In a previous blog entry (‘Bye bye Mr Sarkozy, hello Mr Nobody’) I argued that the generalization of the mechanism of primaries to select presidential candidates challenged an unwritten rule of party competition: that control of a political party produces a natural advantage for a candidate seeking election to the presidency. In the case of the Socialists, 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. Herein lies a paradox: while in 2011 the primary election produced victory for the candidate best placed to defeat the incumbent President Sarkozy, in 2017 the Socialist primaries are turning in favour of a candidate – Benoît Hamon – who is considered to have no chance whatsoever to win the presidency, or even go through to the second round, but who represents a form of ideological purity that is valued by activists and sympathisers after five years of inevitable compromises in office. The primary is being fought for the right to lead the party in opposition and define the contours of party renewal and survival after the heavy forthcoming defeat. The paradox is more apparent than real; in parties across Europe, primary elections (or similar mechanisms) have mobilised, first and foremost, enthusiastic (young) activists and sympathisers in search of ideological renewal and survival. Jeremy Corbyn provides a similar example in a rather different context. In the specific case of the Socialist primaries, some 73% declared their priority to be that of selecting a candidate faithful to the values of the left, as against only 24% who considered their vote would help to select a future President.[i]
What a difference a quinquennat makes. If the Socialist primaries were the great innovation of 2011, paving the way for the eventual electoral victory of François Hollande in 2012, the primaries of the Belle Alliance Populaire[ii], taking place on 22 and 29th January 2017, are a pale imitation, a mere side-show to the shaping up of the presidential contest between likely players: François Fillon (Les Républicains), Marine Le Pen (Front National) and Emmanuel Macron (En Marche!). The victor of the Socialist primaries – with Benoit Hamon the clear favourite in the run off with Manuel Valls – will likely feature in fifth position in the polls, behind Le Pen, Fillon, Macron and Jean-Luc Mélenchon. [iii] The primaries of the Belle Alliance Populaire were originally conceived as a political instrument to allow incumbent President Hollande to gain momentum and stand for re-election. Hollande’s dignified but unprecedented announcement in December 2016 that he would not stand for his own re-election was another novel precedent in the Fifth Republic. Diminished for years as a result of persistently negative opinion polls ratings, Hollande fell victim to his proximity to journalists[iv], and the coup de grace exercised by two former protégés: for Industry minister Emmanuel Macron, who resigned as Industry minister in Summer 2016 to concentrate on creating the En Marche! movement and standing for the presidency; and former Premier Manuel Valls, who put maximum pressure on Hollande not to stand and pave the way for his own presidential bid. Hollande’s decision not to stand transformed the primary into a captivating side-show, one detail of which was the incumbent President’s refusal to watch the presidential debates (preferring to attend a show) or to vote in the first round of the primary (on account of an official voyage in Chile). Revenge of a sort…
The Socialist primaries are a rather melancholic retrospective on the inability of the French Socialists to reconcile their core contradictions that has a long history.[v] The primary election has laid bare the endless search for the reinvention of the PS based on bridging two increasingly irreconcilable families: the governmental left (represented by Hollande and articulated by Valls in the primary, notwithstanding his contorsions and contradictions); and the ‘radical’ left, organized as the ‘frondeurs’ during most of the 2012-17 period. The leadership of the latter was one of the main issues at play in the primary. The mantle of leader of the left was disputed between the initial favourite, Arnaud Montebourg, already candidate in 2011 and former Minister of Industrial Renewal until being sacked by Valls in August 2014 ; and Benoît Hamon, a former Education Minister, who was also sacked early on by Valls for insubordination. Both Hamon and Montebourg formed part of the Ayrault and Valls governments until their forcible ejection from the government in 2014. The primary played out, in miniature, the permanent drama that undermined the Socialists throughout the five years of the Hollande presidency: governmental versus radical left.
