Author Archives: Alistair Cole

France – Bye bye Mr Sarkozy, hello Mr Nobody

The ‘open primaries of the Right and the Centre’, fought over two Sundays in November 2016, have challenged two unwritten ‘rules’ of the French Fifth Republic. First, the Gaullist one of the direct relationship between the providential leader and the people unmediated by party. In this tradition, the leader emerges naturally to represent the force of history; the party is a presidential rally to organize support for the exceptional leader. If we can recognize the Gaullist genealogy of this style in the history of the French right, for a long-time French Presidents have no longer corresponded to this ideal.  The vibrant primary elections revealed a movement that is anything but subordinate: whether this is interpreted in terms of a confrontation of powerful Barons or a successful exercise in direct democracy. The hollowing of the Gaullist myth is closely associated with a second unwritten rule: that control of a political party produces a natural advantage for a candidate seeking election to the presidency. Mitterrand in 1981, Chirac in 1995, Sarkozy in 2007 all represented versions of this truism. The introduction of the primary elections, first for the PS in 2006 and 2011, and now for the Right and the Centre (in fact, LR), have laid bare the shifting foundations of presidential power. The success of the PS primaries in 2011 occurred because the voting constituency was broadened well beyond the traditional party members and activists; the party itself was fairly marginal to the procedure and reconfigured on the basis of the results in the primary election. Capturing control of the party is no longer an adequate gauge of the ability to stand as the party’s candidate; Martine Aubry controlled the party from 2008, but failed to win the primary and secure the PS nomination in 2011.  Sarkozy’s return to take control of UMP/LR in 2014 was accompanied by a commitment to introduce primaries, forced upon him by Alain Juppé and François Fillon.

The ‘open primaries of the right and the centre’ were fought over two rounds on 20th and 27th November.  The fortunes of the candidates oscillated widely once the campaign began in earnest in late summer, but most had assumed that the run-off would pit former President Nicolas Sarkozy against former Premier Alain Juppé. In the event, Francois Fillon, long considered as the outsider, even as Mister Nobody (in the charming opinion of former President Sarkozy), emerged in powerful first position (44.1%), making the opinion pollsters the first losers of this primary election. The first round results were widely interpreted as a surprise. ‘Speedy Sarko’ was the main victim. In a previous blog, I wondered whether Sarkozy was on the road to nowhere, with an identity focused campaign aimed at siphoning potential FN voters but ignoring core socio-economic concerns.  The maneuver fell flat:  Sarkozy managed to poll just 20.7%, producing an abrupt and immediate end to his political career and unlikely resurrection. The second unanticipated result of the first round lay in the counter-performance of Alain Juppé (28.6%), who had appeared withdrawn (even complacent) throughout the campaign and who clearly expected to be present, in a commanding position, on the second round against a damaged Sarkozy. In the event, François Fillon emerged strongly with over 44.1% on the first round, though he had been trailing with barely 10% in fourth place a few weeks earlier. For the record: the other candidates were each squeezed by the triumvirate in head: Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet  (2.6%) narrowly outperformed Bruno le Maire (2.4%) to win the battle of the forty-somethings (les quadras). The wooden spoon was reserved for the unfortunate Jean-Francois Copé (0.3%), the former UMP General Secretary (elected against Fillon for that position in controversial circumstances in 2012), who trailed the Christian Democrat party candidate Jean-Francois Poisson (1.5%).  Fillon’s second round triumph – with 66.5% of votes counted at the time of writing –  was built, amongst other factors,  upon a high rate of transfer of first round Sarkozy voters.

Who were the winners and losers of the primary and what are the likely consequences?  François Fillon was the obvious main winner, elected on 27th November as the LR candidate with two-thirds of the 4,300-000-4,500,000 voters who participated in the primaries.  On the first round, Fillon came ahead in 11 out of 13 regions (all save New Aquitaine [Juppé] and Corsica [Sarkozy]), 87 départements in metropolitan France, against 7 for Alain Juppé (essentially in the New Aquitaine region) and 2 for Nicolas Sarkozy (Corsica, Overseas). The results delivered a favourite son effect for Fillon, who registered impressive scores in Pays de la Loire region [59.7%], where he arrived in first position in each department, achieving a peak of 78.5% in the Sarthe (that he had represented as a deputy).[1] Rather than its spatial concentration, however, the core lesson to be drawn from Fillon’s first round vote lies in its broad national spread. Fillon led in regions such as Brittany that might have been expected to lean to the centrist Juppé, as well as in the former Sarkozy strongholds on the Mediterranean coast.  Alain Juppe  was runner up in most regions, except in the geographically specific south-west (6 of the 12 départements of the New Aquitaine region, the zone of influence of Bordeaux), along with a stronger performance in Paris region, where the Ile-de-France regional leader Valérie Pecresse had rallied to him.  Sarkozy could draw cold comfort: the former President was beaten into third position almost everywhere, including in the historic stronghold of Hauts-de-Seine. The pole position of the first round was transformed into a triumph on the second, with Fillon attracting the support of three million electors and arriving in first position almost everywhere (except the Gironde, Corrèze and Guyane départements).

