Last Saturday, in the National Center for Arts and Crafts, Terra Nova held its first Winter Congress. The organization is a think tank close to the Parti Socialiste (PS) and aims at bringing new ideas and methods into the French social-democrat political sphere. To give one example, they were the promoters of the successful primaries organized by the PS before the last presidential election.
Despite this success, a turbulent period followed the election for the four-year-old think tank. Ten days after his election at the National Assembly, founder Olivier Ferrand tragically died of a heart attack at 42. The organization was left without a head until the nomination in January of François Chérèque, a former head of moderate union the CFDT, to the presidency of Terra Nova. He will be joined by new director Juliette Méadel, a dynamic woman of 38, whose early success reminds one of Ferrand.
The Winter Congress was therefore an occasion for the new leadership to officially take charge and launch a new phase in the history of the think tank. During its four years, Terra Nova has been one of the instruments that helped the Left win the main election. But now, with Hollande at the Elysée and the Parti Socialiste as the majority, the context has changed and Terra Nova is likely to see some of its ideas be translated into legislative action.
But if the political context has changed, the ideological context has not. The new leadership is eager to maintain the social democratic orientation that Ferrand gave to its organization. Their aim, Chérèque and Méadel said, is to produce ideas, at a distance from the PS itself; to re-invent the links between the citizens and the political sphere; to live in a market society with a strong social element; and to think about how to accept the new limitations in the political and social system.
Their intervention was followed by a long speech by former Prime Minister Michel Rocard, a close friend to Ferrand, who gave a surprisingly detailed history of social democracy, recalling its 19th century links with the class struggle and how it differentiated itself from the Communist Party in 1920 by refusing the Moscow domination that was to weigh on the Third International. His brilliant exposé was followed by a long ovation, one that reminded the observer of how much the former PM is still loved among the moderate Left supporters.
The rest of the day was dedicated to launching the four themes that will drive the think tank over the next year: encouraging the growth model towards sustainable development, managing the constraints over housing and energy, integrating French citizens into the European construction, and rethinking the policies of equality.
The two hundred participants were split into four groups, one for each theme, and invited to discuss their theme and reactions to commentary of a few specialists on each question. The “Europe group” was lead by former Minister Jean-Louis Bianco, with MEP Sylvie Goulard, Brookings Institution VP Kemal Dervis, and Sciences Po professor Renaud Dehoussse. Each conversation was built around the necessity for the European Union to rethink its link with its citizens on the occasion of the 2014 European Parliament elections.
But the debate took a rather surprising turn. It concentrated on the institutional improvements and the social policies that could make the citizens see the Union in a more positive light. Most of the participants being members or former members of the European Commission, the debate concentrated on technical matters rather than ideas per se. Only a few were to mention the dramatic deficit of media attention that the EU suffers.
At the conclusion of the Congress, other groups offered some propositions to be implemented during François Hollande’s presidency. For example, the “Housing Group” evoked the possibility of indexing the water and electricity prices on the level of consumption, with the proportional cost rising over certain levels.
Overall, it was an interesting day for two primary reasons. From an insider’s point of view, it permitted a look into the new direction that the think tank will take under the lead of François Chérèque and Juliette Méadel. From an outsider’s point of view, it helped to reveal how the think tank does not manage to open the field of participative democracy: most of the people who were present for this Winter Congress are already close to the PS or the high administration. Perhaps this is why the PS does not offer quite so radical a change.
Hugo Argenton is LJP’s French columnist. He lives in Lille, France. The opinions expressed in this editorial are his own and are not indicative of LJP’s views.