The left's quiet man in the Senate vies for leadership
Jean-Pierre Bel (pictured right), the Socialist Party's leader in the French Senate, looks to be a shoo-in for the chamber’s next president. But his sudden rise to prominence has drawn criticism from within his own camp.
A relative unknown even in his own country, Socialist French Senator Jean-Pierre Bel is nevertheless poised to fill the prestigious post of presidency of the Senate on Saturday. The left won a historic majority in the chamber last week, but questions have arisen about Bel’s ability to lead the upper house.
The main opposition Socialist Party finished two seats ahead of the ruling UMP party in Senate elections on Sept. 26, but Saturday's internal chamber vote will decide if Bel, hailed for his ability to build political consensus, will replace the incumbent president, UMP lawmaker Gérard Larcher.
The vote could be close, with many centrists and independents filling the ranks of the upper house. Some in France have criticised Bel’s lack of charisma. "'A politician of consensus' is a nice way of saying he lacks influence,” a Socialist Party insider who asked to remain anonymous told France 24 this week.
In the face of criticism, Bel, 59, says he is prepared to fill his new, larger shoes. He has been bolstered by wide support from within his party and from allies on the left. The leader of the Socialist Party in the Senate since 2004 told French Inter on Monday: “I have absolutely no complexes. My legitimacy has been on display for the past seven years.”
Atypical rise to power
According to France’s constitution, the president of the Senate is first in the presidential line of succession. If Bel wins Saturday’s election as expected, his victory would crown an atypical rise to prominence. Neither a Parisian nor a product of elite Socialist Party circles, Bel learned politics in the mountainous Ariege region bordering Spain.
In 1980 Bel settled with his wife in Mijanes, a village hidden in the Pyrenees mountains boasting just 91 inhabitants. He had been planning to run a holiday resort, but instead turned to politics, becoming the town’s mayor in 1983. A former member of the far-left LCR party, Bel joined the mainstream Socialist Party the same year.
Four years later he rose to the ranks of councilman in the Ariege department’s government –then chaired by his father-in-law, Robert Naudy. But it was an auspicious meeting with Lionel Jospin, then first secretary of the Socialist Party, which propelled Bel to the national stage.
With Jospin’s endorsement, Bel was appointed to a series of increasingly important posts starting in 1992. From 1997 to 2000 he served as the Socialist Party’s chief election coordinator at the national level, and became a Senator for the Ariege region for the first time in 1998. In 2004 he took over the leadership of the Socialist group in the Senate.
Trouble on the home front
Bel forged a quiet but disciplined voting block on the left, a 2008 consensus-building effort that reaffirmed his place as the Senate's head of opposition. This week, Bel could barely conceal his joy when Senate election results gave the left its first Senate majority since 1958, followed by his nomination as the Socialist candidate for the presidency of the chamber.
While victory is likely for Bel on Saturday, it is not certain. Socialists have largely rallied behind him, but a few dissenting voices were also heard in the run-up to the poll. According to Yvon Collin, president of the European Democratic and Social Rally, a voting block in the Senate that counts 18 members, “the harshest criticism [of Bel] comes from within his party.”
Current Socialist Party chief and presidential hopeful Martine Aubry, possibly annoyed by Bel’s support for her in-party rival François Hollande, told French journalists that Bel was the sort to jump on the bandwagon.
“If the left is in position to take control of the presidency of the Senate, Jean-Pierre Bel is not the man of the hour. He’s an opportunist,” Aubry is quoted as saying in the recently published French book “The battle for the Senate”.
Bel offered a different explanation for the criticism that has trailed him. “I am a mountaineer from Ariege and I've never elbowed myself to get in front of the photo,” he told France Inter radio on Wednesday. “We who come from outlying regions, we are often seen as strange. I’ve always faced this scepticism, but it’s up to us to show that we can lead.”