Around 5,000 French socialists gathered last week-end in La Rochelle for a self-motivating work "summer camp” to grind their teeth over controversial debates that will enliven next year's elections campaigns, not least devising a strategy against the far-right.
Unemployment, growth and taxes were again the main focus as the ruling party readies itself for the municipal and European elections, in March and May 2014, respectively.
The politicians are a somewhat nervous, delegates say, as French president and its government stand low in opinion polls.
In fact, some more militant factions of the Socialist Party (PS) are losing motivation. “Let's be fair, European drive liberal policies, because the right wing is more numerous in Europe.This might change, but it'll take time”, a veteran told EURACTIV.
But party political leaders have a more optimistic view of their European election push.
“Let's not take a false departure by thinking we might lose. We have to fight, and the socialist group in EP has done good work, and can still deliver on main issues,” said Catherine Trautmann, leader of the French PS group in European Parliament.
Trautmann added that “European socialism will have a face to show the voters as their candidate for Commission president, and that should trigger voter interest. We have to win the fight between progress against conservatism. And it's doable,” she said.
The Socialists' main concern is not only losing the European elections, but also seeing the far-right party, Front National, led by Marine Le Pen, gain further steam.
The "21 April nightmare", when Jean-Marie Le Pen was chosen by electors for the second round of the French presidential elections in 2002, is still on everyone's mind, delegates said. The far-right's surge left Lionel Jospin, the socialist candidate, by the wayside.
Young socialists are concerned about such scenario and have published a leaflet titled “Unmask the National Front”, referring to Le Pen's far-right party.
“We’re worried because they go forward undercover on a lot of subjects. When they criticise mosques, it is not because of secularism. It’s because they want Catholicism instead,” said Laura Slimani, a member of the Young European Socialists.
But Laurent Fabius, foreign affairs minister, also expressed concern about the Front National, warning that the campaign could turn nasty, with Marine Le Pen, daughter of and successor to Jean-Marie, ready to use pictures of foreign workers as a political tool against Europe.
Europe does not satisfy the French Socialists, and some have called for more transparency and democratic openness. But Stéphane Le Foll, minister of agriculture and former member of European Parliament, said that constitutional changes brought by the Lisbon treaty would make a different Europe in the end.
“Now we will have a real Parliament, which will be responsible of European general interest and in front of him the Commission and the European Council who will reflect a sum of national interests,” he said.
Climate is back
Though environment and climate seemed to have disappeared from the government agenda, it remains a major issue for Socialist activists. Philippe Martin, the new environment minister, reintroduced the idea of a carbon tax in France last week, gaining little support.
For French Socialists a carbon tax would be just a start. They dream of killing the already failing carbon market and extending the tax to other European countries.
But at this stage, the idea is still very controversial in France. The first talks on the subject brought strong reactions among right-wing parties including the Front National and the centre-right Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), but also strong critics within the government.
Over the weekend, a handful of ministers expressed doubts about the relevance of a new tax. The French public, who are just receiving their tax sheet for 2012, are facing having to pay much more than last year after the Socialist government raised taxes on higher wages.
“The timing is never good to talk about taxes, but the ecological transition has always been a part of our plan,” explains a governmental source. The source also explained that the global level of taxes wouldn't be affected by the move.
“It's by doing nothing on energy that we let French people get poorer,” Martin added, underlining that the ecological transition was not a brake for innovation, but a way of changing habits. Economists say French energy bills could jump to €100 billion in 2025 if nothing is done.
“We will try to organise a new fiscal system whose aim is to change the economy: we have to green today's fiscal measures,” he said. He was applauded by Socialists when he added that the most ancient nuclear reactor in France, located in Fessenheim, will be closed before the end of François Hollande' s presidency, and that “shale gas should stay where it is, deep in the rocks.”