What are the Socialists really voting for at the primaries?

On January 22 and 29, the mainstream left — which in reality corresponds to the Socialist Party (PS) and a couple of small parties and movements with little political influence — will organize its primaries to choose a presidential candidate. Among the nine contenders, four have been ministers during François Hollande’s presidency, and none is expected to get more than 12% in the first round of the elections next April, according to the latest polls. In 2011, the primaries of the left were a clear democratic success, with more than 2.7 million French citizens participating in each round, and provided the winner François Hollande with a strong political momentum. Five years later, while everybody seems to have accepted the defeat of the PS next spring, what is really at stake?

Three candidates have been at the center of the media’s attention: Manuel Valls, Arnaud Montebourg and Benoît Hamon. The first will have the difficult task to defend the political choices of the government while trying to distinguish himself from the unpopular president, and the two others will promote the “left-wing” alternatives in a party that is deeply divided. The different programs may not have been presented in details yet, but a few defining concepts are known: to Valls, the authority and the laïcité, to Montebourg, economic protectionism and the creation of a VIth Republic, and to Hamon, the unconditional basic income and socio-environmental issues.

The confrontation of ideas, however, may not be as important as one may think. After all, the program of a candidate who is doomed to lose has little interest, and electors will come to the primaries for another reason. If a success at the presidential elections seems impossible, the choice of the presidential candidate of the left could largely determine the future of the mainstream left in France. The winner of the primaries will have the democratic legitimacy to reorganize the Socialist Party around his values and objectives after the 2017 elections. On the other hand, the PS could run the risk of splitting into two or three smaller movements if the candidate is unable to unite the various branches under a common project. Valls, Montebourg and Hamon could all, for different reasons, trigger the division of the party. The so far uninspiring candidacy of Vincent Peillon, former minister of education (2012–2014) and representing a more consensual figure within the PS, can be seen as a way to find the middle solution and avoid the fragmentation.

The future of the left is not only determined by the nine candidates, but also by two political figures who already decided not to participate in the primaries. Emmanuel Macron and Jean-Luc Mélenchon have both announced that they would run for the presidential elections on their own, and are currently in 3rd and 4th positions in the polls with approximately 15% of the votes in the first round. Their goal is take a clear lead over the Socialist candidate, and eventually benefit from the partition of the PS into two separate branches: the center-left electorate joining Macron and the left-wing part of the PS naturally moving towards Mélenchon.

The outcome of the presidential elections may not be at play in January, but the results of the primaries will be key to understand the future French political landscape.