Hollande Wins French Socialist Primary, Looks to the Battle Ahead with Sarkozy

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French candidate for the 2011 Socialist party primary elections Francois Hollande, left, waves after the Party announced his victory during the second round of the Socialist Party's primary vote, in Paris, Sunday Oct. 16, 2011. (Thibault Camus-AP)

Though it may seem cliché to say so, it’s nevertheless true that with his party’s 2012 presidential nomination now secured, the hard work for French Socialist candidate François Hollande is about to begin. With the first round of presidential polling a bit more than six months away, the popular Hollande now becomes the principle target in the cross-hairs of French conservatives determined (and desperate) to maintain their control of the Elysée and legislature—and already attacking his leadership abilities. Moreover, with virtually all the variables in the presumed re-election bid by President Nicolas Sarkozy looking remarkably grim, there’s really nowhere for the unpopular incumbent to go but up as campaigning for the presidential contest gets underway in earnest. Therefore, Hollande embarks upon his presidential run knowing his challenge lies in limiting an inevitable narrowing of the margins in polls currently showing him easily beating Sarkozy for the presidency to claim victory in voting next spring.

Hollande won Sunday’s run-off stage of the Socialist primary with a 56.5% score over party leader Martine Aubry, who received 43.5% of votes. The win not only gives Hollande indisputable legitimacy to represent what has traditionally been a fractious, division-plagued Socialist Party (PS); it also sends him into campaigning with an equally important, strong tailwind of popular support. Estimates indicate nearly three million people turned out to vote in Sunday’s run-off. That exceeded the 2.2 million people who participated in the Oct. 16 first round—a mobilization that pundits, political analysts, and even some conservative officials considered a resounding success for a PS primary open to all voters that critics predicted would generate little public interest or support. Hollande nodded to the significance of the turn out and the victory it handed him Sunday evening as he looked forward towards next year’s two-round presidential election April 22 and May 6.

“This result gives me the majority that I had hoped for, and the legitimacy to prepare for the great presidential rendez-vous,” said Hollande, 57, before a crowd of cheering backers. “It’s the first step of a long process that I’ve prepared for over the years. I appreciate the effort that awaits me: it’s heavy; it’s serious. I must be up to the expectations of French people who can no longer bear the policies of Nicolas Sarkozy.”

Compared to Sarkozy, it’s hard to imagine how Hollande could disappoint French voter anticipation any more than it has been. New polls Monday show Sarkozy’s approval rating back down to 30%, after a recent rise to a not exactly dizzying 34%. His renewed slide to 30%–a level he’s been anchored to for around a year—brings him close to the 27% record low approval rating for a Fifth Republic French president he set last May. Meanwhile, with many of the showcase reforms and policies introduced since taking office in 2007 having since been seriously amended—or simply over-turned—as counter-productive, Sarkozy’s main defense of his record now rests essentially on claims his management of the economic and debt crisis limited the pain France would have experienced otherwise if some other leader had been at the helm. That’s a pretty weak—and highly speculative—stance for someone who ran for president on an activist agenda, including promises “I’ll go out and get economic growth with my teeth” if need be.

Given the bleak picture Sarkozy now faces, why isn’t the hardest bit over for Hollande now he’s  the candidate of a unified PS?  First off, despite the current wide-spread public rejection of Sarkozy—both politically and personally—the President’s fortunes are almost certain to improve as polling grows nearer, and voters have had a long time to consider who they’ll entrust the nation to for the next five years. And the French right isn’t going to let that reflection take place with Hollande-friendly music playing in the background. Even before he was named winner of the PS primary Sunday night, Hollande already found himself under the concentrated fire of rightist politicians who had previously had to scatter-shoot across the field of Socialist hopefuls.Those offensives will escalate in frequency and intensity from French conservatives who—much like their rightist cousins in the U.S.—have proven more themselves proficient in the art of bare-knuckle attack politics than their leftist foes.

Central to those attacks will be challenges Hollande is really présidentiable: a quality French voters require from their heads of state combining experience, ability, and leadership skills, but also a difficult to describe aura of dignity, solemnity, authority, and even chic. Sarkozy’s plummeting approval came in part from perceptions he’d betrayed the restraint and gravitas of the presidency—a view he’ll doubtless seek to reverse at the expense of the unassuming, down-to-earth, Hollande.

Meanwhile, Hollande can also expect detractors to sound loud warnings of wreck and ruin when he more fully defines his generally center-left program. Though his primary platform mapped out certain measures—including progressive tax reform, greater regulation of banks and the financial sector, and creation of thousands of teaching jobs—Hollande’s presidential program must balance his own moderate positions with complaints from his left he’s too centrist and market-friendly. As he does so, conservatives are certain to up accusations Hollande is bent on imposing irresponsible leftist orthodoxy certain to turn the current economic crisis France faces into utter calamity. Despite feeble public confidence in Sarkozy, playing on such fears will inevitably convince some crisis-rattled French voters to stick with what they consider the safer devil they know. Hollande’s goal will be to limit that voter shift back to Sarkozy as much as possible.

Then there’s the Super Sarko factor. Once he announces his anticipated re-election run—a move likely to come in January or February—Sarkozy will almost certainly win back a significant portion of his lost supporters by simply being a candidate. A tireless, aggressive, even possessed campaign animal, Sarkozy will doubtless make the most of his own years of national and international leadership, and contrast them to Hollande’s relatively limited experience as a parliamentarian, regional official, and former PS leader. Whether on the stump or in debates, Sarkozy will also look to woo back alienated voters by contrasting his hard-nosed, extremely competitive, even adolescently macho alpha male personality with the affable, easy-going, often jocular demeanor of Hollande. If so, there’s little question which man will win the in-your-face title. The risk for Sarkozy, however, is after five years of swagger and chest-poking that has produced precious little in policy terms, French voters may view any stomping of the earnest Hollande as exactly the kind of brutal style over sorely needed substance they’ve grown sick of.

And despite the almost inevitable bounce from the deep rut he’s currently stuck in, Sarkozy has to remain mindful of another detail in 2012 that contrasts previous presidential elections. Traditionally the PS has entered campaigns plagued by factional bickering that has critically undermined support for whoever managed to win its presidential candidacy. This time the very open nature of the Socialist primary—and its involvement of millions of non-PS voters—has avoided such division, averted hard feelings between contestants, and allowed party rank and file as well as change-seeking members of the public to exit the process united behind Hollande. By contrast, Sarkozy’s own unpopularity—and the blame it has gotten for a series of resounding election defeats that have cost the right dearly—has prompted some debate among conservatives about giving up the incumbency advantage in order running a more electable conservative candidate than Sarkozy.

Despite that grumbling, there’s virtually zero chance of the President stepping aside for someone else to run as the right’s standard-bearer. But in leading the fight for his re-election in the coming months, Sarkozy will represent both the biggest threat—and greatest asset—to Hollande’s struggle to wrest the Elysée from him.