If you wrote a novel based on the French presidential election, it would be panned by the critics as repetitive. Two party primaries playing out exactly the same way.
In each, two clear front-runners from the start, with the more centrist one as favorite; a third serious contender some way back, and a few also-rans. Then in the last few weeks the number three starts making up ground; the late surge takes him to a clear lead in the first round of voting, with the centrist as runner-up. The candidate who was given no chance for most of the campaign then wins comfortably in the runoff.
The Socialists haven’t reached that last stage yet, but there’s little doubt that next Sunday Benoît Hamon, the left-wing former education minister, will defeat his centrist rival, former prime minister Manuel Valls, to become the endorsed Socialist candidate for president. In the first round last night he led comfortably with 36.8% to Valls’s 31.5%*; fellow left-winger Arnaud Montebourg, who came third with 17.8% (almost exactly what he got in 2011), has endorsed Hamon.
Hamon’s support, previously in the low teens, had started to pick up only a few weeks ago, and particularly after the televised candidate debates, in which he was seen to have performed well. Valls, on the other hand, who declared his candidacy only after incumbent François Hollande withdrew in early December, seems to have failed to excite much enthusiasm among the party’s base.
For all the similarity with the triumph of François Fillon in the centre-right Republican primary, there is one absolutely crucial difference. The Republicans know that, barring some major upset, their candidate is going to be in the top two when France goes to the polls on 23 April. The Socialists have no such assurance; based on current polls, they are likely to run fifth.
That in turn means that the Republicans, for all their internal differences, have a powerful incentive to present a united front. Given that he is likely to face the far right’s Marine Le Pen in the runoff, Fillon would have to stumble badly in order not to become the next president.
But the Socialists now face the very real prospect of a split. If Valls were the nominee, much of the party’s left, antagonised by Hollande’s economic policies, would be tempted to support the far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon – currently placed fourth in the polls. Assuming Hamon wins next Sunday, however, the boot will be on the other foot, and it will be the party’s moderates who may bolt.
As long as Hamon and Mélenchon are splitting the left-wing vote, there’s no chance of one of them making the runoff. (Even if they were united it would be a long shot.) But there is a centrist with a chance of edging out either Fillon or Le Pen: Emmanuel Macron, former industry minister under Valls, who left the government and the Socialist Party last year to run under the banner of his new party, En Marche!
Polls show Macron’s support hovering around 20%; still well behind Le Pen and Fillon, but close enough to give some hope if he were to attract a chunk of Socialist support. Moreover, if he were to make the runoff, it’s likely that he would beat either the right or the far right. There’s certainly no other plausible path to victory for any sort of progressive candidate.
Valls described next Sunday’s vote as “a very clear choice … between certain defeat and possible victory.” But the Socialist Party looks in deep trouble either way. For the centre-left as a whole, however, Hamon’s candidacy seems to offer the best opportunity – albeit a slim one – via the hope of driving enough Socialists into Macron’s camp to make him competitive.
* Note: Those are the latest figures from the official Socialist Party website, with almost three-quarters of the vote counted; I’ve factored out the informals. Le Monde has slightly later figures, which show very little change. Turnout was rather less than two million, well down on 2011’s 2.65 million.