Thursday,21 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1327, (12 - 18 January 2017)
Thursday,21 February, 2019
Issue 1327, (12 - 18 January 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Election year in France

Many French Socialists believe the country’s 2017 presidential race has already been lost whatever the outcome of the party’s primary elections, writes Tewfick Aclimandos

The pundits know that nobody can safely predict the outcome of a French presidential race before the end of January – the elections are held in May. Voters start pondering their decision during the winter’s second month. Things are unlikely to change in this year’s elections: The winner of the Socialist Party primary is still not known, and centrist politician François Bayrou may or may not be a candidate.

Moreover, any further terrorist attacks in France could have a tremendous impact on the voters’ decisions. The public’s dislike for political parties has reached new heights, and none of the pollsters has been able to assess the impact of cultural issues on the outcome. The passage of the “marriage for all” law, for instance, has been highly polarising in France, and right-wing candidate François Fillon is openly against some of its provisions. This will cost him some votes, but will bring him others.

The left can still claim to represent a third of the French electorate, but it is fragmented. The French Socialist Party includes some very different people who do not have the same conceptions of the economy, of French identity or of the role of the state. Former French president François Mitterrand’s extraordinary ability and authority succeeded in enforcing a closing of the ranks on the French left, and current French President François Hollande is likeable and was helped in his election victory by a deep hatred of his competitor, former president Nicolas Sarkozy.

Building consensus between the conflicting Socialist Party factions was not necessary at the time Hollande was elected, since everybody wanted to topple Sarkozy.

However, disputes broke out after Hollande’s 2012 election victory. Hollande has had to face serious dissensions and many defections since, and he has been unwilling or unable to impose unity. He has lost allies from France’s other left-wing parties, and he has had to live with constant harassment from the left wing of his own. These “frondeurs” have easily been able to score points off Hollande, and they have never stopped claiming that Hollande and former French Prime Minister Manuel Valls have betrayed leftist values with no obvious results.

Valls is now standing in the Socialist Party primary, where he is facing many other candidates. He may win, but he is still caught in a quandary. A large number of Socialist Party supporters have developed a strong dislike of his economic views and his authoritarian and statist way of doing things. Many of Hollande’s supporters feel that Valls betrayed the president and put pressure on him to abandon seeking a second term in office.

Moreover, many Socialists believe that the 2017 presidential race has already been lost and consider the primary to be simply the first step in an internal struggle to gain control of the party that they do not want Valls to win. Despite this, Valls had a solid lead in the last public-opinion survey in France, though things can quickly change. He should be able to reach the second round of the primary elections. His real problems will begin in the second, where his foes will come together to kill his candidacy.

Not much is known about the other candidates. The most prominent is Arnaud Montebourg, who is marketing the idea of “economic patriotism” (buy French products) and who tends towards Euroscepticism. Montebourg is the son of a civil servant in the Finance Ministry, and his mother was an Algerian Kabyle and taught Spanish throughout her career. In the 1990s, Montebourg was a lawyer who relentlessly unveiled the wrongdoings of the party of then president Jacques Chirac in running Paris. He was an industry minister in the first Hollande government, and he did not show much respect for the president, causing him rapidly to resign.

Montebourg is a gifted speaker, albeit a theatrical one. I once met him at a wedding where he was explaining to friends how he saw the job of a MP and his relationship with voters who wanted him to be in Paris to defend their interests and to be present in his electoral fief in provincial France in order to be closer to “real life”. He sounded smart and lucid in what he said, but the opinion polls show that many French voters do not think he has the calibre to be president.

The same goes for another possible candidate, Benoit Hamon, who is an historian with considerable political experience. I am told he is well liked by Socialist Party activists, but he is not a well-known figure, though this is starting to change. Hamon has been doing better in the opinion polls, but his platform is both vague and unrealistic. This is not necessarily a handicap: As I have already noted elsewhere, French voters never believe in election promises, considering them to be simply an indication of direction and not goals in themselves.

However, the French media has claimed that many of Hamon’s aides and advisers are the mayors of poor French city suburbs who have made arrangements with the Muslim Brotherhood or radical Muslim clerics. Hamon has strongly denied sharing such views, but the accusation has hurt. He is a Eurosceptic and a representative of the left of the Socialist Party, which makes for an interesting mix, but not necessarily a winning election candidate.

Vincent Peillon is a former French education minister who had seemed to have left the political arena but who is now trying to make a comeback with the help of many anti-Valls figures. The son of a communist banker and a prominent medical researcher, he has made a name for himself as a philosopher and researcher specialising in pre-Marxist socialist thought. He is more mainstream, or even right-wing, than either Montebourg or Hamon. He mishandled the first steps in his comeback and has yet to define his direction, but it is too early to rule him out.

For Fillon and French Front National leader Marine Le Pen, a Valls victory in the Socialist Party primary would be a blessing. At least, the pundits think so. Valls and centre-left candidate Etienne Macron, another former minister, would then have to fight each other to win the hearts of the same voters, thus weakening themselves. Any other winner in the primary would be too left-wing, the media says, and would considerably ease Macron’s task while complicating the life of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the extreme-left candidate.

To sum up: We will have to wait as the electoral map is not yet clear-cut. For now the Socialists’ prospects are bleak.

The writer is a professor of international relations at the Collège de France and a visiting professor at Cairo University.

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