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Home Opinion Hollande carries the flame for French Socialism

Hollande carries the flame for French Socialism

Laurent Bouvet - 19 October 2011

The French presidential result will be the ultimate judge of a rousing Socialist primary campaign

François Hollande was elected on 16 October as the Socialist Party’s candidate for the 2012 presidential election. He secured almost 57% of the vote in a run-off against Martine Aubry.

Almost 2.8 million people came out to vote in the second round, up from the 2.5 million who turned out for the first round ballot. Besides the unquestionable success of this novel procedure, the election unified the party and gave Hollande the undisputable legitimacy he needs to take on Nicholas Sarkozy.

The campaign has therefore already fulfilled two of its main objectives: mobilising socialist sympathisers beyond the 150,000 party members; and ensuring that the candidate has sufficient legitimacy from the outset (in contrast to what happened in 2006-2007 when Ségolène Royal won very narrowly).

The third and most important objective remains open-ended: choosing the best possible candidate to beat Nicolas Sarkozy in the presidential election next year. In wining, François Hollande is heir – as was Martine Aubry – to the French political “model” of ‘mitterrando-delorisme’. But can he beat Sarkozy? Can he do better than Ségolène Royal in 2007? Can he mobilise the working-class electorate, the ‘people of the left’, who have let the PS down at every election since François Mitterrand won in 1988?

Only the result of the presidential election next May will allow us to say, conclusively, whether the primary fully lived up to the high hopes which it generated.

A new procedure in French political life

It is the first time in the history of French political parties that this kind of appointment process has taken place. This primary, described as ‘open’ (to all French citizens on the electoral register), was envisaged and adopted in 2009 by the PS as a method of appointment capable of resolving the ‘leadership crisis’ which has undermined the party since 2002 – when Lionel Jospin, then prime minister, was defeated in the first round of the presidential election by Jacques Chirac and Jean-Marie Le Pen. In 2006, Ségolène Royal lost the 2007 presidential election having been selected by party members only.

The procedure adopted resembles Italian primaries (originally open to all on the left, open to all citizens, voters invited to pay 1 euro to vote), but it has two rounds, imitating the French presidential ballot, and internet, postal and proxy voting are not allowed. The reference to the US, notably to the Obama campaign, is also very much present among the most ardent promoters of the procedure.

The operation of the process was a success for the Socialist Party. It is the first time that such a large number of citizens have mobilised for a political event outside of ordinary elections. The cost of the primary, estimated to be 3.5 million euros, was largely covered by the contribution requested from voters (around 4.8 million euros collected in the two rounds). It was also a media success for the PS, having occupied almost all audio-visual space and the politics pages of the written press since the return after summer. The three debates were a great audience success for the television channels and public interest was equally noticeable in surveys, with French people by and large declaring themselves in favour of this procedure.

Stumbling blocks on the horizon

If the success of the primaries is unquestionable and the legitimacy of the chosen candidate likewise, there remain a number of problems that the PS must face before the presidential elections next year. Only a Socialist victory will allow us to look back on the primaries as a useful exercise with regard to its ultimate objective: to provide the best candidate to beat Nicolas Sarkozy (and not forgetting Marine Le Pen).

First problem: The primaries have not allowed the party to establish a coherent political programme. The two main candidates, Martine Aubry and François Hollande, clashed too often from very blurry positions without proposing a unified vision or a clear direction. This has been the job of the two ‘young’ (being less than 50 years old…) candidates, Arnaud Montebourg, who has positioned himself clearly to the left with his rhetoric of “deglobalisation”, and Manuel Valls, clearly positioned on the social-liberal right of the party. The potential for synthesis, for conciliation of rivals and for rassemblement of the different strands of French socialism has always been the trademark of François Hollande. It is a role he played brilliantly throughout the first round of voting and notably during the second when the other candidates rallied behind him. He is a candidate who reassures above anything else. A tactic which could prove effective against a French president who has seriously destabilised the country under the premise of reform.

