Former French prime minister Manuel Valls said on Wednesday he would vote for Emmanuel Macron in the presidential election, the biggest Socialist Party name to date to turn his back on its official candidate, Benoît Hamon, and support the centrist instead.
While it was not clear if the defection would benefit poll favourite Mr Macron, who politely thanked Mr Valls, it prompted angry responses from many Socialists and media speculation about the survival of France’s largest left-wing party.
Mr Valls, whose announcement came days after veteran Socialist defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian deserted to Mr Macron, said he wanted to do all he could to ensure that far-right leader Marine Le Pen, who is in second place in opinion polls, did not win the election.
“I’m not going to take any risks,” Mr Valls said, adding that he believed Ms Le Pen’s support potential was seriously underrated.
“I will vote for Emmanuel Macron,” he told BFM TV.
French opinion polls show Mr Macron winning the presidency in a second-round vote on May 7th where he would face off against Ms Le Pen. They show Socialist Benoît Hamon set for a humiliating fifth place in the first round eliminator on April 23rd.
Mr Hamon denounced Mr Valls’s defection and called on all left-wingers to unite behind him 25 days from round one of the election.
“I urge you to sanction those who’ve started this morbid game . . . those who no longer believe in anything,” he said in a statement. Mr Valls said his choice did not mean he would campaign for Mr Macron (39) – a fellow minister in French president François Hollande’s government from 2014, but who quit last year to prepare a presidential bid under his own political banner En Marche! (Onwards!).
Mr Valls, who lost to radical left-winger Mr Hamon in the Socialist primaries, is seen by political sources and experts as likely to wait in the wings and seek to build a reformist parliamentary force that would be distinct from En Marche!, but which could get a say in its parliamentary majority should Mr Macron become president.
“I have nothing to negotiate and am not asking for anything, I’m not joining his camp,” Mr Valls said. “But nothing will be the same after this presidential election . . . the duty of reformists is to play their part in a governing parliamentary majority.”
Mr Macron, who has drawn support from the political right as well as left, was also quick to say he did not plan to bring Mr Valls into his government.
“I shall be the guarantor of new faces, new ways of doing things,” he said on Europe 1 Radio.
The news came a day after third-placed candidate François Fillon, under formal judicial investigation on suspicion of financial impropriety, suffered a further blow when his British wife Penelope was put under formal investigation as well.
The inquiry centres on allegations that the couple misused hundreds of thousands of euro in public funds, with him paying her a lavish tax-funded salary for minimal work as his parliamentary assistant.
Mr Fillon has conceded what he called errors of judgment but denies doing anything illegal.
Mr Valls’s endorsement is a mixed blessing for Mr Macron, even though their political views are not far apart.
For many Socialists, and above all Mr Hamon, Mr Valls’s decision comes from a man who represents Mr Hollande’s rightward turn during his five-year mandate towards the business-friendly reforms that upset the left and alienated core voters.
The blow for Mr Hamon clearly compounded existing left-right splits within the party.
"Everybody now knows what a commitment signed by a man like Manuel Valls is worth," Arnaud Montebourg, a more hardline leftist in the Socialist Party, said on Twitter.
“You don’t smash the table when you have a family dispute,” said François Kalfon, another hardliner. “Manuel Valls is digging his own grave.”