PARIS (Reuters) - French President Nicolas Sarkozy has emerged as the main winner from the Socialist Party’s disastrous leadership ballot that has left the opposition facing yet more years in the political wilderness.
The once-mighty Socialists last won a presidential election in 1988 and the vicious infighting over who should head the party suggests they are incapable of running their own affairs let alone the country.
“What has happened will break the hearts and spirit of thousands and thousands of party supporters,” said Nicolas Domenach, deputy editor of left-leaning magazine Marianne.
“It is clear the Socialist Party is the biggest loser.”
Party officials say Martine Aubry, the woman behind the much-criticised 35-hour week, beat Segolene Royal, the Socialist candidate in last year’s presidential election, by 0.04 percentage points, or 42 votes, in Friday’s leadership election.
Royal has contested the result, her supporters are threatening law suits, and mutual hatred built up over more than a decade of intense personal rivalry is out in the open.
The civil war in Socialist ranks means Sarkozy faces no real opposition at a time when the economy is slipping inexorably into recession and unemployment is surging.
Leftist parties should be making hay in such a negative environment for the ruling government, especially one that is seen as close to big business, but instead the Socialists face more months of sorry navel gazing and the threat of a schism.
“We could have handed Sarkozy some bad news ... Today we all know who are the big winners of this disaster,” said Socialist parliamentarian Manuel Valls, Royal’s right-hand man.
DRIFT TO CENTRE
The next presidential election is not due until 2012, but Sarkozy’s 2007 victory showed the importance of having a major party united behind its candidate and pushing in one direction.
Royal’s campaign last year was partly hobbled by her failure to rally the Socialist hierarchy to her sometimes quixotic cause and she had hoped to seized control of the leadership to mould a team that would sustain a new assault on Sarkozy in 2012.
Royal infuriated many leftists last year when she suggested hooking up with centrist candidate Francois Bayrou to form a broad alliance against the front-runner Sarkozy.
Aubry, an old-fashioned Socialist backed by almost all the party bigwigs, has promised to anchor the group on the left of the political spectrum, a move which would please hardcore Socialist supporters but is no guarantee of election success.
Bayrou came a close third in the 2007 election, with French voters attracted to his brand of consensus politics. However, he has failed to capitalise on his success in subsequent legislative and local ballots, puncturing his momentum.
The Socialist debacle could well bolster his prospects by drawing disaffected moderate leftists into his orbit.
“The problem for the Socialist party is that they risk putting Francois Bayrou back in the saddle,” said Dominique Reynie, a politics professor at Sciences Po university.
“One can imagine a ridiculous situation in 2012 where Bayrou passes the first round vote and calls on the Socialists to support him to beat Sarkozy,” he added.
Other disaffected Socialists are likely to head in the opposite direction, towards charismatic far-left leader Olivier Besancenot, weakening the opposition front against Sarkozy.
Sarkozy’s ratings have risen in recent months, lifted by his active response to a slew of dramas, including the financial crisis where he astutely borrowed anti-capitalist slogans to try to stop the left from gaining the moral high-ground.
While many of his allies revelled in the Socialist meltdown, not everyone was rejoicing.
“In a democracy you need a structured opposition,” Henri Guaino, a special advisor to Sarkozy, told France 5 television.
“For weeks and months they have worried about the future of their party structure and we have heard much less about the fundamental questions ... like the financial crisis,” he added.
Some Socialists have openly suggested that the stand-off between Royal and Aubry could lead to a break up of the party, which was created more than 100 years ago and was refounded in 1971 by former President Francois Mitterrand.
“The existence of the party is being put into question by this crisis ... anything could happen,” said Benoit Hamon, who came third in the leadership ballot.
But some political analysts doubted whether many of the Socialists’ 233,000 members would abandon ship, with around 60 percent holding some form of elected office and relying on the party for their funding if not their livelihood.
Instead, Sciences Po’s Reynie said there was a risk of a slow decline as young people shunned the party and cumulative election losses drained leftist coffers.
“It is a party that might die of old age. It is losing elections and therefore mandates and therefore subsidies and little by little it will disappear,” he said.
Additional reporting by Laure Bretton
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.