France’s socialist party are to be congratulated for pulling off the remarkable feat of selecting as their next leader a man who makes François Hollande look dashing. As one French newspaper said of Olivier Faure, he’s “a man of consensus at the head of a moribund socialist party”.
Faure, 49, won’t be officially anointed the first secretary of the socialist party until their congress next month, but the job is his now that his only challenger, Stéphane Le Foll, withdrew from the leadership race on Friday.
The word ‘apparatchik’ could have been invented for Faure, a man whose Wikipedia page should be required reading for all insomniacs. It traces his tedious trail from joining the socialist party at the age of 16, to becoming secretary general of a socialist youth wing seven years later, to working in various capacities for Martine Aubry, Hollande and Jean-Marc Ayrault, a triumvirate of socialists whose influence over the party in recent decades is largely responsible for the catastrophic result in last year’s presidential election when only six per cent of the French people voted for their candidate, Benoît Hamon. Their humiliation was complete the following month when they took just 29 seats in the parliamentary election, down from 280 in 2012.
Since then the socialist party has been forced to sell its chic Parisian headquarters for €45.5m euros (£39m) to raise much-needed funds. But it’s not just money that the party lacks, they’re also horribly short of supporters. Since 2007, the membership of the party has plummeted from 260,000 to 102,000; of the ones who remain, only 37,000 could be bothered to vote last week for their new leader.
It’s a far cry from December 2014 when the then first secretary of the party, Jean-Christophe Cambadélis, promised not just to arrest the declining membership of the party but to increase it to 500,000 by the time of the 2017 presidential election. What went wrong?
A month after Cambadélis stated his ambition the staff of Charlie Hebdo were gunned down – the first in a series of Islamist terror attacks on French soil over 18 months that left 239 dead. France needed strong and resolute leadership but instead it witnessed a government arguing among itself about how to best tackle Islamic extremism. Ministers who had coasted through political life in their socialist echo chamber were disorientated by the gravity of the situation, as they were when faced with the migrant crisis. Their handling of the economy resulted in record unemployment among the young and the ridicule of the Anglo-Saxon world who delighted in French Bashing.
How they’re seen overseas matter a great deal to the French, who are, by nature insecure, and they never forgave Hollande nor his government for turning them into a laughing stock. The one minister who recognised this was Emmanuel Macron – then in charge of the economy – and on becoming president his first task was to restore France’s global image.
Macron’s two years in the socialist government opened his eyes not just to the incompetency at the heart of the party but also their lack of empathy with the people they governed. French politics has a tradition of breeding bloodless bureaucrats who don’t understand the day-to-day struggles of Frenchmen and women. Hollande, for example, was for years the partner of Ségolène Royal, who stood unsuccessfully as the socialist Party candidate in the 2007 presidential election. The pair met at ENA, the elite finishing school for French technocrats that has churned out scores of presidents and ministers over the years, including Macron. He might well have ended up as out of touch as his peers had he not married Brigitte.
Compare her background, for example, with that of Olivier Faure’s wife, Soria Blatmann, who until her husband embarked on his leadership campaign, was a human rights adviser for the government. In other words, she comes from the same milieu as her husband – the same as the majority of the European political establishment, which is now being rejected by million of voters across the continent.
Brigitte Macron doesn’t hail from this background. During her first marriage, she worked as a press officer for the chamber of commerce in northern France before retraining as a teacher, a profession she has described as her calling. She understands the world better than her husband because she’s lived in its heart and not just looked down on it from on high.
For example, a recent biography of the presidential couple highlighted their divergence of opinion on the threat posed to France by political Islam. Macron sees little harm in the wearing of the hijab. But Brigitte believes it is an oppressive garment and would like it banned from universities. “Emmanuel is a man of consensus,” she told the author Anne Fulda. “But I can’t support anything that harms women or children.” She has similarly robust views about the importance of safeguarding the country’s secularism [Laïcité ] in the face of Islamist provocation, whereas her husband – certainly in the early days of his political career – is confident, like so many of his class, that given time Islam will cede to Western values.
Because Brigitte Macron has never been part of the political groupthink that has characterised European politics for the last thirty years she has her own opinions which, as her husband acknowledged in January, she shares with him.
Olivier Faure has no one to explain to him what life is really like outside the Parisian bubble. He’s inherited the leadership not of the socialist party but of the consensus party, where political correctness still stifles honest and courageous debate on the issues that brought Hollande’s government crashing down.