How Fillon won relatively clear. Why Fillon won is a rather more complex question, involving three distinct levels of analysis: the personal, the programmatic/ideological and the conjectural.  First, the personal equation. Fillon was widely lauded for a well prepared campaign, a detailed and serious policy programme and a professional performance during the three TV debates between the 7 candidates.  In the three presidential debates, Fillon appeared at least as ‘presidential’ as any other candidate.  By surviving as Sarkozy’s premier for 5 years (2007-2012), Fillon had demonstrated personal endurance. Though Sarkozy’s treatment of his premier (or ‘collaborator’, as described in  2007) produced lasting tensions, the fact remained that Fillon and Sarkozy had shared control of the State for five years and the ex-President rallied without hesitation.  At the level of programme and ideology, Fillon claimed to have a programme that would create a ‘rupture’ with existing social and economic models (a rather similar claim had been made ten years earlier by Sarkozy).  Fillon presented his programme as radical, most explicitly during the second round debate against Juppé.  The centre of gravity of the Fillon programme lay in his attention to the socio-economic and state reform axis. The successful candidate advocates strongly the need to reduce the power of the State in the economy, to bring down company taxation, to end the 35 hour week, to weaken social protection, to support business and enterprise, to engage in a radical reform of the Labour market (including a thoroughgoing revision of the Labour code) and to shed 500,000 jobs in the public sector.  In fairness, the leading candidates were arguing over shades of blue. There was a relative cohesion between the economic policy stances of the main candidates, each promising a version of the most economically liberal programme since the Chirac’s RPR-UDF government (1986-88). The debate between the candidates centered on the extent and rhythm of the shrinkage of the public sector (500,000 jobs, in the case of Fillon, 250,000 for Juppé) and how far and fast to reduce public expenditure. Both leading candidates agreed on the need to increase the retirement age to 65.

This relative cohesion in relation to economic policy was disrupted by clearly distinctive positions on foreign policy and controversy over the role of Putin’s Russia that Fillon seeks to bring back into the orbit of European diplomacy.  A secondary line of cleavage concerned multiculturalism and cultural liberalism.  While Juppé positioned himself as a candidate open to the diverse origins of contemporary and advocated a respect for minorities, Fillon  sent out strong identity markers to provincial Catholic conservative electorate (notably on family issues and adoption), though he refused to be drawn on abortion or  gay marriage. Fillon’s  programme claims to be tough on Islamic terrorism. It rejects aspects of multi-culturalism and adopts an assimilationist ideology not far from that of Sarkozy. The convergences between Sarkozy and Fillon (strengthened by the rallying of the former to the latter) were demonstrated by the controversy over Fillon’s proposals to rewrite history programmes in Schools to encourage a ‘national narrative’.  If Fillon did little to hide his background as a provincial Catholic conservative, the economic and state reform dimension are clearly placed in the forefront. In the French context, this cocktail of economic liberalism and social conservatism raises immediate comparisons with Margaret Thatcher, a comparison willingly embraced by Fillon.

Finally, the conjectural dimension needs to be taken into account. Rather paradoxically, Fillon benefited from being off focus for the main media battles between Juppé and Sarkozy, at least insofar as he was subject to less penetrating media analysis. Fillon occupied the central position in a political landscape marked by a shift to the political right (demonstrated in numerous surveys and notably the CEVIPOF-IPSOS-SOPRA-STORIA-Le Monde 2017 election survey). In the light of recent debates over populism and anti-politics in the wake of BREXIT and Trump, Fillon might be read as an anti-populist candidate.  The ‘populist’ candidate who celebrated Trump’s election was Sarkozy, not Fillon, the provincial, Catholic, conservative promising economic pain in the interests of national revival.  Surveys demonstrated that the kind of national identity politics Sarkozy was proposing were important to some electors, but less important than social and economic issues to electors as a whole. If Juppé scored strongly on the latter, and Sarkozy on the former, Fillon was seen by supporters as being the only candidate able to bridge the identity and economic concerns of the electorate.

Set against the standard of François Fillon, the other leading candidates faltered. Juppé suffered from his open advocacy of the alliance of the Right and the Centre. Sarkozy’s attacks against Juppé on the basis that he would ally with the centrist François Bayrou hit the mark for a fraction of the LR electorate. Juppé’s espousal of l’identité heureuse and pleas in favour of multi-cultural tolerance were notable virtues… but went against the spirit of the times in the ranks of the Conservative electorate.   Was Juppé damaged by the ‘Socialists’ that openly declared they would vote for him? Quite possibly.

For his part, Sarkozy encountered determined resistance, including from the approximately 10-15% of electors who declared themselves to be on the left. Sarkozy stands as one of the most influential politicians of his time, a reformer who energized the French presidency, but whose reforms have not really stood the test of time , with some exceptions. Will Sarkozy be remembered as the tax-cutting President who raised the fiscal burden over the course of his presidency? As the economic liberal who turned to state intervention? As the friend of diversity who ended up excluding those who challenged the quasi-colonialist belief of ‘our ancestors the Gaullists’? As the campaign gathered pace, Sarkozy appeared as a ‘has been’, as did Juppé, the former premier whose welfare reforms had brought the country to a standstill in 1995.

Smaller games were also being played. Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet  (2.6%) came ahead of Bruno le Maire (2.4%) to represent the quadras, a  minor but important win. NKM’s performance was probably enough to ensure a bright future, even though she backed Juppé on the run-off. On the other hand, the rallying of Valerie Pécresse, President of the Ile-de-France region and former Fillon supporter, to Juppé days before the first round remains an enigma. There is a more general point: though no-one can predict the victor, the consequences of choices are long lasting. Witness the rallying of Sarkozy’s lieutenants to Fillon as soon as the first round results were known.  The longer-term consequences of the primary elections on restructuring the structure of political opportunities are considerable: the 2011 PS primary demonstrated that presence in the primary ensured a political future. It is not sure, though, that the 0.3% obtained by Copé will be of much use (apart from the therapeutic benefit of having been free to fight the primary and witness the downfall of Sarkozy).

