|France’s socialists have decided to hold a presidential primary in January 2017. This decision, taken by the PS national council on 18 June, and now endorsed by the President, means that François Hollande is the first incumbent in French history needing to win approval to seek re-election. This represents a significant U-turn by Hollande and Prime Minister Manuel Valls’ previous position that the sitting president should be the ‘natural’ candidate for the Left.|
Why a primary?
The primary would have a number of advantages for the president. Tactically, it would allow Hollande to determine the timing of the campaign and force all potential runners to show their hands before he does, revealing any fragmentation in the anti-liberal camp (les frondeurs) within the PS. The nomination would help Hollande regain legitimacy and create political momentum for his candidacy, as in 2011, and also provide useful media air-time in the lead up to the presidential election. Importantly, Hollande could claim that he is keeping the PS on course towards greater intra-party democracy, a priority in the post-Mitterrand era.
The main motives for the PS’s decision do focus mostly on Hollande himself, however. As the political crisis triggered by the government’s labour law drags on, Hollande is aware of his failure to stop the continental drift of the French left, and of the ever growing divide between its anti-liberal and social-liberal factions. He must now focus on saving whatever remains of his 2012 presidential majority in order to emerge as the unified candidate of the moderate left. This means simultaneously neutralizing both the orthodox and modernising wings of his party, closing out any splinter faction rivals, and keeping onside the party’s closest allies such as the left-wing radical PRG and pro-government Greens.
“What matters is the boundary”
So, Hollande is shifting back to PS internal politics as usual, counting on his many years of experience as party leader between 1997 and 2008. As explained by Jean-Christophe Cambadélis, the current PS first secretary, “what matters is the boundary”. Hollande will try to replicate the ‘concentric circle’ strategy of 2012, whereby he had first consolidated support from the PS and its closest allies – at the time, Jean-Pierre Chevènement, the PRG and the Greens – before turning to the rest of the left in the election. This time, Hollande sees the primary as a means of reunifying his party and forcing all rival factions within the PS to rally around his flag. Ironically enough, the Communists, Jean-Luc Mélenchon and the EELV Greens, by refusing to participate in a PS-led primary, are following Hollande’s script. In January 2017, the presidential primary should only include members of the Beautiful Popular Alliance (Belle Alliance Populaire), officially launched last April to rebuild a more cohesive coalition of moderate left parties around the PS. The Alliance has been reduced to its bare bones ever since, gathering only the PS, the PRG and the small splinter environmentalist parties which support Manuel Valls’ government.
But this represents exactly the core of Hollande’s presidential support which could help him offset his disastrous popularity ratings. The figure below illustrates the strategic calculation behind the primary. As can be seen, the relatively popular Economy Minister, Emmanuel Macron, emerges as the ‘best’ candidate for the Left among all French voters, with 29% of support as opposed to only 7% for Hollande, reflecting Macron’s social-liberal appeal to the centre-right in the general electorate. Turning to left-wing voters, however, Macron is running neck-and-neck with Hollande at 11% - Mélenchon beats both with 21%, but will not be in the primary. Finally, when the selectorate is narrowed down to PS voters, Hollande enjoys the lead at 21%. In sum, the more the primary resembles an internal party race, the better the odds that Hollande will win the nomination.
Who is the best candidate for the Left?
One thing worth noting - none of the above scenarios features Arnaud Montebourg, the champion of economic protectionism and a strong critic of Brussels. Montebourg may not be the only candidate from the protectionist left, however, so this threat may dissipate through splitting its vote. Another important unknown is the position of Martine Aubry, the Mayor of Lille and PS heavyweight, who launched devastating attacks against the national security and economic agenda of the government earlier this year. Aubry is highly popular among the party’s anti-liberal factions, and she also has a social reformist profile which could allow her to challenge Hollande for the centre ground of the party and settle the score of her defeat in the 2011 primary. Together these candidates represent the majority of the socialists. As Mélenchon, former Green Housing Minister Cécile Duflot and the Trotskyites should in due course crowd the space for the anti-liberal left, the most profitable location for Hollande would be therefore to move to the social-liberal pivot of the PS, at a reasonable distance from his radical competitors and close to the centre-right, particularly in the event of the centre-right Alain Juppé winning the Republican nomination.
This article has appeared on the webpage of Policy Network, a leading think-tank and international political network.