French Socialists seek a direction

Not a big election today, but an important one. The members of France’s Socialist Party go to the polls tonight to elect their secretary, and thereby to decide on the party’s direction for the immediate future.

Incumbent secretary Olivier Faure, who is seeking re-election, has been in the job since 2018. They have not been good years for the Socialists: having lost the presidency in 2017, their vote stagnated in local elections in 2020 and regional elections in 2021. Then last year, with mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo as their candidate, they managed just 1.7% of the first-round vote in the presidential election.

Faced with oblivion in the legislative election that followed, they agreed to an electoral alliance (the New Popular, Ecological and Social Union, or NUPES) with other left-of-centre parties – principally the far-left LFI of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who had scored 22.0% for president. It was a controversial move, but it at least resulted in the preservation of a Socialist delegation in parliament of about thirty MPs.

Faure had not previously been a stalwart of the party’s left (he apparently considered supporting Emmanuel Macron in 2017), but he promoted the policy of co-operation with the far left and has continued to back NUPES. It’s that policy that is on the line tonight, with implications that reach beyond France.

Two challengers contested the secretaryship against Faure: Hélène Geoffroy, mayor of Vaulx-en-Velin in the suburbs of Lyon, who was a strong critic of NUPES, and Nicolas Mayer-Rossignol, mayor of Rouen, whose position was more nuanced but also critical. In the first round of voting, held last week, Faure led with 49.2% against 30.5% for Mayer-Rossignol and 20.3% for Geoffroy.

Geoffroy’s supporters will strongly back Mayer-Rossignol in tonight’s runoff, but they would have to do so with a rare unanimity for him to beat Faure on those figures. His hopes, such as they are, rest more on motivating those who failed to vote in the first round: turnout was just under 55%. Even with that potential, Faure must be a very strong favorite for re-election.

That said, the fact that the incumbent could not garner a first-round majority (whereas last time, in 2021, he had 72.0%) suggests that there is deep division over the party’s future. Mayer-Rossignol says he would not tear up the accord with LFI, but his call to review it obviously strikes a chord with a large number of members. A narrow victory for Faure is not going to make those concerns go away.

The next four years in French politics will be of prime importance as Macron, in his second and final term, becomes more of a lame duck and attention focuses on the 2027 election – whose shape at this point is utterly obscure. With the centre-right Republicans shifting towards the hard right, the large space on the centre-to-centre-left of the spectrum is there to be filled.

Macron started out in the Socialist Party, and many of his voters would still regard it as their natural home; if no strong centrist candidate emerges to fill Macron’s shoes, the Socialists may yet be able to return to relevance. Alliance with Mélenchon, particularly as a junior partner, is probably not the way to achieve that. But the alternative is far from obvious, and regardless of what decision is made now it is almost certain to be revisited as the situation develops.

And while France has some very distinctive features, the general predicament is fairly typical for centre-left parties across Europe. Although things don’t look quite as bad for them as they did a couple of years ago, rising support for far right, far left or Greens (often all three at once) has cramped the available space in the traditional centre of the spectrum. Difficult and messy choices have to be made about where to seek allies and how much ground to concede to them.

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