Hollande out: damnation in disguise for Valls?

François Hollande’s candidacy at the 2017 presidential elections has been an open question for months. On December 1st, he officially put an end to the suspense and announced that he would not run. According to his closest advisors, Hollande had kept his intentions secret until the very end, and the decision came as a surprise to many. It is undoubtedly a personal failure, as he becomes the first president not to run for reelection in the history of the Fifth Republic. In this unprecedented context, it will be particularly interesting to observe the way Hollande will use his presidential mandate in the coming months. However, regardless of the personal and political reasons that led the president to make this decision, it has significant implications for the Socialist Party (PS)’s primaries in January, and for the 2017 elections altogether.

First of all, the center of attention of the primaries has changed. For all other candidates — and notably for Arnaud Montebourg, representing the left-wing of the party — François Hollande was the perfect opponent. Due to his dramatically low level of popular support, Hollande would have been the easy target of all attacks. By making the primaries about the rejection of Hollande’s presidency and political legacy — to a certain extent, Hollande would have played the role Nicolas Sarkozy played in the conservative primaries — the difficult question of the future of the PS could have been avoided. Without this common adversary, the socialist candidates will have to confront their visions and ideas, and begin as early as January 2017 a challenging process of reconstruction of the party. Finding the necessary unity to present a credible candidacy in April 2017 will probably be more difficult now that new ambitious — and antagonistic — figures such as Manuel Valls and Arnaud Montebourg will take the lead.

Among the different candidates, two projects are already emerging: Prime Minister Valls promotes a center-left economic agenda, with a strong emphasis on concepts such as authority and laïcité; Arnaud Montebourg proposes a different vision for the PS, focusing on socio-economic issues and promoting Keynesian measures. The primaries of Les Républicains has shown that the voters preferred a “truer” conservative to a more center-leaning candidate, and that the more hard-lining program of Fillon won against the compromises of the Juppé candidacy. One can wonder whether the same logic will guide the socialist electorate, in which case the “real left” will prevail.

The sociology of the electorate to the PS’s primaries will be determinant. Manuel Valls may hope that — just like for the primaries of Les Républicains — males over 65 and living in smaller cities will be over-represented among the voters. On the contrary, Arnaud Montebourg may have to rely on the vote of the younger socialists, who will see in him the chance to bring a real change to the party. Valls, who is now running as the favorite, will question whether the voters who will go to the polls for the primaries will not be a symmetrical image of those who carried François Fillon: more engaged, left-leaning, voters who would favor Montebourg over Valls. Of course, how to create a momentum for the socialist primaries when neither Valls nor Montebourg seems in a position to pass the first round of the presidential election is another issue…

For Valls, the opportunity to run may well be a damnation in disguise. As a matter of fact, a cynical interpretation of the situation could read like this: Valls would have had an interest in having Hollande run in 2017, let him loose with minimal personal support, pick up the role of main leader of the opposition after the electoral cycle and be a more than legitimate candidate for 2022. In the meanwhile, he would be in a prime spot to achieve the transformation of the Socialist party (see our post from yesterday discussing his desire to do so), based on his political line — one that has led him to dissolve the left wing union that took over in 2012.

Now, instead, a potential disastrous showing in the presidential (as polls indicate) and a large loss of seats in the subsequent legislative elections would be chalked up to Valls, could well disqualify him from future responsibilities within a party where the tone of ideological disagreements has significantly hampered the exercise of the presidency. Even if, as Fillon shows, being the Prime Minister of an unpopular government does not predetermine future failure.

However, even if Valls wants to make the case that he is the future of the party, he will be faced with primary opponents who resent the governmental line and will try to make the primary about a discussion of Hollande and Valls’ term. Arnaud Montebourg and Benoît Hamon, the two main candidates, represent the more traditionally French socialist, protectionist, side of the party that saw in Hollande’s economic reforms an abdication of traditional Socialist values. It is not a coincidence that the head of the group of Socialist MPs that opposed the government just declared his support to Montebourg.

The primary will therefore be an opportunity for voters to decide where they want the party to head in the near future, and the basis of its transformation before being able to make a run for 2022. Valls’ road to winning the primary is therefore not as clear as it may look at first sight, given how polarizing he is, especially for the potential primary voters.

Valls running however gives the Socialist Party a decent chance to have a better showing that had Hollande run again. First of all, it is not entirely impossible that Valls may take away some votes from Emmanuel Macron, given how both represent the more liberal approach to economics; at the same time, Valls’ strong stance on security issues also addresses one of the main concerns that voters express. Finally, in the context of a confrontation with Fillon, the perfect symmetry of their positions means that a head-to-head debate about their achievements as PM will be likely, neutralizing a bit more the discussions about the president that they served. In this case, though, Marine Le Pen will be too happy to use her version of draining the swamp and paint the two as having had their chance just recently.

Valls’ plans to build himself up in opposition to François Hollande are now spoiled by Hollande’s decision, making Valls the natural candidate to defend the results of the term, something he may have preferred not to have to do. The French rumor mill has it that Valls was ready, this Monday, to quit his position as PM in order to force Hollande to declare himself and, to a certain extent, start absolving himself of the legacy of the mandate. Now, having to carry on his shoulders the weight of the Hollande presidency, Valls may be on the defensive more than suits his character. The question in the next days will be whether he has to quit in order to dedicate himself fully to running; the memory of Lionel Jospin’s poor campaign in 2002 after five years as PM should here serve as useful historical reminder for the PS

The campaign will prove a true test of whether Hollande was right to praise Valls for his loyalty, as there is no doubt it will be tested to the limits here, both within the party and in the general election — if Valls even makes it this far.

Martin Quencez & Martin Michelot