Written by Hilary Barnes
A funny thing has happened this week to France’s ruling Socialist Party, founded towards the end of the nineteenth century to support the interests of the industrial working classes : it chose a worker to head the party list in French Alsace in next June’s elections to the European Parliament.
The French public are rubbing their eyes in disbelief. The party hasn’t had a worker in pole position for an important job for so long that no one can remember when it last happened.
Most of the party’s top people, from President Francois Hollande on down, have built their political careers on the basis of an education at France’s elite “grandes ecoles“, which qualifies them for senior jobs in the public administration.
Few of them have ever had jobs in the private sector, let alone at the level where they might be expected to turn a spanner.
But no one can say that of Edouard Martin, who has made his name as a militant trade unionist at the ArcelorMittal steel plant at Florange in Eastern France, where he led a long and bitter conflict to prevent the management from closing down two blast furnaces that are regarded as no longer viable and surplus to requirements in contemporary Europe.
He lost this battle, but remains as determined as ever to fight to maintain a strong industrial sector in France, where it has been in steep decline for the past 10 or 15 years and now accounts for only about 11 % of the labour force.
he is quoted as saying on Wednesday:
“ I want to keep up the fight for industry in France and at the European level, for that is where the big decisions are taken. “
Some commentators suggested that the choice of Eduoard Martin was the party’s best bet for preventing support for the party from switching next June to the right-populist and strongly nationalist National Front, lead by Ms Marine LePen, which is critical of France’s liberal immigration policies and wants France to ditch the euro single currency system.
When Francis Hollande, once elected president, refused to back the trade unionists’ fight to keep the blast furnaces in operation, Edouard Martin accused the president of ” treachery and lies “. His decision to go over to the Socialist Party has therefore surprised some of his erstwhile trade union colleagues.
“ He’s gone over to the enemy,” said one, and another said, ” He has joined the soup (gravy train) “
He’s a very different type than the constituency’s present member of the Euro Parliament, Catherine Trautman, who is more typical of the of the Socialist Party’s leading figures.
She has a degree in theology and is a specialist in the Coptic languages who has been a senior figure in the Socialist Party since 1977, becoming mayor of Strasbourg from 1989 to 2001, with a break from 1997 to 2000 as minister of culture.
She is now relegated to second place on the party list for next June’s vote, but any other workers aspiring to lead the party to victory next year should not raise their hopes that they, too, may be catapulted into a top spot.