France Chooses a New President

AP Photo/Francois Mori

The shadows of former French Prime Minister and left-wing candidate Manuel Valls are seen during his speech at a campaign press conference in Paris, Tuesday, January 3, 2017. 

France is in the throes of choosing a new president. The race, though short and cheap by American standards, has become more American in recent years. For the first time ever, both major parties will choose their candidates by primary.

The mainstream center-right Republican Party has already had its primary, and the upset winner was François Fillon, a 62-year-old former prime minister who races cars for a hobby but could pass for an undertaker or a parson. He surprised everyone by handily defeating the favorite Alain Juppé, another former prime minister, as well as former President Nicolas Sarkozy, in November of last year.

Now it’s the turn of the center-left Socialists. Unlike the Republicans, the Socialists have taken the primary route before, in 2007 and 2012. But this time their primary was conceived as an anointment: It was intended to launch the triumphant re-election campaign of a sitting president, François Hollande. Fate dictated otherwise. Hollande’s presidency made him so unpopular (with approval ratings plunging into the single digits) that many observers doubted he would even run. Nevertheless, the president refused to throw in the towel until the last minute. With the deadline for filing his primary candidacy looming, he finally capitulated to reality in early December.

This long delay—characteristic of a politician known throughout his career for his skill at temporizing—not only distracted attention from the campaigns of the announced candidates, including former ministers Arnaud Montebourg and Benoît Hamon, but also prevented Prime Minister Manuel Valls from getting into the race early. Although his desire to run was manifest, he had said that he would not do so if Hollande became a candidate, out of loyalty to the president under whom he served.

When the president finally dropped out, Valls lost no time getting in. In fact, he may not have waited even that long. It is known that the two men met for lunch a few days before Hollande’s announcement that he would not run, and it may be that the prime minister warned his president that he could delay no longer, thus delivering the final coup de grâce.

Valls has paid a price for his loyalty. Not only has it linked him indissolubly to the very unpopular president, despite efforts to repudiate some of his own past actions, most notably his use of an article of the French Constitution that allows the government to force legislation through Parliament against the wishes of its own majority. More than that, the uncertainty surrounding his run has left him less than sure-footed on the campaign trail. He has been scrambling to put together an organization. His rallies have not been well-attended. And in interviews, when forced to defend his record or to explain how his policies would differ from those that made Hollande unpopular and left the Socialist Party even more deeply divided than before, he has seemed prickly and defensive.

His two main challengers, Montebourg and Hamon, who simultaneously quit the government more than two years ago in protest against Hollande’s policies, have taken full advantage of their early declaration of independence. Both men were in the field long before the president’s abdication and have built modest organizations. Both are considered to be representatives of the Socialists’ left wing, whereas Valls is the standard-bearer of the party’s right.

Their approaches differ, however. Montebourg, a smooth talker who first made his mark as a lawyer distinguished by his boyish charm and rhetorical flair, has pursued the themes he first championed as minister of economic recovery during Hollande’s first two years in office. Although pro-European, he favors greater independence from German-imposed austerity, insisting on a certain “economic nationalism,” including stimulus spending to jump-start faster economic growth, government assistance of strategic industries, and assistance to workers displaced by globalization. Hamon, on the other hand, has emphasized concern for the environment even if it means slower growth. To cope with unemployment he proposes sharing the available work among a larger pool of workers.

Another candidate threw his hat into the ring after Hollande’s decision not to run. Vincent Peillon, also a former minister, had dropped out of politics for several years after leaving the government. Like Valls and unlike his other two main rivals, he defends Hollande’s legacy but emphasizes education rather than supply-side liberalization as the key to a better future.

The primary is not limited to Socialists. Officially known as the primary of the Belle Alliance Populaire, it is theoretically open to greens and candidates of the far left, and there are indeed a few less well-known challengers to the four leading candidates already mentioned. The primary, like most French elections, is a two-round affair, and while most polls give Valls, who is the best-known and most experienced of the candidates, the edge in round one, he remains some distance from a majority and could well lose in round two if the votes of all the challengers combine against him.

One very large question remains: Does any of this matter? The winner of this primary will not carry the banner of a united left into the general election. He will be only one of three candidates representing the broad left of the French political spectrum. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a fiery orator who has lately discovered the virtues of YouTube as a medium for calmer conversations—veritable fireside chats—with a larger number of voters than he could ever reach on the stump, represents the far left, while the youngster Emmanuel Macron, yet another former minister seeking to fill the vacuum left by the evaporation of Hollande, fills what he hopes will prove to be a vast hole in the center. Macron is currently polling quite well, and there is even one poll that shows him with a chance of making it to the second round, but only if Montebourg is the winner of the Socialist primary.

Hence the chief significance of this primary exercise may be to determine the fate of Macron, the only challenger on the left currently given any chance of actually winning the presidency. Of course, it’s still very early in the race, several debates remain before the left primary takes place, and there is no reason to place much confidence in the polls, not only because polls everywhere have been mistaken this year but also because the fragmentation of the French party system has made it very difficult to predict what voters are likely to vote in the primary. Turnout is expected to be light, much lower than turnout in the primary of the right and center that elected Fillon. This augurs ill for the eventual winner, whose victory celebration may resemble a wake around the corpse of the Socialist Party built by François Mitterrand. If a left remains in France after this election, it will bear little resemblance to the party that still dreamed in 1981 of a “rupture with capitalism” by democratic means and a repair of the breach in the workers’ movement that opened when the French Section of the Workers’ International split from the Communists at Tours in 1920.

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