So what is the primary for? To select the party’s presidential candidate? Yes, probably. There is no absolute certainty that the candidate selected on 22nd and 29th January by the Belle Alliance Populaire primary will actually carry the colours of the party in April 2017. The most likely victor – Hamon – has made it be known that he might stand down in favour of Mélenchon in the interests of increasing the left’s chances of reaching the second round. Is the main issue at stake that of determining the leadership of the rump Socialist Party after predictable defeat in the 2017 electoral series? Almost certainly. Hamon barely disguises his view that control of the PS rump will allow a transformation and ideological and organisational renewal of the party. But will there be any party left to lead? A Hamon candidate polling 7-8% at the presidential election would have disastrous consequences for Socialist prospects at the legislative elections that will follow the presidential contest in June 2017. The real benchmark is the 67 deputies retained by the PS in the 1993 legislative elections that concluded the troubled period of PS-run government from 1988-93. Will Hamon be able to ensure the return of a core rump of PS deputies? A credible performance in the presidential election might be the sine qua non for a successful capture and renovation of the party after the forthcoming electoral defeats; at present, the polls give little hope for Hamon (8-9%).
Within these narrow parameters, the three leading candidates have been navigating the horns of a dilemma. Manuel Valls, premier from 2014-16, has been forced into the role of defender of the record of the 2012-17 governments, indefensible in the eyes of the other leading candidates, Hamon and Montebourg. Valls (31.19% on 22nd January) has had to endure a complicated campaign: beyond the empty venues and frosty receptions, the former premier was forced to fight on the defense of the 2014-2016 record in office. He positioned himself as unifier of the left, though he had diagnosed the irreconcilable nature of the two lefts within the PS while still prime minister and called for the replacement of the PS with a more explicitly reformist party back in 2008. Symbolically, the commitment to exclude the future use of article 49, clause 3 was out of kilter with its use 6 times in 2015 and 2016 to force the Macron law and the El Khomri laws through their various parliamentary readings in the National Assembly and the Senate. The hard line taken on issues of laïcité and security were reassuring to some, but deeply hostile to others. The results of the first round, where Valls (31.19%) trails Hamon (36.21%) suggest that the record of the Socialist governments from 2012-17 has become a millstone around the neck of Hollande’s longest serving premier. The cocktail of economic realism + security + republican citizenship is not enough to re-mobilize a Socialist electorate disillusioned by the record of the 2012-17 governments.
Arnaud Montebourg (17.62%) fought a strangely passéiste campaign, based on national protectionism, industrial revival (‘Made in France’) and Keynesian relaunch which appealed to some traditional PS voters in industrial, non-metropolitan zones, but appeared strangely out of kilter with the younger, environmentally conscious activists. Benoît Hamon (36.21% on 22nd January) emerged as the only candidate with a real campaign dynamic, diffused by original ideas on political ecology, social protection (the ‘universal revenue’), social liberalization ( the legislation of cannabis, a new visa regime for refugees) constitutional reform (the suppression of article 16 of the 1958 constitution, before the eventual creation of a 6th Republic) and European relaunch (the ‘renegotiation’ of the Fiscal Compact Treaty [TSCG], and the renunciation of all debt contracted since 2008). Hamon’s campaign gathered momentum explicitly on the promise to revive a Socialist vision and programme, with its aspirational quality but distant relationship with reality. Rather like Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, Hamon’s appeal lies with those (often very young) sympathisers and activists engaged in re-thinking the future of a progressive left party to be built on the basic foundations of the Socialist Party. A long spell of opposition would allow the return to a form of ideological purity – or at least a regeneration of ideas and personnel. The success of Hamon’s campaign was testified by the changing tone of the three televised debates between the candidates prior to the first round: there was a clear shift from the All Against Valls mood in the first two debates, to an All Against Hamon convergence in the third and final debate. For the record, the other candidates were Vincent Peillon (6.83%); François de Rugy (3.88%) Sylvie Pinot (1.99%) and Jean-Luc Benhamais (1.01%).
