French left has yet again become casualty of its own disunity

Favourite Socialist candidate Manuel Valls predicted to win only 10% of vote in election

Manuel Valls receives make-up while Arnaud Montebourg prepares for the final TV debate in the French left’s presidential primary. Photograph: Eric Feferberg/AP

Manuel Valls receives make-up while Arnaud Montebourg prepares for the final TV debate in the French left’s presidential primary. Photograph: Eric Feferberg/AP

 

The French Socialist Party will hold the first round of its presidential primary on Sunday under the banner of La Belle Alliance Populaire, a federation of left-wing and ecologist groups created last autumn to promote the re-election of French president François Hollande.

However, on December 1st, after breaking all records for unpopularity, Hollande announced that he would not stand. The primary that was organised for his benefit sounds the death knell of the Socialist Party.

Polls indicate that whoever wins the socialist nomination in the second round on January 29th will come fifth in the first round of the presidential election on April 23rd.

A representative survey of 15,921 French voters conducted by the CEVIPOF think tank and published on Thursday shows the far-right and right-wing candidates, Marine Le Pen and François Fillon, tied at about 25 per cent each in the first round, with a slight advantage for Le Pen.

They are followed by two candidates with roots in the Socialist Party, but who refused to participate in its primary: Emmanuel Macron, at 20 per cent, and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, at 15 per cent.

Ideological battle

Manuel Valls, the former prime minister who is leading in the socialist primary, is only likely to win only 10 per cent of the vote in the presidential poll. The party faithful are debating whether they should abandon their own candidate to “vote useful” for Macron on April 23rd.

The ideological battle is taking place outside the party, between Macron and Mélenchon, who embody the main families of the French left. Macron is a pro-European, economic liberal with a social conscience. Mélenchon is an old-fashioned leftist, anti-EU, anti-globalisation and steeped in neo-Marxist rhetoric.

None of the seven candidates in Sunday’s primary has positioned himself or herself as clearly as Macron or Mélenchon. Valls is closer to Macron. Arnaud Montebourg and Benoît Hamon, who are tied in polls for second place among the socialists, are closer to Mélenchon.

Responsibility lies with Hollande, who as party leader preferred to paper over rather than address the profound ideological differences that tore the party apart during the 2005 referendum on the European constitutional treaty.

Years ago, Valls advocated dropping the name “Socialist” and wanted to abandon the sacred cow of the 35-hour working week. He veered left after announcing his candidacy on December 5th.

Valls attempted to achieve a Hollande-like “synthesis” that would appeal to the party’s disparate factions, promising to reform the French economy while preserving its expensive “social model”, advocating “firmness but humanity” towards migrants.

Presidential aura

The electorate remember Valls as the law-and-order interior minister who expelled record numbers of Roma, then the man who became the scourge of socialist rebels. During the campaign, his right-wing persona seemed to re-emerge. In the socialists’ third televised debate on Thursday night, he advocated six months of obligatory “civic service” for all young French people.

Valls’s long experience of politics endows him with a presidential aura that is his main advantage. “Who has the strength, who has the experience, who has the shoulders to face the challenge?” he asked at a rally this week.

Valls is likely to face Montebourg or Hamon in the run-off on January 29th. He and Montebourg worked together to bring down Jean-Marc Ayrault’s government in the spring of 2014. Valls replaced Ayrault as prime minister and appointed Montebourg economy minister and Hamon as education minister. Both were forced out five months later for opposing liberal economic policies adopted by Valls.

Montebourg has a knack for catchy slogans. He once posed in a blue-and-white striped Breton shirt to promote his protectionist “Made in France” campaign. He has promised that 80 per cent of all government contracts will go to French companies, which is in violation of EU regulations, and advocates “deglobalisation” and a transition to a “sixth republic”.

‘Third man’

Hamon has been the surprise “third man” of the socialist campaign. His signature proposal for a universal base income that would eradicate poverty by guaranteeing a decent standard of living to every French person is attacked as too costly by other candidates. Hamon claims it could be financed by abrogating €40 billion in “presents” which the Hollande administration gave to French business.

The future of the proud party founded by Jean Jaurès more than a century ago is now a more pressing question than the identity of its standard-bearer in the presidential election.

There are historic precedents. “This presidential election is 1969,” Hollande told Le Monde, referring to then presidential candidate Gaston Defferre’s 5 per cent score in the first round.

The elimination of Lionel Jospin in the first round of the 2002 election is a closer parallel to this chronicle of a defeat foretold. Then, as now, the total number of left-wing, centre-left and ecologist votes surpasses those on the far right or right. Then, as now, the French left is the victim of its own disunity.

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