Les Républicains as an organisation emerged as another winner. There were over 4,200,000 voters on the first round (some 9% of the total electoral body), a figure that increased somewhat on the second round. Nobody contested the legitimacy of the process, unlike the  Fillon- Copé spat for the leadership for the UMP four years earlier.  The High Authority for the organization of the primary managed the process in a neutral way and rose to the logistical challenge (apart from running out of ballot papers and envelopes, in Paris notably). The first ever primary election for the mainstream right appeared to give an electoral boost to the victorious candidate, in advance of an anticipated victory in May 2017. Finally, the primary produced a turnover of almost 17,000,000 euros (on the basis of 8,500,000 electors paying 2 euros each) half of which would be drawn upon the Fillon in the presidential election campaign itself.

The immediate polls carried out in the aftermath of Fillon’s election pointed to a comfortable second round victory for the LR candidate against Marine Le Pen. But being installed as favourite this far in advance is a mixed blessing – as Alain Juppé discovered to his cost in the ‘primary of the Right and  the Centre’.


[1] Le Monde ‘Primaire de la Droite: Résultats du premier tour’, 22 November 2016.

France – Nicolas Sarkozy: On the Road To Nowhere?

The best laid plans go astray.  Nicolas Sarkozy, the former President of the French Republic who vowed never to return to politics, is staring at the possibility of not winning the primary election for the Republican nomination in the 2017 presidential election. The two rounds of the primary will take place on 20th and 27th  November and the next two blog entries will concentrate on the campaign and results.  At the moment, the eventual result is wide-open, with nearly all commentators predicting a victory either for Alain Juppé, Chirac’s former Prime Minister, or for Nicolas Sarkozy, French President from 2007-2012.  Seven candidates (Nicolas Sarkozy, François Fillon, Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, Alain Juppé, Jean-François Copé, Bruno Le Maire et Jean-Frédéric Poisson) have qualified for the contest, which will be fought over two rounds; in the event of no one candidate obtaining a majority on the first round, a run-off contest will occur to designate the LR candidate.  12228 voting booths will allow an expected 2,000,000 – 4,000,000 electors to express their preferences. The deep unpopularity of the incumbent President, Francois Hollande, and the deleterious state of relations on the left bestows a vital interest on the Republican primary. The victor of the Republican primary stands a very good change be being elected the next President, given the state of unpopularity and division on the left and the ‘glass ceiling’ that is likely to prevent the National Front (FN- Front national) candidate, Marine le Pen, from victory even in the likely event that she reaches the second round.

Sarkozy ought to be in pole position: after a couple of years crossing the desert (literally, in terms of his involvement richly remunerated conferences in Qatar) the former president fought back to win control of the UMP (Union pour une majorite populaire – Union for a Popular Majority) in November 2014, renaming the movement the Republicans. The shift in nomenclature was intended to indicate a shift away from the pretension of the old UMP to be the Union of the Right and the Centre and to create a tougher organisation able to compete with the FN, while retaining the bulk of existing support. As one decade earlier, when he had captured control of the UMP, Sarkozy recognised the centrality of party; his main opponents were either unable (Fillon), or uninterested (Juppé) in competing at this level.  Controlling the main party – the UMP turned Republicans – was intended to act as a trampoline to smooth a trouble-free nomination of Sarkozy as the presidential candidate. Sarkozy is well aware of the resources the control of the main party can bring: the definition of the party’s platform that the candidates are supposed to respect, the material resources used for meetings, etc. Sarkozy used these resources fully during the period of almost two years at the helm of the LR, before standing down as General-Secretary with the declaration of his candidacy in late August 2016.

The first obstacle to Sarkozy’s grand design (of re-election) was that he could not prevent the process of primary elections. The Republican barons were able to impose the primary election on Sarkozy, for once forced to respect party rules, notwithstanding his resistance of any form of institutionalisation while President (Haegel, 2013). Trailing Alain Juppé in the various opinion surveys carried out over the summer, the primary campaign was supposed to allow Sarkozy to impose his political leadership and policy choices on the other candidates and rally the Republican base in support of his energetic candidacy. Consistent with his reputation as a man of action, Sarkozy portrayed himself as the Bulldozer, who would define the terms of the debate in the French primaries and impose his themes on the campaign as a whole.

As the primary campaign has unfolded, however, things have not gone exactly to plan. True, no-one can doubt the former President’s energy or the enthusiasm of his supporters. In contrast, the other leading contenders – front-runner Alain Juppé, former premier Francois Fillon, the rising Bruno Le Maire – have attracted less media attention and have been strangely absent during key moments. The spate of terrorist attacks during the summer of 2017 (Nice, St Etienne de Rouvray) played to Sarkozy’s agenda; the former President occupied the media limelight during this vital period.  Fuelled by a campaign based on values and identity, Sarkozy began chipping away at Juppé’s initially strong lead in the primary polls (de Montvalon, 2016).

Who will win the Republican primary is a question of key importance and this blog will consider the issue more fully in its next editions.   Sarkozy is obviously one of the leading contenders. Alain Juppé, former foreign minister and Prime Minister, remains the frontrunner in the primary elections, but appears curiously absent from public debates. The embittered former premier Francois Fillon’s well-prepared campaign has thus far failed to take off.  Sarkozy has a better implantation in the movement than any of the contenders; he boasted the support of more parliamentarians, party élus and activists than any of the other primary candidates. No-one would write Sarkozy off at this stage and he remains one of the likely contenders on the second round (assuming a second round is necessary).  But there are an impressive number of obstacles that might prevent Sarkozy from winning the primary.

