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Tuesday, 4 June, 2002, 14:43 GMT 15:43 UK
French Left faces darkest hour
Lionel Jospin
The face of defeat: Jospin resigned after shock result

It was Socialist Party secretary-general and would-be prime minister Francois Hollande who let the cat out of the bag.

In an interview last week he expressed satisfaction that France's new centre-right government would find many of its promises hard to keep in the long run.

He appeared to have forgotten that before the government of Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin can do anything, it has to fulfil the small obligation of winning this month's parliamentary elections.

President Jacques Chirac
Chirac may now get the government he craves
But Mr Hollande's remarks were revealing of the state of utter demoralisation that currently reigns in the French left.

No-one - least of all the Socialists themselves - expects them to retain their majority in the National Assembly after the second round on 16 June. Worse, many are even predicting a wipe-out.

The shock of Lionel Jospin's knock-out by the far-right in the presidential race led to a wave of youth protests against Jean-Marie Le Pen that comforted the Socialists into the illusion that the country was at heart still theirs.

But the May demonstrations are now just a memory. Today's reality is rather different: a newly re-elected Jacques Chirac; a popular centre-right government promising tough action on a range of fronts; and a left that is both rudderless and leaderless.

A kind of deal has been patched up for the election - but this is sticking-plaster. Underneath the wounds are festering

Francois Hollande is a well-liked figure, but his appointment as Socialist nominee for the post of prime minister was made simply because a vacuum had to be filled after the departure of Lionel Jospin.

His position is contested by more powerful figures within the party such as former prime minister Laurent Fabius and former finance minister Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who are only holding fire because they have little faith in the prospect of electoral victory.

But worse for the left, they are entering the election having left unresolved all the contradictions and tensions that led to Mr Jospin's presidential defeat.

What is to be nature of the Socialist Party?

Anti-Le Pen protester in Paris
Anti-Le Pen feelings may not turn into socialist votes
Is it to be a reformist social-democratic organisation that makes accommodations with capitalist reality?

Or is there to be a swerving to the left, where the presidential election showed there is a vast reservoir of unsatisfied working class voters?

And what of the alliances with the Communists and the Greens? A kind of deal has been patched up for the election under which single candidates are put forward in 30 vulnerable seats. But this is sticking-plaster. Underneath the wounds are festering.

The truth is that Lionel Jospin's "plural left" coalition was totally dependent on the former prime minister to hold it together. Without his controlling hand, it is spinning off into its disparate parts.

The Socialists of course proclaim that victory should be theirs: that Mr Chirac was reelected with massive support from the left and that it would be wrong to concentrate sovereign, executive and legislative power in the hands of one party.

'Total collapse'

But it is hard to argue that "cohabitation" is not such a bad thing when you have spent much of the last five years railing against it; and it is harder still to pretend that the tide is not running in Mr Chirac's favour.

Opinion polls are now notoriously unreliable in France, but all now give a majority to the president's supporters after June 16. Some go further: predicting a total collapse for the left similar to the one it suffered in 1993.

The way would then be open for a period in opposition and a chance to re-think in the light of the country's new political realities.

Truth be told, that is actually what many on the left believe is now necessary.

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