Socialists struggling to inspire as French presidential election approaches

Benoît Hamon is now leading a fairly weak socialist pack. EPA/Jeremy Lempin

The preliminary stages of this year’s French presidential election are a gift that just keeps on giving. Following shock losses for former president Nicolas Sarkozy and frontrunner Republican candidate Alain Juppé, it’s now the turn of the Socialist party to deliver a curve ball in the first round of its primary to find a candidate for the main race.

The outcome of the contest was not the shock in this case, but the numbers. Going into the first round, it looked as though there would be a tight three-way contest between former prime minister Manuel Valls and former ministers Arnaud Montebourg and Benoît Hamon. Each was polling at slightly more than 20% of the vote. But the race was, in the end, far from close.

Hamon won decisively, with nearly 36% of the vote. Valls got 31%, but the shock is that Montebourg finished a distant third, on 17%. Hamon and Valls will now face each other in a run-off next week.

Back in 2011, Montebourg was the surprise package who pushed Ségolene Royal into fourth place in the Socialist primary. He went on to use that success to lever himself into the post of economy minister. He resigned in August 2014 over the Hollande-Valls government’s industrial policy, to be replaced by another presidential hopeful, Emmanuel Macron.

Montebourg sought to present himself as a champion of anti-globalisation but his background in business does not appear to have gone over all that well with the electorate.

Instead, Hamon has become the focus of a broad “anyone but Valls” campaign that emerged as one of the key themes of the primary. There is a sense that Valls shares, with François Hollande, responsibility for the disarray in which the socialists now find themselves.

Hamon was once education minister, and before that social economy minister. During the campaign and in three debates on national television, he set himself apart by pushing for a basic universal income. His rivals failed to produce policies of any kind to help voters make their decision.

Socialism versus social democracy

In the first debate, on January 12, all but one of the other candidates had rubbished Hamon’s idea – and it’s fair to say some of the details do not stand up to close examination. At the same time, Hamon has tried to go “green” with some of his policies in an attempt to reach out to ecologists dissatisfied with Yannick Jadot, their own party’s choice for the presidential campaign. In a contest during which some believe the Socialist Party is fighting for its life, those votes might make a difference.

Now, with Hamon up against Valls for the nomination, the socialists are running a contest between an ideological left and a practical, governing left. It’s socialism versus social democracy.

Valls is being painted as a candidate who wants to beat the right, and Hamon as a man who wants to rebuild the Socialist Party around a project. And yet, at this point, it seems unlikely either can unite the party or its electors.

Valls remains in the running but is under pressure. EPA

With Montebourg’s endorsement and other key party figures throwing their weight behind him, Hamon should win the run-off easily, but he still has to face up to the very real possibility of not simply finishing third to Fillon and Marine Le Pen, but even behind the centre-left candidate Macron and the “left of the left” candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

The primary was intended to lure both Macron and Mélenchon into the Socialist contest but they simply refused, preferring instead to stand on their own platforms. And before the first round, all the projections suggested whoever the socialists chose would finish fifth in the presidential election proper. Paradoxically, in many projections, Hamon was predicted to do much less well in the “real” election than either Valls or Montebourg, but none was expected to overtake Macron or Mélenchon – let alone Fillon or Le Pen (who is now, herself, back at the head of the opinion polls for the first round proper).

The numbers are still being counted but it also looks as though voter turnout in this primary left a lot to be desired at somewhere between 1.5 and 2m. No-one expected the left to be able to match the 4m who turned out for the right-wing primary, but this is not a good outcome.

The risk that the PS candidate will be crushed by the candidates to his immediate right and left is a very real one. Meanwhile, outgoing President François Hollande is on an official visit to Chile and did not vote.