Sarkozy’s ideological positioning is one. The secret of Sarkozy’s successful 2007 presidential campaign  lay in his capacity to transcend traditional debates between left and right and to accompany the debates over ‘values’ with precise positions in the field of society, economy and welfare. The period immediately following his election was that of the France of all the talents, the opening up to the left and civil society actors, the promotion of the new generation of black and beur politicians such as Rachida Dati and Rada Yade.  In 2012, on the other hand, Sarkozy was defeated on the second round of the 2012 presidential election on the basis of a much narrower programme of values and national identity, the strategy that he appears to be adopting again for 2017. To be fair, the linking of immigration and insecurity represents a fairly consistent strand of his political trajectory: his role as a tough Interior minister under premiers Raffarin (2002-2004) and Villepin (2005-2007); the creation of the ephemeral Ministry of Immigration and National Identity in 2007; the infamous Grenoble speech of 2010, which marked the beginning of a much harsher position on issues of immigration, migration and security were all testament to this. The early campaign for the republican primaries (that prefigures an eventual Sarkozy campaign) has been dominated by identity-focussed debates over the ‘Burkhini[1]’, over special diets in schools, the wearing of Muslim veils in universities and provocations about national origins designed to challenge the desire to assimilate into the national community by those with diverse ethnic, especially Muslim,  origins[2]. The game is a dangerous one. Will electors prefer the original (Marine le Pen) to the copy? Will a values-based campaign harden opposition from vital centre-right and centre-left electors, disillusioned with Hollande, whose support the Republican candidate might need to win the 2017 presidential election. Falling too far to the right is likely to provoke an autonomous centre-Right candidacy (François Bayrou), or even sustain the nascent presidential bid that Hollande’s former economy minister Emmanuel Macron makes little secret of preparing.   Beyond the substance of this debate lie the questions of the sincerity of Sarkozy’s ideological positioning. One policy in particular exemplifies this instrumental use of ideology: though responsible as President  for the important Grenelle environmental agreements of 2008, Sarkozy has recently been calling into question human responsibility for global warming.

The old recipes are the best. Sarkozy is playing to the hard core Republican electorate that – he calculates – is most likely to vote in the primary election. The substantive issue remains, however. Sarkozy is a highly credible first round candidate in the primaries:  there is little doubt that the Sarkozy core will be mobilised and their champion be present on the second round of the primary election. But Sarkozy will need to create a very powerful first round dynamic to stand a chance of obtaining the nomination after the second round. His likely adversary, Alain Juppé, will be likely to be able to count on the rallying of defeated contenders such as Fillon, Kosciusko-Morizet  and probably Le Maire et Copé as well, in an Anything but Sarkozy movement. And there remains some doubt whether Sarkozy will actually be able to stand as a candidate. Sarkozy’s judicial worries are never far from the surface, an obstacle vividly recalled in the last week of September (Goar, 2016). On Monday 26th September, Sarkozy’s former chief of Police (Bernard Squarcini) was arrested on suspicion of abusing his influence. On Tuesday 27th September, the weblog Mediapart produced documentary evidence that again linked the financing of Sarkozy’s 2007 campaign will Colonel Gaddhafi.  On Thursday 29th September, Sarkozy’s former guru Patrick Buisson published a damaging account of his years in the Elysée as one of Sarkozy’s key advisors (Buisson, 2016); Buisson notably criticised the political insincerity, emotional insecurity and capacity for dirty tricks of his former master. On 30th September, Jean-Francois Copé, former General-Secretary of the UMP, published a harsh interview implying that the Bygmalion funding scandal (2012) was entirely due to the incapacity of the 2012 candidate to control campaign expenditure. If it is unlikely that these legal worries will come to court before the end of the presidential campaign, they are likely to weigh heavily in the background.  In the past, Sarkozy has rebounded against adversity and such an outcome must not be excluded on this occasion either. Playing the victimisation card might help Sarkozy in the short run, but there is a long way to go before he moves back into the Elysée palace.


de Montvalon, J.-B. (2016) ‘Nicolas Sarkozy porté par la dynamique de sa campagne’ Le Monde, 27 September.

Goar, M. (2016) ‘La semaine où Sarkozy a été rattrapé par son passé’ Le Monde  30 September.

Buisson, P. (2016) La Cause du peuple Paris: Perrin.

Haegel, F. (2013) ‘Political Parties: The UMP and the Right’, in Alistair Cole, Sophie Meunier and Vincent Tiberj (eds.) Developments in French Politics 5 Basingstoke: Palgrave, pp.  88-103.

[1] The Burkhini is a Muslim-swimsuit that covers the entire body. In the wake of the Nice attacks on July 14th 2016, several Republican mayors adopted municipal decrees forbidding the wearing of these outfits on France’s beaches. These municipal decrees were ruled  unlawful by the Council of State.

[2] In a controversial speech in September, Sarkozy remarked that ‘the Gauls are our ancestors’ and anybody who contests this should have no place in France.

Michel Rocard: The man who never became President

Michel Rocard: the Man who never became President

Few and far between are the politicians whose passing away (2nd  July 2016) have evoked such unanimity. Politicians from premier Valls to former President Sarkozy are falling over themselves to praise the wisdom, foresight and modernity of the former Socialist premier.  A national day of remembrance, held on 7th July, is a rare honour usually reserved for former Presidents. Michel Rocard can boast a powerful legacy, indeed,  in terms of providing an intellectual underpinning and political standard for French-style social liberalism, boasting a solid reformist record as premier (1988-1991) and leaving an enduring political legacy. Rocard also did much to contribute towards cultivating an economic culture within the left. As former premier Lionel Jospin observed in his tribute: François Mitterrand might have dominated Michel Rocard in political terms, but in view of the policies implemented under Socialist governments since 1982, Rocard won the economic battle’. [1].  

