Manual Valls launches bid for Socialists with shift to left

Presidential vote: French ex-PM fends off criticism, proclaims himself ‘profoundly of left’

Manuel Valls has launched his campaign to represent France's Socialist Party in the coming presidential election with a shift to the left, as the former prime minister attempts to fend off a challenge from six other candidates.

The 54-year-old frontrunner in this month’s primary set out his political programme in a speech in Paris, where he fended off criticism of his previous liberal economic policies and proclaimed himself “profoundly of the left”.

Mr Valls promised on Tuesday not to reform France’s 35-hour working week or its labour laws and to reject the politics of austerity. “Today the question is not the deficit - it is growth and employment,” he said.

He and other Socialist candidates have three weeks of campaigning before the primary’s first round on January 22nd.


Populist sentiment

They are striving to overturn poll predictions that the party will struggle in April’s presidential election, which is shaping up to be a test of how far rising populist sentiment is reshaping politics in the western world.

Marine Le Pen, the far-right National Front leader, has been attracting traditionally left-wing voters with protectionist economic policies.

Polling shows she is expected to make it to the election’s second round of voting in May, knocking the Socialists out of the race and facing François Fillon, another former prime minister who won the centre-right’s primary contest.

But Mr Valls and his party rivals hope their chances have been improved by the shock announcement by President François Hollande, whose popularity levels were stuck at 4 per cent, that he will not seek a second term.

In the end Mr Hollande was pushed by his chief confidant, Mr Valls, not to stand.

This has opened the way for the former prime minister who, according to a recent poll, is the clear frontrunner in the Socialist primary, supported by 45 per cent of respondents.

However, many within the party distrust him, not only for what they see as a last-minute betrayal of Mr Hollande but also for his role in shifting the previous government to a more pro-business stance in 2014.

Mr Valls is often compared to former British prime minister Tony Blair in his attempts to modernise the party and make it more business-friendly. But many in the party want a lurch to the left, similar to that made by Britain's Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn, its leader since 2015.

Vincent Peillon, the former education secretary, also launched his programme on Tuesday with a promise to rewrite the business-friendly labour law pushed through by Mr Valls and also to lower taxes on the least well-off.

Mr Valls's most high-profile opponent is Arnaud Montebourg, the firebrand former industry minister who stepped down from the government in 2014 because he disagreed with Mr Valls's market-oriented policies.

‘End to blind austerity’

Mr Montebourg, who unveils his full economic programme on Wednesday, has already proposed an “end to blind austerity” and a €30 billion spending programme focused on infrastructure, if he were elected president.

As economy minister, he once threatened to nationalise parts of ArcelorMittal, the steelmaker.

When the Socialist Party held an open primary in 2011, Mr Valls attracted 5.6 per cent of the vote, while Mr Montebourg won 17 per cent.

Benoît Hamon, another candidate and former education secretary, is promising to legalise cannabis and create a universal salary for all French people. The universal salary, costing an estimated €300 billion, will be “an incredible tool for redistributing wealth”, he says.

Recognising the assault from the left, Mr Valls has shifted stance. He has, for example, promised to abolish Article 49.3 of the French constitution, which allows a government to pass laws without a parliamentary vote and which Mr Valls himself controversially used several times.

As well having to deal with the threat from Ms Le Pen, Socialists also risk losing votes on the far left to Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who has been polling consistently well, and to Emmanuel Macron, the former Socialist economy minister running as an independent.

Laurent Bouvet, an expert in French politics and professor at Versailles University, said Mr Valls risked alienating both the traditional left and the social democrat wing of the electorate with his attempt to widen his appeal.

“Everyone who thinks Valls is right-wing, the French Tony Blair, will never vote for him anyway, and he risks looking fake to his supporters to the right,” Mr Bouvet said. “I am not convinced this is the right strategy.”

Mr Valls reacted defensively when facing questions on Tuesday about how previous policies, such as abolishing the wealth tax in France, tallied with his new positions. "You want to go back through all the past front pages? I will not play this game," he said.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017