The technician with the local radio station had a vital role to play on Wednesday evening. He was measuring the audience applause and cheers at a rally in the Trocadiere music hall in the French town of Rezé near Nante, using a digital recorder to see which of the two speakers got the better reaction: Segolene Royal or Martine Aubry.
French Socialist Party boss Martine Aubry (l) greets Segolene Royal.Foto: DPA
Pounding music, slick election videos, and a host of local and national speakers kicked off the evening. And then at 7:40 p.m. it was time for the duo to appear. Thunderous applause greeted the two big names in the French Socialist Party (PS) -- former presidential candidate Royal and party boss Aubry.
In the end Aubry supporters' organized enthusiasm was just as loud as that of the Royal fans; an acoustic stand-off.
There is a reason for the great interest in these political decibels. This was the first time both of these political archrivals had appeared together on a stage since the party conference in Reims last year when Aubry beat Royal in the leadership race. With 10 days to go until France votes in the European parliamentary elections, the two women had come to drum up support for the PS. With smiles for the comrades and a show of harmony for the voters the symbolic appearance was intended to create an image of unity and to combat the party's plummeting support. For weeks the PS has been way behind President Sarkozy's Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) in the opinion polls.
Right up until they took to the stage the representatives of the two politicians were sparring over details of protocol. Even the location of the rally in the Loire Valley was a compromise between Royal's political fiefdom, the region Poitou-Charentes, and Lille, the city where Aubry is mayor.
The enmity between the two Socialists goes back almost a decade. Royal and Aubry already disliked each other when they both served in the cabinet of former Prime Minister Lionel Jospin -- Aubry was the minister for social affairs and employment while Royal was the deputy minister for schools. "Aubry always treated me as if I was her junior minister," Royal has said of her experience working with Aubry from 1997 to 2000.
Ever since that showdown in Reims, when Aubry narrowly beat Royal in the leadership contest, the relations between the two PS women has been glacial. They hardly ever speak with each other, never send text messages and telephone calls are extremely rare. The personal feud has blocked important work in the party, frustrated the grassroots members and has reduced the Socialists to an increasingly powerless group in the eyes of the public.
The two leading PS figures were not even capable of a show of unity on May 1, labor day in France. Aubry marched in Paris while Royal turned up to support striking workers in her own region.
Despite the high profile she achieved when she took on Sarkozy in the 2007 presidential race, Royal has kept largely aloof from the European election campaign. She was said to be annoyed when Aubry did not invite her to a PS election campaign launch in Toulouse in April. Instead of hitting the campaign trial with her party colleagues, Royal prefers to go it alone: She concentrates on her own pet issues, like solar energy and recycling, attends to her own kind of parallel party, Désirs d'Avenir (or Desire for the Future), and raises her profile with trips abroad or the occasional attack on President Sarkozy.
A Show of Camaraderie
Meanwhile her actual role in the party remains unclear. She wants an official leadership position -- as the president of a region, or head of the association of socialist and republic deputies in the National Assembly or even as the PS representative with the Socialist International. And she has long realized that she can only attain her goal of securing the nomination for the presidential election in 2012 with the help of the party structures.
Perhaps Royal is simply hoping that her rival will fail: The center-left newspaper Libération predicts that the next round of the duel will come after the European elections -- something that could end up being a bitter act of revenge. If the PS doesn't manage to get at least 20 percent of the vote on June 7 then there could well be an internal push to oust Aubry.
The show of unity in Rezé on Wednesday night by no means marks the end of Socialist infighting, but is rather a matter of political calculation and reason. The two put on a show of camaraderie with Royal warmly describing her rival as "dear Martine, our party boss," while Aubry used terms of endearment for her "dear Segolene" who "with all the differences" wants to "change a lot in our great party." And there were of course kisses as the two PS women met on the stage, and a gift from the party leader to the former candidate -- an African statue of an "upstanding woman."
There was nothing surprising in either of their speeches. Both demanded unity on the left, the mobilization of the Socialists and a "European patriotism." They pleaded for a "social Europe," condemned climate change, environmental problems, unemployment and the consequences of a "cynical economic liberalism." And Aubry also invoked the common interests of women, "who know that they must stand together."
It remains to be seen how long this solidarity will last. On Wednesday evening, even when digitally measured, neither had an acoustic advantage over the other in terms of the response from the audience. Perhaps because after this celebration of harmony the desire for common ground conquered all. It was not the chants of individual names that were the loudest but the slogan of unity that the party's youth wing shouted: "All together -- Socialists."