History may or may not retain the failure of his overarching ambition to be elected President.  He was, indeed, a presidential candidate, polling 3.61% as the PSU’s representative in the 1969 presidential election (narrowly short of the 5.1% for the SFIO’s Gaston Defferre). Ultimately, however, Rocard might be remembered as the man who never became President.  Rocard’s contest with Mitterrand for ascendancy within the Socialist Party was a defining moment of modern French politics- and he lost.  Control of the PS presidential candidacy in 1981 was one of the key prizes at stake in the bitter struggle between Mitterrand and Rocard for control of the Socialist party between 1978 and 1981.  The latter’s experience in 1978-1980 suggested the limits of external popularity as a lever to break the hold of the existing organisation on the party apparatus[2]. The strategy adopted in 1978-1980 (in short one of using external popularity to influence the choice of the party’s presidential candidate) failed then, but acted as a precursor to the primary movement which swept French political parties after 2006.

Michel Rocard was as an important personality in the history of the French left. He came to prominence as General Secretary of the small yet highly influential party, the Unified Socialist Party (Parti socialiste unifié – PSU), a party he led from 1967-1974. Though he eventually joined the PS in 1974, and led an influential group of supporters, he remained a marginal force within the Socialist Party, arguably even during his short period as First Secretary (1993-95). But the numerical inferiority of Rocard’s supporters within the PS must not disguise the influence of the movement. Rocard was the symbol for many of a specific tendency within the French left – the deuxième gauche  – which came to signify an alternative narrative of the French left to that focussed on capturing the commanding heights of the state and the economy.  The movement was strongly influenced by the legacy of Pierre Mendès France, the radical premier of the fourth Republic (1954-55) who set in motion France’s decolonisation (Morocco, Tunisia) and who first insisted on the need for economic rigorous economic management as a necessary condition for social progress.  As a student at Sciences Po, the young Rocard was active in the UNEF student union, and evenly briefly joined the SFIO, the Socialist Party he soon quit (in 1958) over the stance adopted to the Algerian war. Unlike many intellectuals, he never became a member of the PCF. Anti-colonialism was the cornerstone to this alternative left emerging to contest the SFIO. The Autonomous Socialist Party (PSA) was created in 1958 as a breakaway group from the SFIO; joined by various minor political clubs, it became the Unified Socialist Party (PSU) in 1960. After rising to national-level prominence after the Rencontres de Grenoble (1966), Rocard became General Secretary of the PSU in 1967, and led the movement through the tumultuous events and aftermath of May ’68. With the aim of renovating the left from outside of the main existing party, the SFIO, Rocard’s PSU was directly in competition with Francois Mitterrand’s Federation of the Democratic and Socialist left (FGDS (1965-68) and later with the Socialist Party (Parti socialiste – PS, captured in 1971 by Mitterrand). Mitterrand won that initial battle and many subsequent ones.

The fact remains that Rocard was not a player at the 1971 PS Epinay congress that redefined the landscape of the French left. He was never at ease with the central strategy of Union of the Left (the alliance between Socialists and Communists), but a version of this strategy was successful.  Rocard lost politically in the first instance, his route barred by a determined François Mitterrand, tactically Rocard’s superior. Much has been written about the relationship between Francois Mitterrand and Michel Rocard. Was this mainly a question of personal rivalries and style? In part undoubtedly. But it also concerned core issues of strategy (the Union of the Left and the necessity or not of allying with the PCF); of political and economic culture (the respective role of the State and the Market), of macroeconomic choices (for example the wisdom of using nationalisation as an industrial tool) and of the role of the party.   In many of these areas of controversy the Rocardian approach was evidence-based, evaluative and experimental.  In a prophetical landmark speech to the PS congress in Nantes (1977) Rocard warned the left not to deny the existence of economic constraints that would necessarily influence future government choices: “If the left is unprepared for power, if it refuses to recognise the importance of powerful constraints, if it refuses to admit the technical nature of many policy problems, then it will face failure” [3]

The deuxième gauche was classically formulated in Rocard’s speech to the same Socialist Party Congress of Nantes (1977). In this speech Rocard contrasted the two cultures that structure the French left, a statist, centralising culture and a more decentralising experimental one. The second left was initially associated with a Christian left (Left Catholics, but also protestants such as Rocard himself), as well as being a provincial left favourable to decentralisation and distrustful of a republican narrative of uniformity.  The second left was also a movement influenced by the ideas of May ’68, favourable to workplace democracy, social experimentation, the right to difference, local economic development and autogestion. [4] Above all, the second left demonstrated a certain suspicion towards the State and advocated a more systematic role for civil society and local authorities in policy-making.  Certain of the demands of this second left were clearly influenced by the spirit of the times (for example, ‘autogestion’, or workers’ self-management, a theme directly inspired by May ’68). But the basic message (a combination of rigorous economic management, social justice and a demand for transparency and honesty [‘parler vrai’] ) have withstood the passage of time and are more pertinent today than ever.  The heart of the Rocardian method lay in the duty to identify the challenges ahead, to explain and confront reality and to introduce a stronger economic culture within the French left. Hence, the caution he expressed over certain aspects of the 1981-83 reform programme (especially the Mauroy government’s nationalisations of 100% of leading industrial groups, the banking and insurance sectors, rather than taking a 51% controlling stake as argued by Rocard).  Other dimensions of the Mauroy government – decentralisation, workplace democracy –could claim a stronger filiation with the ideas of the second left.

