Too many chefs spoil the left
The French left’s apparent inability to mount a credible challenge in next year’s presidential race may have repercussions far beyond the election itself
Both the French left and right are gearing up for their presidential primaries. The right, and indeed anyone registered to vote in the open primaries, go to the preliminary polls next month. The left have a little longer to prepare for their own open presidential selection, with the Belle Alliance Populaire (BAP) – the Socialist-led primary collective in which any leftwing candidate may stand –scheduled for 22 and 29 January. The Greens (EELV) are holding the first round of their own primary on 19 October. In a pre-campaign period characterised by a panoply of potential candidates, the primaries have a vital role in identifying the lead candidate for each bloc, with the expectation, rightly or wrongly, that the vast majority of other contenders will fall in behind that candidate.
With the exception of two small dissident Ecology party candidates, and with the Radical Left party still debating whether or not to participate, having denounced the PS’s monopolisation of the primaries initiative, the ‘collective’ BAP is practically the Socialist party primary – with François Hollande still to declare before the 15 December deadline. Were he to decide to retire after one term, Manuel Valls has indicated he would then stand as a candidate.
While initially put forward by President Hollande as a means of regaining legitimacy and creating political momentum, the primary is instead revealing the ever-growing fragmentation of the French left. It has also exposed Hollande’s weakness as a president and his inability to unite the Socialists. In a book published last week, revelations of Hollande’s controversial comments about topics such as Islam and the French judiciary have been heavily criticised, possibly further hampering his chances of re-election. In the lead up to the BAP primary, Arnaud Montebourg, former minister and one of the principal frondeurs – the Socialist party dissidents opposed to the social-liberal programme of the Valls government, and particularly the policies of the former economy minister, Emmanuel Macron – has taken the lead among the anti-liberal segment of the PS, with 33 per cent support in the latest primary poll. Meanwhile Hollande is topping the polls at 43 per cent. In the second round, Montebourg could win the presidential nomination against Hollande, but could lose against Valls should he be the one in the running. Two other frondeurs, Benoît Hamon and Marie-Noëlle Lienemann, have also put themselves forward, but are unlikely to split Montebourg’s support significantly.
Three absences in particular are telling about the level of disunity on the French left. At the party level, both EELV and the Radical Left are likely to run independently. Jean-Luc Mélenchon has refused to enter the PS primary and is currently running neck and neck with Hollande in national polls. The strong populist tone of Mélenchon’s ‘rebellious France’ campaign has alienated his previous Communist allies, which find themselves in a political vacuum with neither a presidential candidate nor a clear strategy for 2017. EELV’s Greens have chosen to run their own primary, with four candidates including former housing minister Cécile Duflot. Their departure from government in 2014 has distanced them from the Socialists, and EELV have been sharply divided over strategic alliances with the PS. Presidential support for the Greens is currently at three per cent but the most damaging impact is likely to be felt in June’s legislative elections, where the party is set to lose its former parliamentary group. For the Socialists, two disgruntled Ecologist and Radical Left candidates in the presidentials means more criticism on their left flank and also further fragmentation in a highly competitive race.
Individually, the presence of Emmanuel Macron, now at the head of his own En Marche! movement, might threaten to remove a part of the Socialists’ core electorate. Yet, despite positioning himself as a centrist candidate who can appeal to the centre-right as well as his former government, the latest polls suggest that Macron is simply not winning enough from the centre-right vote, or seducing sufficient Hollande supporters, to ensure the left’s presence in the decisive round (see chart). Indeed, his main impact currently looks to be allowing Marine Le Pen to inch ahead of Juppé.
Data: ELABE presidential poll, 22 September 2016
In comparison to a relatively united Moderate Right and monolithic Front National presence, this three and possibly four-way race, if we include the minor Green candidate, could compound electoral disaster in the first round for the left. With Alain Juppé as the current frontrunner for the Republican nomination, the political space available to Macron’s social liberal and cross-partisan bid is small, and the left’s chances of making it into the second round almost non-existent. In a period when popular disenchantment with political leadership is once again in the ascendancy, the left’s ability to salvage anything from the presidential race will have repercussions well beyond the election itself: it will determine their ability to offer effective representation or opposition in the next presidential cycle and beyond.
Jocelyn Evans is professor of Politics at the University of Leeds. Gilles Ivaldi is a CNRS researcher in Political Science at the University of Nice. Together they write the 500Signatures blog on French politics an elections
This article is a contribution to State of the Left – Policy Network's regular insight bulletin that reports from across the world of social democratic politics