted by the result, the Yes men seem to think they need not mobilize for the campaign.

March 4, 2005

Jacques Chirac announces that the referendum will take place on May 29. Now that people are answering a real question, with a real date, polls should be more meaningful and thus reliable. Sure enough, the Oui starts to falter, down to only 56 per cent in both the Sofres and BVA polls.

March 5, 2005

During a meeting in the centre of France, outside his own constituency, François Hollande is pelted with snowballs in protest against the dismantling of public services in rural parts of the country. The fact that we, the opposition, should be targeted should serve as a warning.

March 10, 2005

Large demonstrations throughout the country protest the government’s social and economic policies. On the same day, an opinion poll places the Non ahead. There is shock and disbelief in party headquarters. From now on, the network TV news programs deliver two messages. The first part, about Politics with a capital P, leans very heavily in favour of the Yes. The mainstream anchors openly show their disdain for anybody advocating the No. The Conseil Supérieur de l’Audiovisuel, created by the Mitterrand government to see to it that the media remain fair, feels obliged to intervene officially, but its powers of enforcement are minimal in the case of a referendum.

But the second part is different. There are regular reports, prepared by lower-ranking journalists, of examples of délocalisations, of companies like France Telecom employing foreign workers at illegal low wages, of the non-enforcement of labour laws in eastern Europe, the invasion of Chinese textiles, contrasted with such cases as the golden parachute (€38.05 million) given to the head of the French supermarket chain Carrefour.

March 17, 2005

Paris-Match, a glossy weekly, has a cover in which François Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy are sitting together on a posh sofa, dressed in identical blue suits, as if they were plotting together the future of the country. The photograph is not a fabrication, as I first thought. Most party stalwarts are appalled. The Yes vote slumps further. In the Socialist Party, the mood is increasingly despondent. It turns out that the leadership had no concrete plans for an active campaign, thinking it was all a foregone conclusion. Now they begin to act. The website which had been used for the Yes campaign during the internal referendum becomes the official referendum website of the party. Its tone was healthily aggressive, as was appropriate for an internal debate. The tone remains the same, even though the website is now directed at a much wider public.

The leadership comes out with a good campaign poster, for once, called L’Europe sociale, but to little avail. Word is spreading about a campaign for the Non Socialiste, joining forces with the Trotskyites, trade unionists, the antiglobalization movement and many Green activists. Despite limited funds, they seem to be able to organize pretty decently, if reports are true that there are more people at their meetings than at those organized by the party.

April 2005

The No is now clearly in the lead in the opinion polls. Left-wing voters are massively voting No, with those planning to vote Socialist split with a slight majority for the Oui. Panic is gripping the leadership. A war room is set up with phones and computers to respond to emails and answer telephone calls. But efforts are hampered by the growing mistrust at the central office. The leadership finds itself with a staff at whose upper echelons are many former Mitterrand supporters, often close to Fabius. The lower echelons increasingly reflect the attitudes of their families and neighbours in the outer suburbs where they live. (Housing prices in Paris are well beyond their means). Some openly scorn the leadership. What campaign there is depends more and more on inexperienced student volunteers.

April 14, 2005

With supporters of the Oui increasingly worried, President Chirac decides to come on television to reply to the questions of a platform of young people. It is a disaster. He seems to be completely out of touch. The students listen to him politely, some barely concealing their boredom. The opinion polls worsen.

The war room

April 25, 2005

Though there are few phone calls, there are many emails, and the volunteer workers in the war room have fallen three weeks behind in answering them. Snail mail also lies unanswered, some dating back to November. With the party in crisis, without waiting for the leadership to react, the staff takes action. I am asked to take charge of the war room. On April 27, with the volunteers answering emails from April 7, I give the volunteers their first-ever, as it turns out, briefing. Answers must be short, precise, polite and extremely considerate. Our goal is to catch up on the backload in five days with myself and a few colleagues agreeing to work every day for the duration.

May 2005

Having caught up, I start writing a daily report for the leadership on the campaign as seen from the letters and calls. Indeed, we are able to tell what the next opinion polls are going to be like three of four days in advance. Our worst fears are quickly confirmed. The campaign is going very badly indeed. Eighty per cent of mail is negative, some of it extremely virulent. It is also clear that many voters are taking the issue extremely seriously, reading the proposed text of the Constitution with great attention, and asking very precise questions. It is of little value to say that Europe is good, good for France, good for peace and so on, when the questions being asked are specific and sometimes telling. The text itself is a compromise seemingly written by lawyers. It is hard to give clear answers, especially to critics trained in law, economics, etc. The more we delve, the more we realize that much will depend on the interpretation and jurisprudence delivered by the European Court of Justice. Emails indicate that some Oui sympathizers are having second thoughts.

