Inside the Campaign: Victory and Disenchantment Among the Young Socialists

The Bastille when Hollande’s election was announced. May 6, 2012
Photo: Nathan Ratapu

On June 17th, the Left and its leading party, the Parti Socialiste (PS) won the legislative elections, after a series of electoral victories. This came a little over 1 month after the PS also won the Presidential election on May 6. After this crucial and long political period, which has monopolized the attention of the French for almost a year, the socialists now have all the powers they ever wanted in their hands, from the President to the local authorities, and including the entire Parliament.

The main political figures often outshine the numerous militants and the fervent supporters of the PS who now celebrate a victory they have been waiting for so long after so many years of right-wing government. During the second round of the legislative elections, we interviewed several members of the Mouvement des Jeunes Socialistes (MJS) or Movement of the Young Socialists, in the French southern city of Toulouse.

Despite their Presidential victory and the positive prospects after the first tour of the legislative elections, the socialist troops were still on the ground, fighting their last battle. They were mobilized until the last moments when the campaign was still open, but on polling day, June 17, most of them helped to organize the ballots in the different polling stations.

The atmosphere was rather fun-filled in the 177th polling station of the 9th constituency of Haute-Garonne, in Toulouse. Here, in the elementary school Georges Hyon, Rihaoui Chanfi was the returning officer, President of the polling station. It was a surprise for him. This young socialist was chosen for this task only a few days earlier, when the organizers of the ballot needed someone immediately and realized that he was more than competent for the job. As he acknowledged himself, this is a huge responsibility; he was in charge of more than one thousand registered voters.

The task demanded complete neutrality, a great sense of organization and a good knowledge of the numerous and complicated rules for such national elections. However, above all, it demanded patience. The participation rate was very low in this polling station, even less than in the rest of the country. Voters came, alone, with friends or with their families, but never more than a couple of them waited in line to put their ballot paper in the box. Conversation was the only way to spend the time that was left. Chanfi and the other volunteers chatted between every vote, making jokes, then did their duty seriously. Here, the different volunteers, often militants from different political families, seemed to forget the opposition of the parties they represented.

At 8pm the polling station closed and the first results started to be broadcasted. The socialist victory, according to the first predictions, was complete. A result which was to be confirmed in the evening. Chanfi returned the ballots to the Capitole, where Toulouse’s City Hall rests. His duty was over when he finally registered the results of his polling station. Only then could he stop being neutral and be a member of the young socialists again. As he said, “It was a long day” but it was “a beautiful life experience.”

Their victory was predictable after François Hollande won the presidential elections and was further confirmed by the positive results of the first tour of the legislative elections. As a result, their joy was moderate, even though the PS got the absolute majority in the new Nation Assembly, the best outcome for which they could have hoped.

However, one could wonder why they were so calm, at the very end of this constant series of victories, after many years of opposition for the PS. One can imagine the frustration of those socialist militants during the presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy, designated as the first enemy to be taken down by their party. Nevertheless, when their victory in the presidential elections was confirmed by a sweeping victory in the legislative elections, their sense of reality seemed to be stronger than their expected euphoria.

Amidst these times of crisis, the socialists have less joy in their hearts than the same socialist militants had in 1981, after the first socialist presidential victor, François Mitterand won the election. Hollande is the second socialist President for the 5th republic. Unlike to Mitterand, he never promised that he could “change life” for the French. He only pledged to be “fair” when he would have to ask the French to make a sacrifice, nothing more. Despite their youth, the hope in these young socialists was moderated by some bitterness.

Chanfi himself has been politically involved since 2003. He started in high school, and now, after a master degree in history, will go to SciencePo. For him, the election is the end of a three month constant fight, motivated by the idea of defeating the Right and Nicolas Sarkozy.

“I am happy because I am a militant and because I will always fight for my ideas despite my pessimism.” His statement expresses the paradox of this victory for the socialists. According to him, “now, the hardest things are yet to come” because “the Right will strike harder than now to come back in 2017”.

In this context of crisis, it seems that the young socialists are fully aware that they partly owe their victory to the difficulties that the previous government faced. The low participation rates seem to confirm that the PS and the Left in general cannot afford to take anything for granted. According to Rihaoui, “It is the beginning of a five-year war. We’ll need to fight at every moment”.

“Nobody will forgive us for any tiny mistake, even if François Hollande didn’t make a lot of promises . . .  He will only try to make the crisis less hard to bear.” He added, “the legislative and the presidential elections battles lasted only a few months. Now we’ll face war for five years”.

The portrait Chafi then draws of France is mingled with love and resentment, “I love this country, we’re lucky [but] I don’t believe in republican meritocracy anymore. I do know that, despite of all my diplomas, being black and being a Muslim will be always be a problem . . . I am the son of immigrants, who used to be proud of France, for me France is a beautiful country.” He explained, “when I see people who live in the ghetto where I am from, telling me to stop being a militant because I will never be considered as a real French citizen, I don’t like it, but I start thinking this way too. I start thinking ‘maybe I should leave.’ The thing is that there is a kind a racism that became acceptable”.

“Even if I’m against affirmative action, because it’s the worst of things to hire someone only because he’s black, I think it needs to be done. You need a law to change things”.

Contrary to the United States, such a thing like affirmative action has never existed in France. The word itself in French is rather negative, translating literally to “positive discrimination” rather than “affirmative action.” The French constitution considers the French citizen as a pure abstract. It does not simply ignore race as it ignores religion, but talking about race and using the word is, by itself, considered racist.

Asked then about the symbolical entrance of the Front National (FN) into the Assembly, an extreme-right party which tends to defend xenophobic ideas, he said that “of course the FN has a right to be represented, but when they get such a score for two rounds [of the legislative elections] it’s a problem, it means that people subscribe to the ideas of the FN”. It is well known that the electoral system for legislative elections favors the main parties, making it quite a success for the FN to have a handful of representatives.

Daniel Molina, another young socialist militant, when asked to explain his involvement in the campaign for a foreign and anglophone audience said, “my choice is the choice of social justice, justice every day, a will of equality between persons, I know that some Americans can have a biased opinion of the socialists in Europe, I hope that François Hollande will prove to them that socialism is not what they think it is.”

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  1. […] more interviews of young socialist activists, see Inside the Campaign: Victory and Disenchantment Among the Young Socialists. Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this. Filed Under: Domestic, Today's […]

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