The imperfect Socialist primaries

Enthusiasm about the Socialist primaries is, euphemistically, quite low among the French population. A small amount of poll respondents, hovering around 40% from the very few polls that were ordered, comparatively with the Les Républicains (LR) contest, declare that they are certain to go vote. The figures of a high turnout aim for about 2.5 million voters, a far cry from the 4.4 million for LR. The dynamics of the debate between the main candidates, Manuel Valls, Arnaud Montebourg and Benoît Hamon are far from captivating the crowds and to give anyone who came up the Belle Alliance Populaire (the catch-all name for the left-wing parties who participated in the exercise of government since 2012) concept any hope for a surprise turnout. One can even wonder whether this isn’t why the cost of voting has been set at 1€ per round, as opposed to 2€ per round for LR. Not even the low cost of messing with the Socialist primary seems to mobilize conservative voters who decried the socialist participation in their primary.

As the first debate between the Socialist candidates is set for tonight, why hasn’t the campaign taken off? Most blame the calendar. The date of the primary was certainly decided jointly between the First Secretary of the Socialist party, Jean-François Cambadélis, and President Hollande when the latter still harbored hopes to run a second time. The short period between year-end celebrations and the first round, on the 22nd of January, was chosen deliberately to prevent a strong alternative candidacy to Hollande’s from developing and to create the conditions of a — forced — union around the president-cum-candidate. In the absence of Hollande, the calendar now plays against the Socialist candidates, who have only three weeks to instill a momentum that is destined to carry the winner from January 29, date of the second round, all the way to the presidential and legislative elections. The candidates themselves seem to be uncomfortable with the calendar, from which none of them can really draw a real advantage.

Ex-Prime Minister Manuel Valls is caught in an uncomfortable neither here nor there position. He is the natural representative of the outgoing government, but despite being its most visible face since he took on the role in 2014, seems to refuse to associate himself fully with the actions of the government, and barely even his. He for example pleaded to reform the Constitution to get rid of its article 49.3, which allows for a vote to take place in the National Assembly without a prior debate, which he, as the head of the government, used three times. The sheer magnitude of this hypocrisy could only be surpassed if he proclaimed he was an “anti-system” candidate. Valls’ message is therefore both inaudible and tainted by his deep association with the government, aided also his flip-flop on the “impossible reconciliation” of left-wing parties that he theorized as a Prime Minister. The complete opposite is now the core of his stump speech, and his excuse is that “he has changed” — make what you want of this. I still maintain that he would rather not have run in 2017 in order to secure himself a clear path for the 2022 elections. He however maintains a lead in the polls, perhaps the sign that a more “legitimist” electorate is mobilized by this contest, rather than the “silent majority” that gave Fillon his win.

Behind Valls, Arnaud Montebourg is still held in high regard by the more progressive left that also sees the danger of globalization on French competitiveness. His strong position in the Hollande government from 2012 to 2014, his messages on saving French industry resonate with a part of the Socialist electorate that is not compatible with Macron. However, Montebourg’s message was honed for a run against Hollande, given the personal animosity between the two, but is not calibrated for an opposition against Valls, nor does it carry the same weight of representing a real alternative to the social-liberal model that Hollande represented. Montebourg is getting by thanks to his reputation, and the short calendar may well be a blessing for him. The third man in the race, Benoît Hamon, largely disappeared from the national scene after his dismissal from the government in 2014, but used this time to hone a very progressive (ie. universal wage) and eco-friendly platform that makes him a favorite of the younger, more engaged Socialist electorate. Polls have recorded a great rise in voting intentions of his favor, leading to the press billing him as the Fillon sort of dark horse of this race, but the short calendar doesn’t allow him to carry his message beyond the more engaged electorate and to widen interest in him.

Besides that, another important contrast with the LR primary is the feeling that the presidential race is NOT being played here. With all polls consistently putting the Socialist candidate in fifth place in the first round, whoever it is, there is no feeling that the vote is influential besides deciding who the future leader of the Socialist party may be after May and further on. This is not a thought that can guide more than an engaged electorate to the polls, and any candidate would of course be crazy to publicly use this train of thought.

At the same time, Socialist infighting about these primaries would make anyone doubt about what sort of unity the primaries would actually produce. Most ministers are under strict instructions not to take a side, but Ségolène Royal has decided to silently side with Emmanuel Macron, the party outcast who refuses to take part in the primaries, much like Socialist bigwig Gérard Collomb, the mayor of Lyon; rumors are abound of MPs wanting to defect to Macron but being held back by the party not granting them support for their legislative run in June 2017. Again, the Socialist Party’s internal problems, in communication and planning, seem to be overtaking any positive message that could be created by a successful primary. This is, in a nutshell, a perfect summary of Hollande’s presidency.

Martin M.