Will Hollande run? And what for?
It’s a deadly simple question. On the face of it, how can a president constantly hovering below 15% of favorable ratings for the whole of 2016 even stand a chance? When he is promised 7% and a humiliating fourth place in all the first round polls?
Hollande is still alive, and still thinking of running. He has repeatedly been telling the press that we would announce whether he runs in the first two weeks of December. Tic toc… For the first time ever, the two main parties will have held open primaries to designate their presidential candidate. It would also be the first time a sitting president has to go through a primary — closed or open — to obtain the nomination of his party.
Similarly, it will be lost on no one that never has a president who presided over a government of the same political party been reelected (in the current 5th Repubic). François Mitterrand in 1988, and Jacques Chirac in 2002 both ended their terms with a government from a different political side.
Prime Minister Manuel Valls is waiting, blood boiling, for Hollande to decide whether he will run. Valls is the putative legitimate replacement for Hollande, the only real representative of the government that could defend in front of the French the achievements (yes, there are some) of the past five years. The crazy rumor pitting Hollande and Valls against one another, in effect leaving the country with no one visibly in charge for early 2017, is a bit less crazy if you consider that this big-bang scenario is actually what both Hollande and Valls want.
Pages 622–626 of the now infamous “Un président ne devrait pas dire ça” book, essentially the result of Hollande spilling his guts to two journalists from Le Monde for a whole of four years, provide some insight on the executive duo’s competing desire to gut and upend the Socialist Party and transform it into an electoral machine that would be able to unify behind one person the “governmental left” (gauche de gouvernement, meaning the Parti Radical de Gauche, the Greens and some of the Macron-curious). The idea that the Socialist Party in its current shape and form is dead is agreed upon by almost all major figures of the party, including its current first secretary. The book relates Hollande’s behind the scenes efforts to encourage Jean-Michel Cambadélis to pull the plug in order to give Hollande his chances to run behind a new, broader platform, and to leave once and for all the sometimes embarrassing heritage of socialism behind.
At this point, the question seems to be about who can navigate the party to a less humiliating defeat while at the same time being able to make the case that such a defeat warrants a profound transformation of the party, name included. Hollande’s lack of popularity makes it tough for him to make (t)his case; Valls has been able to appear as a more proactive figure compared to Hollande, but the fact that he is reviled by a large part of the left of Socialist party makes him an unlikely candidate to receive support.
This is why Hollande’s people are testing the waters and openly questioning the need for a primary, that the President never said he would take part in the primary, despite the fact that it is in the bylaws of the party (closed — only for members of the party — or open like in 2011). Not only do Socialist cadres want to avoid a potentially humiliating defeat for the President and make him a real lame-duck for the remainder of his term, but they also want to avoid the primary falling to the hands of the one who instigated it in 2011, Arnaud Montebourg, a firebrand iconoclast, Minister of Economic Recovery from 2012 to 2014, who flirts with the idea of a 6th Republic. Hollande could, finally, be the least worst option if he is willing to let himself be punished in the presidential election (provided he wins — or bypasses — the primary), as he could impulse the movement towards the long-term transformation of the party.
Hollande deciding to bypass the primary would be the nail on the coffin of the Socialist Party, but would also make significantly more difficult creating any sort of unity behind him. If the primaries are eventually not held (when they are already in their final stage of preparation), other declared or tentative candidates, such as Arnaud Montebourg, Benoît Hamon or Christine Taubira, would most certainly decide to make a run of their own outside of the party system. They could struggle to get the 500 required signatures to get on the ballot (see our explanation here) but would certainly split the party up and foil any leader’s desire to recreate a competitive left-wing platform.
The press is on edge regarding Hollande announcing his intentions. Rumors have been sparked that he won’t run because of his frequent use of “until the end of my term” in recent public appearances. Every movement, every hint is overanalyzed, while Fillon tries to unify his party, and Hollande’s term ends in another melodrama that will have remain as another symbol ofq presidency that was completely overshadowed by poor communication, the seeming lack of a moral and political compass, and an unprofessional exercise of power that further diminished the stature of the Presidency in the institutional balance.