What about the broader impact of the results of the primary election? The likely victory of Hamon on 29th January is, on balance, good news for Emmanual Macron, as a Hamon victory will accelerate the move by many anxious PS deputies to En Marche!, in the hope of gaining the Macron label in time for the 2017 legislative elections. Look for movements as early as this week, before Hamon’s consecration. The result of the primary will have a more marginal impact, perhaps, on Mélenchon’s electorate; the leader of La France insoumise has built a solid electorate that is unlikely to cede to the Siren of Hamon. Indded, Mélenchon might even benefit from Hamon standing down in his favour in the broader interests of left unity and survival. In the unlikely event that Valls overcomes Hamon on the second round, the main beneficiary would be Mélenchon, with Macron as a marginal loser.
The real action is playing itself out at the margins of the PS primary, initially envisaged as a mechanism to force recalcitrant Socialist electors to support Hollande’s reviewed bid for election. The former Left Front leader, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, has demonstrated once again his talent for mobilizing the radical left against the party apparatuses of the PCF and PS. Mélenchon is currently on 13-14% in the polls, well ahead of any of the Socialist pretenders. Mélenchon pales beside the Macron phenomenon, the object of a future blog. The former Industry minister is currently polling up to 21% in the surveys, not far behind Fillon (23-24%) or Le Pen (25-26%). If Macron might be likened in some respects to a French Tony Blair[vi] the underlying message from the Socialist primaries is that it might be too late to engage in a renovation of the existing Socialist Party. The PS has been a party searching for a role for a very long time; each episode of governmental power has produced an existential crisis that was, in its time, theorized by Jean Jaurès and Léon Blum. The endogenous crisis is combined with a continent-wide crisis of social democracy. The decline of the Greek PASOK from over 40% to 5% in the course of a few years serves as a permanent reminder of the fragility of the govnermental left, as does the inability of the Spanish PSOE to form a government in 2016, as well as the current state of Corbyn’s Labour Party. The French Socialists have lost the core material bases of their organizational power over the past five years (defeats in the 2014 municipal elections and the 2015 departmental and regional elections) and look set to be decimated in terms of their parliamentary representation in 2017. Is there a way back from the brink, as occurred following the calamitous 1993 legislative elections (reduced to 67 deputies, but winning office four years later)? Or has the moment come for a lasting realignment, a quadrille quadipolaire, where key competition will occur between a robust left movement around Mélenchon, a reformed ‘ progressive’ centre party (En Marche!) a Conservative movement mobilizing on the themes of economic liberalism and social conservatism and a national populist movement, in the form of Le Pen’s Front national? If the electoral setback is swift and thorough enough, the PS need not even put itself though the agony of self-introspection.
[i] Figures reported from an ELABE survey in BFM News 22nd January 2017
[ii] The Belle Alliance Populaire was created with a view to broadening participation in the primary beyond the PS. In the event the primary attracted Sylvie Pinel, of the Left Radicals, and Francois de Rugy and Jean-Luc Benhamais, two independent ecologists.
[iii] These figures are those of the latest round of the CEVIPOF IPSOS Sopra Steria survey, published in Le Monde on 20th January 2017. This survey, a longitudinal panel with 20,000 respondents, provides the most robust insights into the evolution of the campaign.
[iv] Gérard Davet and Fabrice Lhomme Un Président ne devrait pas dire ca… Paris : Stock, 2016. Various confidential state secrets were revealed by these two Le Monde journalists in this book which did much to damage further Hollande’s reputation.
[v] Alistair Cole, ‘The French Socialist Party and its Radical Ambiguity’ French Politics, Culture and Society, vol. 29, no. 3, 2011, pp. 29-48.
[vi] Gérard Grunberg, ‘Il réarticule libéralisme et solidarité’ Le Point 19th January 2017.