Moment of truth for France’s Socialists

As expected, left-winger Benoît Hamon was a comfortable winner in the second round of France’s Socialist Party primary. With 98% of polling places in, he has 58.7% of the vote, a lead of almost 350,000 over his rival, centrist former prime minister Manuel Valls. Turnout was well up on the first round, although less than half the number that voted last year in the centre-right primary.

Now the real battle begins, or rather two battles simultaneously: for the presidency of France, and for the soul of its Socialist Party.

On all the evidence of the polls, the presidency is a race in three, and Hamon is not one of those three. With one caveat (which I’ll come to later), the Socialist Party is now out of the game. But as between the three live candidates – the centre-right’s François Fillon, the far-right’s Marine Le Pen, and centrist Emmanuel Macron – the role of Socialist voters could be critically important.

For more than a decade, the Socialist Party has been clearly if uneasily in the hands of its centrist or social democratic wing, to which its last three presidential candidates (including incumbent François Hollande) all belong. But Hollande and his colleagues have been fighting an increasingly bitter battle against insurgents on their left, who are outraged at the government’s betrayal, as they see it, of left-wing economic dogma.

Now those insurgents have captured the prize, showing that the party’s rank and file is behind them. The question is, how will the leadership respond? Will they put party loyalty first and endorse Hamon? Will they risk splitting the party by endorsing Macron? Or will they sit on their hands, afraid to jump either way?

Unless Macron can attract a large number of Socialist voters, he will place third in April’s first round of the election, and left-wing voters will have to choose between Fillon and Le Pen in the runoff – clearly their least-favored outcome. But for those on the unreconstructed left, that’s a bitter reality to have to face. Many, perhaps most, will refuse, and will cast their ballots either for Hamon or for his far-left rival, Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

Until last week, that attitude seemed to matter less, because Macron seemed doomed to a third-place finish anyway. But the scandal that has enveloped Fillon – in which it’s alleged he had his wife on the payroll for a non-existent job – has opened the way for Macron to cause an upset.

So watch very carefully what Hollande, Valls and other social democrats do in the coming days or weeks. So far they have been very quiet: Hollande tweeted congratulations to the French handball team, but nothing about the primary.

One Socialist MP, Alain Calmette, from Aurillac in the Auvergne, has responded to the result by announcing his support for Macron. He said that it was impossible for him to back Hamon “except by renouncing the convictions that have inspired me for so many years in support of a reformist, responsible, credible left that confronts reality,” and accused Hamon of having “ceaselessly organised division among the [Socialist] parliamentary majority.”

If more follow him, it could mean the end of the Socialist Party as a coherent force. But it could also mean a progressive, centrist president instead of the conservative Fillon.

Finally, for the caveat I mentioned earlier. There is one, and only one, possible route for Hamon into the second round: if he can somehow do a deal with Mélenchon and the Greens’ Yannick Jadot for them to withdraw and endorse him, consolidating the left vote. Not surprisingly, Hamon has called for unity on the left and promised that discussions with them would be his top priority. But so far there is no sign at all that they will come to the party.

And it might still not be enough. For if left unity is the one hope of Hamon, it is also, paradoxically, the one hope of Le Pen. If Hamon were to knock out both Fillon and Macron in the first round, conservative voters would be the ones to be put on the spot, and it is by no means impossible that enough of them would abstain or vote for Le Pen to bring about the ultimate nightmare.




3 thoughts on “Moment of truth for France’s Socialists

  1. How did it get to the point that the Socialist Party have fallen to fifth place in the polls? Is it simply because of Hollande’s unpopularity? And if so, then why has Macron not been tarnished by association?


    1. Good question, David. The unpopularity of the government seems to be the main thing, but how much of that is Hollande personally is impossible to say. My guess is that any Socialist in the same position would have had much the same problems. Macron seems to be generating enthusiasm because he’s offering something fresh and different; he’s appealing to a liberal-centrist tradition that’s quite powerful (remember Francois Bayrou’s 18.6% in 2007), particularly since the Republicans have shifted to the right. Whether Macron can maintain that support we don’t know. But the Socialists’ problem is also a long-standing one of division on the left: the total left vote is significant, but it splinters into mutually antagonistic groups. That cost them the presidency in 2002, and will probably do so again.


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