Rocard will also be remembered as a consequential reformer, especially as a reformist Prime Minister from 1988-1991. In 1988. Mitterrand nominated Rocard as the man of the situation, when the PS failed to obtain an overall parliamentary majority in the ensuing parliamentary election.  Rocard was the first premier practising l’ouverture, a mainly unsuccessful attempt to broaden the bases of parliamentary support to incorporate elements of the centre and centre-right. Lacking a clear majority, premier Rocard was forced to rely on the most restrictive clauses of the 1958 constitution, notably article 49/3, which allowed the minority Socialist to survive for a full five year term. [5] All in all, Rocard was a reformist prime minister, with a robust policy record: the introduction of  a minimal income (revenu minimum insertion –RMI), a universal benefit extended for the first time to young people of 18-25; an ambitious programme of reform of the State (the programme of the modernisation of the civil service owes its origins to Rocard, as does the changed statute of the Post Office); and an  important fiscal reform (the creation of the general social contribution [contribution sociale générale –  CSG] to finance  new universal welfare benefits). Such policy activism aggravated an already conflictual relationship between Prime Minister and President (a staple of the fifth Republic) and a stoked a bitter personal animosity between the two men. In 1991, Mitterrand dispensed with the services of Rocard, though the prime minister remained popular.

Rocard’s career continued for two more decades after his resignation from Matignon. He was First Secretary of the Socialist Party, 1993-94; a Socialist MEP from 1994-2009, and served in various Commissions under President Sarkozy. But he never did succeed in imposing his presidential candidacy on the PS (the standard bearers being Jospin in 1995 and 2002; Royal in 2007 and Hollande in 2012).  By this most basic benchmark, he failed. But the legacy is a much more powerful one, in the form of a diffuse network of political and economic personalities, think tanks, ideas,  experts and putative inheritors (including premier Valls and  Industry minister Macron), who are jostling to be recognised as legitimate heir and inheritor. Michel Rocard was an important and influential advocate in the ongoing process of reconciling the left to the economy. He ought to be missed.

[1] Cited in Le Monde, 4th July 2016.

[2] Alistair  Cole (1989)  ‘Factionalism, the French socialist party and the fifth Republic: An explanation of intra‐party divisions’  European Journal of Political Research Volume 17, No. 1, p. 77-94

[3] Rocard’s speech is reprinted in La Nouvelle Revue Socialiste, 27, (1977), pp.69-76; p.70.

[4] Pierre Rosanvallon, L’age de l’autogestion,  Paris : Seuil, 1976 ; Pierre Rosanvallon and Patrick Viveret Pour une nouvelle culture politique  Paris : Seuil, 1977.

[5] Article 49/3 allows a government to stake its confidence on the passage of a parliamentary bill, effectively forcing deputies either to overturn the government, or accept the bill.

France – 2016: President Hollande’s annus horribilis

2016 is turning out to be President Hollande’s Annus horribilis.  The incumbent President’s misfortunes in 2016 appear compounded by the quickening pace of political decline, as the 2017 presidential election approaches. As this blog entry is written, French President François Hollande appears to face an impossible dilemma: to be the first President not to stand for re-election, or to stand as candidate with the danger of not reaching the second round.[1] Hollande’s predicament might be interpreted in terms of a series of inappropriate responses to specific events, in which case the Socialist President is a victim of the normal rhythms of extraordinary times. There are any number of key events to choose from: we consider the aborted constitutional reform of 2016 below.  Hollande’s descent might also be interpreted as the culmination of a series of design faults: the original sin of the mode of election in 2012; the result of a particular style and discourse; the unintended consequences of the political responses to the terrorist attacks on 2015; the longer term impact of economic crisis and the failure to bring down unemployment. All of these factors recall the weak political, partisan and sociological basis of support from the outset. To understand Hollande’s predicament we need thereby to mix levels of analysis: to capture the structural, partisan and political bases of the current presidential weakness, as well as individual responses.

Hollande’s original sin lay in the manner of his election as President in 2012. His 2012 presidential campaign was fought in large part as an anti-Sarkozy referendum, designed to preserve an early opinion poll lead that was mainly built upon a popular rejection of Sarkozy. A majority of second round voters (51%, compared with 31% in 2007) declared that they had voted negatively (for the candidate best placed to prevent the less preferred candidate from being elected) and only a minority declared they had voted positively for their candidate (49%, compared with 69% in 2007). [2] His candidacy was based on his strategic political positioning as being a ‘normal’ candidate and president, a style deliberately adopted to be the counterpart of the flamboyant Sarkozy. Once elected President, however, Hollande experienced a rapid descent from popularity, much faster and more thorough than any previous president. The failure to act during the first 100 days represented a lost opportunity.  He was trapped by the frame of normality during a period of economic crisis; the attraction of a “normal” President who ignored the economic tempest in a wave of enforced optimism soon wore off.   For the 2012 electoral series was fought in a context of economic crisis; voters were almost as pessimistic about the ability of Hollande to ‘improve the situation of the country’ (26%), as they were about Sarkozy (25%). [3]  Hollande’s claim to normality had also involved a commitment to keep his private life out of the public domain, but the public jealously displayed by Valerie Trierweiler, Hollande’s erstwhile partner, destroyed this aspiration very early on. Hollande’s personal judgement was then called into question by a succession of scandals involving leading figures of the Socialist-led government. By far the most important scandal was that of Jerome Cahouzec, the first Budget Minister whose reputation for integrity was destroyed by evidence of a secret bank account in Switzerland (despite his repeated denials).

