Sunday,17 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1328, (19 - 25 January 2017)
Sunday,17 February, 2019
Issue 1328, (19 - 25 January 2017)

Ahram Weekly

The French Socialist debate

There were no fierce exchanges and few surprises in the French Socialist Party’s first debate before the primary elections, writes Tewfick Aclimandos

The extreme-left presidential elections candidate in France Jean-Luc Mélenchon enjoys saying that you have two lefts in France. He represents the left’s left, and the other candidate from the left, Emmanuel Macron, represents the left’s right, he says. Nobody needs the Socialist Party’s official candidate, since he will only impede one of the two lefts’ progress.

Some say Mélenchon has a point. The best of the competitors for the Socialist Party’s nomination are consistently lagging behind Macron and Mélenchon in the polls. People do not hold the latter accountable for the performance of French President François Hollande, who is certainly to the right of Mélenchon.

But the party’s boss, Jean-Christophe Cambadélis, a shrewd apparatchik with a very good ear and smart political judgement, has a good answer to this.

Neither of these two lefts, he says, will be able to win the elections alone. They need an alliance, or synthesis and compromise, and the Socialist Party can provide them with this, he says.

Cambadélis also says that those who think the losing factions in the Socialist Party primary elections will prefer to side with a candidate who does not belong to the party but who shares their views, rather than supporting the party’s official nominee, are wrong and do not really know the Socialist Party.

He may be right, or he may be wrong. One of the candidates in the primary elections, Arnaud Montebourg, has said he will support the winner regardless of who it is. I do not think the others have committed themselves.

Another important point was mentioned in my last article: Many voters in France think the left has already lost the presidential elections and consider the primary elections to be simply the first step in a struggle for the control of the party and maybe even for its survival.

This may explain why many of the candidates do not seem to have a serious programme: They enumerate what a Socialist Party president should do and how he should spend taxpayers’ money, but they do not seem to have given any serious thought to who is going to feel the heat, who is going to pay, and how this spending will be funded.

One of the seven candidates for the party’s nomination, François de Rugy, has strongly criticised this weakness. Most of the candidates’ proposals will be repulsive to France’s already squeezed middle classes, as they will quickly put tax rates up to unprecedented levels. Here, too, Cambadélis begs to differ, as he thinks that despite appearances the left could win the elections. Macron has been winning ground at the expense of the right’s candidate François Fillon, reducing his lead over the other candidates, he has pointed out.

Just wishful thinking? Perhaps. But in any case, up until now the result has been hard to predict. But Cambadélis has also warned the Socialists against self-fulfilling prophecies. If you believe the left has already lost and behave according to this belief, you will miss a golden opportunity to win the French presidency, he says.

The first debate in the Socialist Party primary elections was quiet, and there were no fierce exchanges. However, it was interesting nonetheless. Former prime minister Manuel Valls adopted a different discourse in the debate. Having spent the first weeks of the campaign trying to distance himself from Hollande’s legacy, during the debate he adopted the opposite view. This legacy was fine, he claimed. He was proud of it, and it had put France on the right track. He wanted this legacy to continue, and he had the experience, the wisdom, and the know-how to make sure this took place.

This was a not very subtle reminder of the fact that for many voters Valls is the only candidate who can be considered to be a political heavyweight. The others look too small for the presidency, and for many they will be no match for Fillon or National Front leader Marine Le Pen.

Montebourg tried to look presidential in the debate, and though he more or less succeeded this came at a cost. He did not display one of his key strengths, which is his great oratorical gift. He was even tedious and perhaps uninteresting. This should change quickly, however, and there is every reason to believe that Montebourg will be back, all cylinders firing.

The most left-wing of the heavyweight candidates, Benoit Hamon, made a strong showing in the debate, which was a surprise as he has been considered a bad debater. He was consistent, able to set the agenda (albeit with outrageous proposals), and reasonably clear in what he said. As a result, he saw a large jump in the opinion polls, and some surveys now say he might even be the “second man” in the elections, outdoing Montebourg.

However, once again, this might be temporary. During the first debate, the main candidates were keen to avoid any sharp exchanges as the party’s already poor shape does not need to be made any worse. This is likely to change, however, as both Valls and Montebourg feel threatened by Hamon’s rise. The next debates will also focus on security, terrorism and international affairs, areas in which rightly or wrongly Hamon is deemed to be weaker than the other candidates.

I personally liked François Peillon’s showing, but French voters were not convinced. He was the only one of the candidates who tried to attack the others, criticising the “brutal left” (Valls) and the “sectarian left” (Montebourg and Hamon). But he was ignored by the other candidates, and it seems he has lost a lot of points in the opinion polls. He is a strong debater and will probably try to position himself as a “centrist” between two extremes. However, I think he has little chance of winning the party’s nomination.

The other three candidates, de Rugy, Sylvia Pinel and Jean-Luc Bennahmias, were more convincing than had been expected. This was especially true of de Rugy, a young politician who might have great prospects. But they remain outsiders, and this is not likely to change.

Nearly four million people watched the first debate on television, far more than had been expected. This means that some two million people can be expected to vote in the primary elections themselves – less than half the right’s score, but a good score nonetheless given the country’s mood, the party’s shape, and the left’s divisions. Fewer than 1.5 million voters would be a failure, but more than two million would be a success.

There is a lot of speculation in France at present: Will right-wing and extreme left-wing voters participate in the primary elections to get rid of candidates they do not like? The pundits say right-wing voters will not do this, but significant numbers of extreme-left voters can be expected to try to destroy Valls’s candidacy.        

(This article was written before the second debate in the French Socialist Party primary elections, which took place on Sunday evening.)

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

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