Follow Philippe Legrain on Twitter Follow Philippe Legrain on YouTube Follow Philippe Legrain on Facebook Email me
By Philippe Legrain ADD COMMENTS

It is a measure of how low expectations have sunk that France’s Socialist Party (PS) is celebrating after winning scarcely more than a third of the seats in the country’s newly elected National Assembly. Pollsters had been forecasting electoral oblivion; instead, the PS merely received a drubbing at the hands of President Sarkozy’s victorious UMP.

In the near term, Sunday’s results are good for democracy: every government needs a strong opposition to hold it to account and curb its excesses. When opposition in parliament is puny, critics are more likely to take to the streets instead.

Paradoxically, though, the Socialists’ relative success may harm their longer-term electoral prospects. Had the PS done disastrously badly, the pressure for reforming the party would have been overwhelming. It would have been easier for it to follow in the footsteps of its counterparts in Britain, Germany, Italy and Spain and become a modern – and thus electable – social-democratic party, along the lines suggested by Dominique Strauss-Kahn.

There is still hope. But Sunday’s results risk fostering the delusion that an unreformed PS can win in 2012 and thus help the party’s dinosaurs to stifle much-needed change.

A Socialist ought to have been a shoo-in for the presidency this year. With President Chirac discredited after 12 years in office and the outgoing UMP government deeply unpopular, French voters were aching for a change. Yet it was Nicolas Sarkozy, a long-time minister in that administration, who seized the mantle of change, while Ségolène Royal stumblingly embodied the status quo.

The Socialists have not won a legislative election since 1997, a presidential one since 1988. The Left’s combined share of the vote in the first round of this year’s legislative election was its lowest since the Fifth Republic began in 1958.

It would be a big mistake to intepret the second-round bounce as a Socialist revival. More likely, it reflects voters’ second thoughts about granting the UMP a crushing majority, combined with fears about the new government’s ill-timed and poorly explained proposal to hike VAT.

If the Socialists are to stand a chance of winning power again, they must embrace reform. The long-term health of French democracy depends on it. After the marginalisation of François Bayrou’s centrist Modem party, only a modernised Socialist Party can pose a viable alternative to the UMP.

Posted 18 Jun 2007 in Blog

Leave a reply