I have argued elsewhere that the Hollande presidency has been undermined by the weakness of a consistent legitimising discourse[4]. It is unclear to many what Hollande represents. There is a weakness of story-telling, the construction of a coherent narrative to describe and justify governmental action. Is Hollande a traditional social-democrat? There was certainly a sustained effort during the Ayrault premiership (2012-2014) to revive a social-democratic discourse, and to give substance to this by using social-democratic instruments such as the annual social conference between the government, the business associations and the trade unions; the principle of negotiated solutions to labour laws and training, and the state’s involvement in attempting to reduce unemployment by subsidised jobs for young people. The core problem lay in the inability to resolve the most intractable policy issue of them all, unemployment. Hollande’s commitment in 2013 to ‘reverse’ the rising level of unemployment provided a hostage to fortune. By early 2016, no major diminution of the unemployment rate had occurred, with France comparing unfavourably with her main EU partners and competitors. Hollande did not convince as a social-democratic president, not least because of his inability to resolve this most intractable problem of domestic policy.  Was he more successful as a ‘social-liberal’? Hollande began the ‘social-liberal’ turn in 2013 (when a governmental programme, the CICE, first reduced various business taxes) faced with evidence of France’s sluggish economic performance and the tense relations with the business community. The main programme was the pacte de responsabilité in January 2014: 50 billion euros of reductions in business taxes, against the (unfulfilled) expectation that firms would begin hiring workers again. If the social-liberal orientation was determined by Hollande’s choices, the responsibility for justification lay with premier Valls (from April 2014) and increasingly from the ambitious minister of Finance Emmanuel Macron, who steered his own liberalisation programme in 2015.

At the end of December 2015 Hollande obtained some of his best poll ratings since taking office[5]. Hollande has enjoyed the most success with a Republican narrative, centred on education, citizenship, the role of France in the international arena and the Nation. In 2015, Hollande appeared as the embodiment of national unity against the internal and external terrorist threat. The right tone was struck, in the mass rallies of January 11th 2015 in defence of the Republic after the attacks on Charlie- Hebdo and in the convoking of Congress in Versailles, just days after the November 13th outrage.  In his address to the Congress, Hollande received a standing ovation. He also made a dual commitment: to reform the 1958 constitution to provide a firmer footing for the state of urgency[6]; and to deprive terrorists of French nationality (initially those with dual nationality, later on all French nationals). These two related but distinct articles were imagined in order to provide a firm response to terrorist attacks, but also to embarrass the political right into supporting constitutional reform (Hollande’s previous attempt to amend the constitution, to include the reform of regional languages, had failed in 2015 due to the obstruction of the Senate).

Once the dust of the Versailles speech had settled, the dual offensive was doubly offensive to the ‘usual suspects’ (the frondeurs, Martine Aubry, the Socialist mayor of Lille, the ‘left of the left’), but also more generally to Socialist deputies, if not to broader public opinion (which supported the position adapted by the executive on both counts). The proposal to refer to the state of urgency in the 1958 constitution was criticised by some lawyers as providing a constitutional basis for what is by definition an irregular process[7], but these arguments left public opinion indifferent. Hollande’s manoeuvre was designed to rally support from across the political spectrum, in particular from the Republicans whose approval would be necessary to allow any constitutional reform. Here was a potentially popular reform, albeit one that divided constitutionalists, aroused opposition to some of its elements from the Constitutional Council[8] and appeared to strengthen administrative circuits and the police at the expense of legal authority and the judges.  The article would have consecrated the power of the French president to determine what constitutes a state of urgency and minimise parliamentary involvement.

The controversy aroused by the State of emergency was as nothing compared to that of the proposal to deprive terrorists of their French nationality should they be convicted of terrorist crimes. The initial proposal was to remove French nationality from bi-national citizens convicted of terrorist attacks. Faced with firm opposition, especially from Socialist deputies, an amended proposal was introduced whereby any convicted terrorist could be deprived of their French nationality, potentially creating apatricides. As Patrick Weil pointed out, there were problems with each of these positions: to deprive only bi-nationals of their French nationality was tantamount to discrimination and to creating two classes of citizenship (against the equality inherent in the Declarations of the Rights of Man)[9]. But the proposal to remove French nationality from any convicted terrorist might leave certain citizens without a nationality. If the first proposal clearly went against the canons of French republican equality, the second one was manifestly contrary to international jurisprudence and law. After four months of high drama, the constitutional reform bill eventually fell in March 2016, once the Senate refused to accept the terms of the constitutional reform finally approved

in the National Assembly[10]. The saga further alienated the left (including losing the Justice minister Christian Taubira, the symbol of left-wing authenticity within the Valls government) without rallying the right in support of the constitutional change. Eventually both measures fell victim to the decision to abandon the constitutional reform. The real fault was a political one. This idea of removing nationality from terrorists has long been associated with the UMP (Sarkozy in 2010) and even the National Front (Front national – FN), whose spokesperson declared the FNs agreement with the proposal.   The political damage caused by this saga has been considerable for the lack of any positive outcome. The response was to divide further an already emasculated left, without opening up a viable electoral alternative.

