French Socialists Seek Candidate—And Unity—To Confront Sarkozy in 2012

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A man leaves a voting booth after taking part in an election to select a Socialist Party candidate for the 2012 elections, October 9, 2011. (Photo: Eric Gaillard / Reuters)

So what are the main take-away points for international readers curious about the presidential primary being held by France’s Socialist Party (PS), and now racing towards its Oct. 16 climax? First, that with nearly 2.5 million people having turned out to participate in the opening stage of a mere primary, it seems clear France’s abstention-plagued electoral process is getting a huge boost from people viewing next spring’s presidential contest as a critical decision for the nation’s future—and already moving to shape the options for change it will offer. Second, that enthusiasm for and engagement in the PS primary maybe interpreted as yet another reflection of what polls already indicate is a surging desire among French voters polling to deny unpopular conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy a second term, and replace him with a less divisive, petulant, and unaccountable leader.

Third, however, with next Sunday’s final round pitting representatives of the Socialists main rival factions—champion of its more orthodox leftist wing, Martine Aubry, and the relatively market-friendly, center-leaning François Hollande—the next week will be crucial to determining whether the battle to win the PS competition will once again become so bitter that it leaves the party in the conflict-riven state that earned it the name “the losing machine” for over 20 years of presidential elections. Or, to rephrase what many French observers have said in reference to surveys indicating both Aubry and Hollande could beat Sarkozy in the general election so long as they keep leftist troops united: current numbers suggest the 2012 campaign is no longer Sarkozy’s to win, but still could be one the PS could lose to division yet.

For now, however, the wind is most definitely billowing Socialists sails—with both public interest and voter turn out in the primary considered so great that pundits predict France’s rightist parties will soon be forced to follow democratic suit. The biggest first round beneficiary of that mobilization was Hollande, 57, who came out ahead of rivals as predicted—but with a 39% share of voting almost five points lower than expected. By contrast Aubry’s nearly 31% score was significantly higher than earlier polls had forecast, leaving her in a far stronger position heading into Sunday’s run off than most pundits anticipated. Aubry’s chances are reinforced still against the astonishingly strong 17% showing of PS upstart Arnaud Montebourg. His flamboyance during the three primary debates—and calls for “deglobalization,” rigorous regulation of banks and financial markets, and heavy taxation of France’s wealthiest people and businesses–piqued the interest of many crisis-weary and harder-left voters who will now presumably be inclined to back Aubry in her run-off against Hollande.

Notable among the other three contenders was the humiliating 6.8% score of 2007 Socialist presidential candidate Ségolène Royal, whose performance did nothing to mute critics who still claim her primary victory five years ago was a fluke. Tailing her with 5.7% was Manuel Valls, whose militant centrism and willingness to embrace many conservative policies were as much a handicap with leftist voters as his truly toxic nickname of “the French Tony Blair”.

Not surprisingly, French conservatives responded to Sunday’s outcome by both pooh-poohing the turnout (“only 4% of total voter scrolls”, some rightists mocked, ignoring the fact they predicted the primary would draw less far fewer people), and portraying the Hollande-Aubry final as win-win for their side. The reason? The affable, consensual Hollande, conservatives say, is the kind of cordial, wonkish, aggression-averse politician that the sharp-tongued, attacking, often bombastic campaign animal Sarkozy has regularly eaten alive during his rise to power. As current Socialist Party leader and iconic author of France’s controversial 35-hour work-week law, meanwhile, Aubry’s harder leftist edge is one conservatives feel they can turn against her among a majority of voters who fear she’d take France too far to the left. (That may be true, some observers note, but with Sarkozy’s own approval numbers having plummeted in part due to his own embrace of policies dear to extreme-right National Front voters, Aubry might still be considered the more moderate of the two among hesitant presidential voters next year.)

Next Sunday’s primary final will determine whether Hollande or Aubry represents the PS in the 2012 presidential race—though what happens between now and then will be just as important to how much party-wide support the eventual winner will enjoy going into the general election. While PS presidential candidates long issued from often brutal internal wrangling and power playing among rival factions, the process has opened up since François Mitterrand last secured the Elysée for the Socialists in 1988 following his own ruthless moves to dominate opponents and enforce party loyalty to him. But despite the more democratic PS selection method that has given party members a greater voice since then—starting in earnest with the introduction of an open, albeit critically flawed primary process in 2006—the changes haven’t entirely banished divisions, resentment, and anger traditionally generated by internal party contests. Ironically, greater openness and democracy in choosing its candidates has repeatedly left the PS too fractured to re-assemble itself behind its champions in taking on the right.

Such bitterness was so great following Royal’s 2006 win, for example, that many party insiders actively worked to undermine what they felt was her undeserved 2007 presidential run. Just as bad, when Aubry eked out victory for the PS leadership in 2008, backers of the defeated Royal voiced public accusations of election fraud. It was in the hopes of avoiding those kinds of fractures that this year’s primary was designed to be more transparent and cooperative than clashes of the past. Early on the PS decided to leave its primary open to candidates from all leftist parties—the last-placed finisher in Sunday’s first round wasn’t a Socialist—as well as non-Socialist voters. Up to the Oct. 9 first round, that seems to have averted the sort of overly personalized or slashing campaign rhetoric and hard body shots during debates that, in previous contests, left lasting wounds and resentment.

Left to be seen is whether that cordial tone continues now that the finale looms—and both Aubry and Hollande have a credible chance of winning the PS candidacy. The risks of the gloves coming off will grow as the finalists face off in a single high-stakes TV debate Wednesday night–and as primary candidate eliminated in the first round announce which of the two rivals in the run-off they’ll endorse. To be sure, transformation of the race from a contest of cordial peers into the kind of frontal, full-contact battles of  U.S. party primaries would make for more drama and passion—and quite possibly even higher voter participation Oct. 16. But wide-open combat would also threaten to create the same divisions that have left PS stuck with its “the losing machine” name in presidential campaigns since the Mitterrand era (and which has, it has to be said, left defeated Republican and Democrat hopefuls less than enamored with the winner). For that reason, voters and politicians on France’s right as well as left will be watching the final week of the PS primary for important signs of how the 2012 presidential election is likely to shape up—and how united a front Sarkozy will face in a what for now looks like a seriously up-hill re-election bid.