Voter c’est choisir, aussi : my answer to the call for unity by Christophe Cambadélis

15 Apr 2014, Paris,  Jean-Christophe Cambadlis, delivers a speech after the PS national council during which he was elected First Secretary. Image by © Zaer Belkalaï/Demotix/Corbis
15 Apr 2014, Paris, Jean-Christophe Cambadlis, delivers a speech after the PS national council during which he was elected First Secretary. Image by © Zaer Belkalaï/Demotix/Corbis

On his excellent blog “French Politics,” Art Goldhammer has some insightful commentary on the bizarrely detached reaction of François Hollande to the growing revolt within his party and also to the continuing economic crisis. It is well worth reading. But he also calls attention to a remarkable plea for party unity in the PS by the respected Socialist deputy Jean-Christophe Cambadélis to which I would like to briefly respond.

Art Goldhammer observes how much easier it is to be united in opposition and how very difficult it is to smooth over differences in a Socialist government that spans such a broad political spectrum. This seems particularly true in a government lead by François Hollande, now apparently reborn as a prophet of the center-right seeking to lead a party of the left to the promised land of the “business friendly” right.

But for me, the really interesting thing about the plea for unity by Cambadélis is he does not even pretend to finesse the fractures in the party. He simply wants the discord to stop. But as we saw recently at La Rochelle, there are many in the party whose thinking is quite different from and largely antagonistic to the ideas of President Hollande and, most particularly, the political ideas of Manuel Valls.   Is Cambadélis saying that it is unimportant whether the policies championed by Aubry or the right-wing claptrap of Valls should reign supreme in the party?

This is the chief defect of the call for unity by Cambadélis.  A plea for unity that does not also describe the people and principles around which the left should unite is hollow and meaningless. To borrow from Art Goldhammer, unity for the sake of unity is only possible when no difficult choices are required. That is not the situation confronting the PS today.

The PS is in government and the maxim of Pierre Mendés France applies with brutal force: to govern is to choose. But equally,  to vote is to choose. In other words,  the membership of the PS must decide whether to be a party of the center-right or the center-left. Cambadélis doesn’t even acknowledge the debate but, surely, it is at the heart of the discord he condemns.

Can it truly come as a surprise to Cambadélis that the political manifesto is at the very heart of why the voters of the PS have chosen to vote for the party in the past and will certainly determine whether they will choose to do so in the future because, as I say, to vote is also to choose.

I do not wish to single out Cambadélis for criticism unfairly or to reduce a highly respected man of the left to a caricature but I am amazed that he seems amazed that the voters who elected him might, shockingly, care about what their government does. He seems surprised that voters have political beliefs of their own that they hope will be advanced by voting for candidates of the party that best reflects their beliefs.

One might also observe a different, but perhaps closely related aspect of French politics today. It seems that today only the voters have political goals they seek to achieve or beliefs upon which they are prepared to act. I think it is the assumption that political beliefs are important that separates the voters—who are partisans because of their beliefs—from the political class whose main preoccupations seem to be to keep the perks of office like bodyguards, fine automobiles and entree to the New Versailles. Nevertheless, it is this failure to acknowledge that political choices and policies genuinely matter to most voters that perhaps opens a window into the soul of the political classes and exposes an emptiness that is at the heart of what is wrong with France today.

Thus, the error of Cambadélis is his failure to acknowledge that ideology is the root cause of the discord within the PS. Hollande evidently wishes to reposition the PS as a party of the center right, with an heir-apparent in Valls who will try to move it even more to the right when his time comes. Is it really surprising that most voters of the PS—who are in an ideological spectrum that ranges from the center-left to the left—are unwilling to rally around Hollande and Valls?

To reiterate, what is missing from the plea for unity of Cambadélis is any recognition of the notion that ideas matter, that people can hold genuine political beliefs that the Parti socialiste stands for certain important ideas and principles that they continue hold dear. Since, presumably, most voters of the PS are comfortably within that center-left to left spectrum, isn’t it likely that they would need no urging to rally round a government that was seeking to implement a political philosophy in which they believe? Yet they do not rally to support the Hollande government; to the contrary, many are in increasingly open revolt against it and rightly so.

The centrality of political beliefs as a motivational force for PS voters seems to be the crucial point that Cambadélis is missing. The voters of the PS and many of the party leaders can’t unite around Hollande because his beliefs and actions are anathema to them. The left does not want to struggle and sacrifice to implement the agenda of the right. To unify the party will require nothing less than new leadership who has the support of the membership and a promise to implement a new manifesto for a “socialism of the possible”.