One of the core constituencies supporting Hollande in 2012 was that of the youngest age cohorts (18-24, 25-34). Shortly on the heels of the constitutional saga, the proposed El Khomri law revealed how difficult it can be for any government, including a Socialist-led one, to maintain a constructive relationship with young people on the verge of entering the labour market. The merits of the proposed El Khomri law (which initially set out to reform [modestly] the labour code, to liberalise [somewhat] the conditions under which firms could lay-off workers and to limit job-loss payments) might be debated. The employer’s association, the MEDEF, has long argued that the French labour code is impossibly complex and has posited a clear link between excessive regulation and the stubborn refusal of the unemployment curve to begin its movement downwards. In drafting the initial project, premier Valls listened closely to be MEDEF (and rather less closely to PS deputies or traditional support organisations such as the student union, the UNEF).  In rather typical style, weak consultation produced a social movement which, in turn, led the government to abandon key elements of the proposed legislation. Rather like the Macron Law in 2015, the proposals that eventually emerged fell far short of their initial ambition.  Perhaps the Socialists have nothing to expect from the MEDEF. But the rupture with ‘young people’ was the real downside of this series. The most contentious issues were abandoned before the law had been introduced in the Council of Ministers. And yet this climb-down was not enough to put the genie of France’s youth back into the bottle, as the mobilisation against the Loi el Khomri was transformed into the nuits debout movement, staring in the Place de la République in Paris and extending outwards to the French cities shortly after, the symbol of a divided left and a youth in revolt, renewing with a classic register (social protest) aimed against the incumbent socialist government. The mobilisation of students and school pupils against the proposed El Khomri Law recalled that one decade earlier against the First Employment Contract (Contrat premier emploi – CPE) of de Villepin government. The merits of the case need not be reviewed extensively here. That the dual labour market might be responsible for the high level of youth employment does not figure as part of the mental map of the protesters against labour market insecurity. But the management of the Valls- Hollande tandem was clearly defective. Neither the minister, Myriam El Khomri, nor premier Valls was able to reassure and satisfy a youth fearful of labour flexibility and desirous of the full time permanent contracts that their parents enjoyed.

Faced with these setbacks, the latest batch of opinion surveys provide little solace for Hollande. The third round of the CEVIPOF’s 2017 Barometer casts doubt on Hollande’s personal judgement. Even more recent surveys have suggested that Hollande, as PS candidate, would not reach the second round and, if he did, would be defeated by Marine Le Pen[11]. These findings are incredibly damaging, as they undermine Hollande’s attempt to position himself as Father of the Nation, defending the Republic against its enemies. In this fin de règne there is new evidence of lèse majesté: in the form of the ambitious political positioning of Emmanuel Macron, the new darling of the polls on the left. Though Macron owes his political ascension to President Hollande (Assistant General Secretary of the Elysée, named as Finance minister in April 2014),  in early April 2016 the ambitious énarque announced the creation of a new political movement, En Marche, explicitly aiming to  transcend left and right. Whatever the fortunes of this movement (there have been others), it is difficult to see how it cannot be experienced as a form of treason by Hollande, protector and promotor of the ambitious Macron as a counterweight to premier Valls and a bridge to the business world.  Valls, trapped by solidarity with Hollande and by co-management of the executive for over two years, is no longer the young reformer anxious to sweep aside the existing Socialist order. Macron is much less constrained and more likely to ‘kill the father’.

These events tells us something about Hollande’s presidential style. The official optimism of public speeches throughout the Hollande presidency was in stark contrast with popular perceptions of failure. The 2012-2017 presidential term has been defined in part by a style that posits a preference for formal consultation over open confrontation. There is much to be said for the art of refined compromise, especially after the fractures of the Sarkozy years.  Hollande’s celebrated capacity for synthesis was developed over years as First Secretary of the Socialist Party, and involved an intimate knowledge of PS networks, and of the changing centre of gravity within the party.  If the advantage is flexibility, and the ability to adapt to a changing centre of gravity, the downside is the challenge of consistency, credibility and coherence. Ultimately, Hollande’s reputation has suffered from the ambiguities of the 2012 campaign, from the lasting impression of a lack of coordination within the executive and in relations with the Socialist-led majority and, above all, by perceptions of a poor policy record, marked notably by the failure to control unemployment.


[1]  ‘François Hollande dans une position toujours plus difficile avant la Présidentielle’   IPSOS- CEVIPOF-Le Monde, 30 March 2016, In the third wave of the CEVIPOF’s Barometer, by far the largest rolling survey with over 20,000 respondents, Francois Hollande was in third position whether the Republican candidate was Alain Juppé (14%), or Nicolas Sarkozy (16%). Hence, the incumbent President would be eliminated on the first round.

[2] Jaffré, J. (2012) ‘Ce que signifie le vote du 6 mai’, Le Monde, 5 June.

[3] Op. cit.

[4] Cole, A. (2014) ‘Not Saying, Not Doing:  Convergences, Contingencies and Causal Mechanisms of State Reform and Decentralisation in Hollande’s France’ French Politics 12 (2): 104-135.

[5]  In an IFOP-Fiducial poll for Paris Match and Sud Radio, 27-28 November 2015, Hollande obtained 50% of positive opinions. Cited in Le Monde, 2-4 January 2016.  By 26 April 2016, Hollande was credited with only 17% of favourable opinions (83% unfavourable) in an ODOXA survey for L’Express.

[6] The state of urgency, ruled by a law dating from 1955 at the height of the Algerian crisis, is not to be confused with the state of emergency (Article 16), which allows the President to suspend the normal operation of the Constitution.

[7]  Beaud, O (2016) ‘Ce projet de réforme constitutionnelle est inutile et inepte’, Le Monde, 2 February.

[8] In response to a Question prioritaire de constitutionalité, (QPC) the Constitutional Council demanded a much stricter control of the conditions under which computer hard disks could be copied, which emptied the measure of much of  its operational effectiveness.

[9] Weil, P. (2016) ‘Le principe d’égalité est un pilier de notre identité’, Le Monde, 8 January.

[10] Bekmezian, H. (2016) ‘Le Sénat enterre la décheance de nationalité’, Le Monde 19th March ; Le Monde (2016) ‘les principales réactions à l’abandon de la réforme constitutionnelle’ Available at : (consulted 27 April 2016).

[11] For example, according to the IFOP – Fiducial poll (17/04/2016) for i-tele, Paris-Match and Sud Radio, Le Pen would win a (very hypothetical) Le Pen-Hollande run off in 2017 by 53% to 47%