Europe seems to be collectively holding its breath a bit this week, waiting on two key upcoming events: the British EU referendum on Thursday, and the rerun of the Spanish general election on Sunday.
But in the meantime there have been important developments in France, with the announcement on Saturday that the Socialist Party will hold a primary in January to choose its candidate for next year’s presidential election – offering an opportunity for an internal challenge to the sitting president, François Hollande. Hollande has the lowest approval ratings ever recorded for a president in the Fifth Republic, and the party desperately needs to either find a way to boost his standing or else to settle on some replacement.
It’s possible that Hollande will decide not to contest; he has previously said that he would not seek a second term if he failed to get unemployment under control. His proposals to try to achieve that are currently the subject of heated confrontation with left-wing unions and protesters – as is the way with economic reform in France. Agreeing to hold a primary might seem like a sign of weakness, giving the party’s left the chance to put forward one of its own: most likely former economy minister Arnaud Montebourg, who resigned from the government in 2014 in protest against its pro-market policies.
But the primary might also give Hollande the boost in legitimacy that he needs. If the Socialists can air their differences in an open democratic process, it might help them to build a united front going into the election. With only three months between the primary and the first round of voting it will be a risky move, but it’s not obvious that there’s a better one available. If the president had tried to avoid giving party members a vote, the party could easily have torn itself apart.
The task of the primary is more critical because next year’s election is going to be a three-way affair. The two places in the decisive second round will be fought for between three candidates: Hollande or whoever else the Socialists choose, a rival from the centre-right Republicans (to be chosen in their own primary in November, for which former prime minister Alain Juppé is currently the favorite), and the leader of the far-right National Front, Marine Le Pen.
Internal division on either centre-left or centre-right opens the possibility that Le Pen could make it to the runoff, as her father did back in 2002. Indeed, recent polls suggest the distinct possibility that she could lead in the first round.
If that’s the product of division on the left, then there’s no doubt about the eventual outcome. If the Socialists are eliminated and Le Pen faces Juppé or some other Republican in the runoff, then the latter will win comfortably. Voters from the left will turn out, however reluctantly, to support him, just as they did for Jacques Chirac in 2002.
Le Pen’s hopes focus on the possibility of the centre-right vote being divided instead, pitting her against Hollande in the second round. In that case, centre-right voters would be much more likely to stay home or even support Le Pen, raising the nightmare scenario of a neo-fascist president in one of Europe’s major powers.
And sure enough, there is dissension on the centre-right as well, with Michèle Alliot-Marie, former foreign affairs minister and custodian of the Gaullist tradition within the Republicans, putting herself forward as a candidate for the presidency but indicating a reluctance to compete in the Republican primary.
In principle, there’s nothing wrong with treating the first round of the election as a big primary, in which one or both parties settle on their candidate. (This is how “jungle primaries” work in California.) But as 2002 demonstrated, that only works if there’s no doubt about which are the two major parties. With an extremist third force breathing down their necks, it can be a recipe for disaster.