I am now invited to go to the campaign strategy meeting. The room is full, many people I’ve never met before. Some are obviously volunteers. Should they all be coming to strategy meetings? This was not how it was done in Mitterrand’s time. Be that as it may, François Hollande launches the meeting by declaring that we have to get rid of anything that smacks of arguments d’autorité. People hate it and no one is convinced. We must use real arguments, meet people, distribute leaflets in front of the stations, at the markets and so forth. “This is great,” I say to myself. “Finally they are getting the message.”

Alas, the rest of the meeting proceeds exactly as if the leader’s words had never been spoken. The talk is about a joint event at party headquarters with the leadership of the German SPD in favour of the Yes, of bringing all Socialist members of the European Parliament from the 25 member states to Paris to a meeting in the National Assembly, of drawing attention to the support of top-level intellectuals for the Constitution. This is exactly the last thing the ordinary voters were looking for.

The meeting ends with a promise by a representative of the Radical Party (a small left-of-centre party invited to plan the campaign with us) that they will do their best for the Yes. But, he warns, we are weak in rural France, and encounter stiff resistance among railway workers (an institution in France), postal workers, even teachers. His warning is unheeded. In the end, seven of the nine Radical Party MPs go over to the Non.

I go back to the war room, and decide not to waste any more time with the strategy meetings: they’re useless.

Increasing numbers of emails are responding to the argumentaires that we are sending out, the most controversial of which, labelled Intox, are supposed to fight against the Socialist Non. They invariably start with “They are lying to you.” Each release brings a massive response by sympathizers angered by the aggressive tone we are using. We are convincing no one. Some of the most extreme (To Hell with the Shitty Nation-State by Antonio Negri, for example) dismay even some of our own Oui supporters. I explain in my daily briefings to the leadership that the negative and aggressive arguments actually mobilize the Non supporters, while positive arguments mobilize our own sympathisers. But nothing changes.

Bringing in the heavy guns

May 1, 2005

Laurent Fabius returns from a series of lectures at U.S. universities. He has said very little since December. There are now only three weeks left before the vote. Stating that his position has been misreprented by the Oui, he weighs in for the Non, talking quietly about ordinary people’s anxiety, the failings of the Constitution, repeating the arguments that we heard during the internal Socialist Party debate but have not been aired on television by any leader of his stature.

May 4, 2005

The Socialist Party leadership decides to play its trump card: Lionel Jospin, the former Prime Minister, a controversial figure who is still respected by many of our voters. He comes out clearly in favour of the Oui. He is calm, cool and collected, and mercifully short. Emails improve all during the long weekend that follows. The polls pick up, and the Oui again has a majority.

As things again get worse, our website’s arguments are getting more and more aggressive. All sense of nuance is being lost. Our original position of being in favour of the Constitution because it is a step forward without being a panacea is forgotten, and our statements now replicate the right’s campaign of intimidation. All is well, you must vote Yes – if not …

May 18, 2005

President Mitterrand’s widow comes out for the Non. She is old, and not the most experienced politician, but there is no denying her courage going right back to the Resistance movement during the Second World War; she is popular, especially among our core voters. The leadership is dismissive: why not ask Mitterrand’s dog, Baltique, what he feels about the Constitution? Some of my colleagues who had voted Yes in the internal referendum out of loyalty to the leadership now say they are going to vote No.

With every new poll showing the Non edging ahead, slowly but surely, Jospin intervenes again, this time stressing the link between support for the Yes position and the leadership of François Hollande. The reaction in the emails is instant and negative. As the Non continues to advance, the party’s weekly magazine, sent to all our members, is increasingly strident in tone. Panicked telephone calls from sympathizers in various parts of the country tell us that there is no Oui campaign to be seen, that all the posters favour the Non.

May 29, 2005

Referendum Day has come at last. Having worked nonstop for 45 days, I decide to vote early and go hiking. I arrive at the party headquarters around 8 p.m. The Yes men and women have had a meeting at 6 p.m. Apparently they believed to the last minute that the Oui would scrape through. Few party workers are present. Apparently some 70 per cent have voted Non. Results show a landslide for the Non in Socialist strongholds. In the mining districts of the Pas-de-Calais, where many British pilots were hidden by the Resistance when they were shot down on their way to bomb Germany during World War II, the Non reaches 70 per cent. The mood is gloomy. The official line is that it’s all Chirac’s fault; the unofficial line is that it’s all Fabius’s fault. There is no sign of introspection. Jean-Pierre Chevènement, a former Socialist minister and one of the leaders of the No campaign, says the result is a stinging rebuke for a political class that is both lazy and blind. I seldom agree with Chevènement, but he’s right.

June 5, 2005

The leadership, its back to the wall, decides to force the resignation of all Fabius’s supporters from the party secretariat: discipline must be enforced. Nobody seems to realize that this kind of discipline, a legacy of the days when parties were like armies, is just not adapted to advanced democracies in the 21st century. Fabius has now been transformed into a martyr, courtesy of the leadership.

The party congress where we elect a new leadership and redefine our policies is brought forward to November 18–20, 2005. All the members of the party get to decide. Will they endorse Yes men, or …?