French political party primaries: cold feet

This is the first instalment of a series of posts that will focus on the novelty of primaries in the French system, with a focus on the upcoming Socialist primary.

The 2017 electoral cycle marks the first time that both candidates of the conservative and Socialist parties will have been chosen by a open primary vote. After François Fillon’s indisputable victory in November, Socialist sympathizers will be asked to cast their votes on January 22 and 29. The frontrunner is ex-Prime Minister Manuel Valls, while Arnaud Montebourg and Benoît Hamon, both former ministers in the first government, are the most serious contenders, the latter being billed as the Fillon/dark horse candidate by commentators disappointed to have missed the meteor fly by last November.

Of course, in absolute, the idea of letting the electorate decide on their favorite candidate is an attractive one, that fits squarely with the tendency to “give their voice back” to people, as the referendum fever of 2016 symbolizes. However, the development of this system in the long-term must be weighed against the risks of destabilization it causes to the French presidential system.

One simple, alarming observation: the 2017 presidential campaign started, in effect, in early 2016. Debates among the conservative party about the organization primaries and on the proper response to terrorist threats in France started mobilizing media attention, and discussions centered around new policy proposals to implement.

Two sets of problems ensue from this observation:

  • a lot of these policy proposals were put forward with short-sighted electoral views, and were destined to mobilize small parts of the electorate for the primary rather than represent real relevant solutions that were destined to be implemented, and even less constituted reasonable proposals that the current administration could consider. The creation of this out-of-touch opposition further diminished the actions of the administration (why isn’t the president doing what I propose?) in the eyes of an already skeptical electorate. The contrast between an active, if not to say aggressive, opposition, especially after the attacks in Nice and St Etienne du Rouvray in the summer of 2016, and an administration that seemed limited to reacting to events only contributed to increasing this gap and diminishing the credibility of the actions of the administration.
  • On a larger, institutional scale, the launch of the presidential campaign almost a full year and a half before the first round de facto diminishes the temps utile during which a President and his PM(s) can carry out actions without being contested on a daily basis and (sometimes) without grounds by his opposition. This has led some commentators to lament the five-year term voted in 2000 to replace the previous seven-year term, as the current system, especially with two primaries, gives the President barely more than three years to prove his mettle. Finally, and perhaps more gravely, the precedent set by the Socialist Party to submit the sitting President to his own party’s primary, when the President is explicitly supposed to be above parties (contrary to the PM), has further contributed to diminishing the role of the Presidency by making the President a mere affiliate of his party. The Gaullian idea of the rencontre entre un homme et le peuple (“a junction between a man and the people” — note also that he did not think at the time of a woman as potential president) is de-legitimized by regular organization of primaries; in parallel, that will only favor the development of a hyper-presidential regime, where the President is also the leader of the majority, diminishing the role of the PM and leaving the President exposed to the same criticism, as a receptacle of every popular frustration, than his PM would.

Reading between the lines, it is hard not to see how this has not favored the rise of politicians like Marine Le Pen or Jean-Luc Mélenchon who propose quick fixes and fulfill more than anyone else this image of a decisive leader. That is especially true in contrast with whoever the winner of the Socialist primary will be: the popular mandate of this race that interests only few people and where no candidate is able — so far — to create any sort of dynamics will be weak and represents the perfect example of the danger of primaries. Perhaps François Hollande should finally be blamed for not running and not directly confronting his track record to an engaged popular opinion.

Martin M.

The next post will focus on how the primaries reflect the listlessness and current malaise of French politics.