New found discipline in French Socialist ranks
The sovereign debt crisis appears to have disciplined the Socialist Party, as its primary candidates position themselves against Nicolas Sarkozy
The French Socialist Party kicked off its primary election campaign on Thursday with a TV debate watched by almost 5 million people. This was a sure statement to the sceptics, showing that the party’s first ever “open primaries” could capture the imagination of centre-left sympathisers and, perhaps, become a powerful rallying call in the run-up to the April 2012 presidential election.
While success will ultimately depend on the number of voters in the primaries on 9 and 16 October, the process has already attracted considerable attention. It also shows that the party is now widely seen as a serious alternative to Nicolas Sarkozy’s conservative government.
Indeed, viewers decided to turn on their TVs despite an otherwise unexciting internal campaign. Since the 2012 Socialist election platform was adopted a few months ago, the candidates have displayed little difference on substance. This was largely confirmed during the debate itself, despite relatively minor disagreements over nuclear power or the decriminalisation of cannabis consumption.
The general atmosphere is all the more consensual as the three most serious contenders have all agreed to stand by the commitment to reduce the country’s public deficit to 3% in 2013. Such a level of consensus on an otherwise controversial issue may come as a surprise. In fact, the desirability of such a hasty deficit reduction is becoming more and more questionable as the economy deteriorates. But this shows how the sovereign debt crisis has disciplined the party and made it aware that any appearance of carelessness would boost Nicolas Sarkozy’s prospects. Moreover, through such a commitment the Socialists are effectively acknowledging that debt reduction is now a major national priority and that being a member of a single currency implies that any change to the timing of deficit reduction should now be decided at the European level.
All candidates have also stressed the need for an overhaul of the tax system and growth-enhancing public investment. In sum, the party will not promise to “change life” in 2012, as the 1981 slogan famously boasted: instead they will go into the election with a five-year programme to govern the country, suited to the priorities and constraints of the day.
This commitment to a responsible stance on public finances effectively mitigates the main fault of the party’s official platform – that is, a tendency to draw up a catalogue of new public expenditure regardless of the harsh economic climate. It forces the candidates to clearly set out their priorities, short of admitting explicitly that the platform will perhaps not be fully implemented.
François Hollande was first to adopt this pragmatic line and has thereby set the tone of the internal campaign. He places emphasis on education and improving the prospects of young people. Martine Aubry, who equally emphasises the theme of employment, has made clear that the priority should be to restore growth and that a Socialist government would then do what growth allows. As can be expected from an opposition party, the PS tends to underestimate the extent of the challenge: it is likely that only a massive reorientation of public expenditure will restore growth up to the level necessary to sustain an extensive and fair welfare state. More clarification is therefore still needed in order to come up with a clear and credible five-year agenda. In a sense the primary is the beginning of a process at the end of which the candidate will make his or her personal agenda clearer to voters. In the Fifth Republic presidential platforms have always been the candidate’s own rather than his or her party’s.
From this standpoint François Hollande and Ségolène Royal both enjoy an advantage: they have more room for manoeuvre than Aubry, who as party leader supervised the drafting of the official platform. As a result she seems bound by a moral compact with her backers from the left of the party, who might resent too much “cherry-picking”.
If any other candidate than Aubry was granted a popular mandate through the primaries, he or she would probably have more leeway than the party leader to tinker with the 2012 platform. Despite this apparent weakness, Aubry’s camp has recently criticised Hollande’s allegedly unrealistic job-creation plans in public education and his idea of a complex scheme designed to subsidise the employment of both youths and seniors in the private sector, claiming that credibility is on her side. Another likely weakness of Martine Aubry is her record in government as champion of the 35-hour week, since this could alienate some centre-ground voters who would otherwise look to Sarkozy.
By contrast, François Hollande’s detractors point to his lack of government experience – except at local level – as well as the party’s many setbacks when he was leader from 1997 to 2007. His supporters point out that he did not play a major role in Lionel Jospin’s 2002 presidential fiasco and that the poor state of the party in the run-up to the 2007 election was attributable to dissent over the 2005 European Constitution. Mr. Hollande has emerged as the most likely nominee in the opinion polls. So far, it seems that he has been the most convincing of all the candidates in the eyes of the public, but turnout will be a key factor as party members are more likely to remain loyal to Mrs. Aubry.
Although she still believes in her chances, Ségolène Royal’s campaign is compounded by the lack of renewal in her main themes and slogans: she gives the impression of trying to fight the 2007 presidential election all over again.
Disappointingly, Arnaud Montebourg and Manuel Valls are still widely seen as “junior” candidates preparing their future political careers rather than offering a serious challenge to the three heavyweights. In line with these expectations, they largely seem to be using the primary to “test” new political formulas on the electorate. In opposite ways, both are trying to respond to voters’ demands for protection in a more unsecure world. Valls’ response is strikingly close to Tony Blair’s mixture of toughness on crime and acceptance of the free market. Montebourg puts forward the mantra of “de-globalisation” and advocates protectionist policies as the only response to the crisis. Their candidacies foster debate on substance as they break the relative consensus between Hollande, Aubry and Royal. This prevents the primary from becoming a mere personality contest. Nevertheless, critics of these two candidates point out that they remain weak on concrete policy proposals and that their slogans clash with the party’s values. Still, the degree of support that both manage to achieve will have to be taken into account by the chosen candidate.
A contribution to The State of the Left, a monthly insight report from Policy Network's Social Democracy Observatory
Antoine Colombani is “maître de conférences” at the Institute of Political Studies in Paris (Sciences Po) and collaborates with the French progressive thinktank Terra Nova
French Socialist party
2012 Presidential race