Second problem: Although the primaries mobilised a large number of socialists and left-wing sympathisers, it is far from certain that this will mean a Socialist victory in 2012. Indeed, against the backdrop of an increasingly unpopular president (scoring only 30% in recent opinion polls), the ongoing economic crisis and the popular distrust towards the current government, the turnout for the primaries only included a small part of the left’s potential electorate (during the second round of the 2007 presidential elections Ségolène Royal, who went on to lose, won nearly 17 million votes). This problem becomes apparent when you look at those voters who changed positions in the primaries. They are without doubt closer to the heart of the socialist electorate or the greens ‒ middle-class professionals, from the public sector, more educated than the average French person, older, etc. ‒ than the working class categories who abstain in large numbers or who vote increasingly for the protest parties and essentially for the Front National, or even, as in 2007, for the centre-right.

This ‘working class’ question remains an obstacle for the upcoming year. Since the election of François Mitterand in 1981 and 1988, the traditional working class categories (blue-collar and white-collar workers and pensioners from these categories) have not voted as a majority for the left in a presidential election. When the left have won an election, since this period, it has been thanks to high levels of voter abstention – which is notably the case for the local elections which the PS has won over the last 10 years.

Third problem: the transformation of the party model. Will the PS remain, as a political organisation, in its current form? Nothing is less certain. The current evolution is driven by the usurping of the party activists (and elected members) from their last meaningful roles within the party: the selection and designation of candidates for elections. The success of the primaries risks disconnecting the party from the organisational strength of its grassroots. Opening up the selection of candidates to all French citizens could lead rapidly to a renewed debate about the party’s themes and most certainly its political personnel. The classic arguments about the domination of socialist party apparatus are being turned on their heads. The strategy of the primaries, validated by the success of the presidential episode, has opened a veritable Pandora’s Box for the PS, as it has for the rest of the parties. The old party of Épinay (date of the “reestablishment” of the PS in 1971 to mark the arrival of François Mitterand at the head of the party) was undeniably bereft of life before the primaries. They will have held on, irregardless, for forty years.

Fourth problem: the primaries signify without doubt the end of the generation of the heirs of ‘mitterando-delorisme’; a generation which established itself in the 1980s with the arrival of the left in power and who remained under the auspices of both Mitterand and Jospin; a generation who never won nor conquered the national level in their own right; a generation to which everything has always been served on a platter and whose intellectual and political legacy is without doubt one of the most disappointing in the history of French socialism. They even owe the victories in the regional territories to a continual programme of decentralisation which they fell comfortably into rather than propagated themselves.

Their, at times, wide-eyed Europeanism hardly conformed to some of the tactical renunciations at the time of the referendum of the European Constitution. A generation of soulless administrators, gleaned early on in the corridors of the elitist École Nationale Supérieure and finished in government inside the ministerial offices, have been completely cut off from the real “people of the left”. 2012 is thus the last hope for these quasi-seniors to return to power, one last time. Can they make the most of the power which they have for a long time tasted  but never really used? If they fail, it will be the last straw and they will be remembered in history for their average skills and their mediocre talents.

Yet we can have confidence in François Hollande’s ability to represent this generation. Nothing will guarantee that everything will run smoothly if they do win power. But at least this gold plated generation will have achieved what they were put there for by Mitterand, Delors, Rocard and Jospin, their socialist forefathers.

A contribution to the State of the Left, a monthly insight report from Policy Network's Social Democracy Observatory

Laurent Bouvet is professor of political science at the University of Versailles and director of the Observatory of Social Democracy at Jean Jaurès Foundation in Paris

This is a contribution to Policy Network's work on Globalisation and Governance.

Tags: Francois Hollande , French Socialists , Parti Socialiste , primary campaign , primaries , Martine Aubry , Nicholas Sarkozy , 2012 Presidential elections

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The Policy Network Observatory promotes critical debate and reflection on progressive politics. It is centre-left orientated but determinedly challenges social democracy. It is pro-European but restlessly questions EU institutions and practices.

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