French Socialists Not Ready to Replace Hollande

The left’s leader may be unpopular, but the one candidate who could do better is despised by his own party.

French president François Hollande answers questions from reporters in Brussels, July 12
French president François Hollande answers questions from reporters in Brussels, July 12 (The Council of the European Union)

With the lowest approval rating of any French president in recent history, François Hollande could do his Socialist Party a favor by not seeing reelection in 2017.

The left-wing leader suggested on Monday he would step aside if he failed to bring down unemployment — which has been over 10 percent since he narrowly defeated Nicolas Sarkozy in 2012.

“If there are no results, there can be no credibility for a candidacy,” he said at a Paris dinner hosted by the presidential press association.

Politico reports that Hollande has made similar claims in the past. But this time his phrasing left no room for interpretation.

By tying his reelection bid so clearly to the unemployment rate, which has risen almost uninterrupted for the past 33 months, Hollande has given himself an exit.

After a brief upsurge in his popularity in January, when Islamist gunmen killed seventeen people at the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish supermarket in Paris, Hollande’s approval ratings have dropped into familiarly low territory.

The polling firm Ipsos reports (PDF) an uptick this month, probably owing to the leading role Hollande played in preventing a Greek exit from the eurozone two weeks ago. But it also reveals that just half of the president’s own Socialist Party supporters think he is doing a good job.

On the far left, 44 percent approve of Hollande’s job performance. More worryingly, just 30 percent of centrist voters do and only 6 percent of those who say they will vote for the Front national. The Socialists need to win support from one of those quarters if they are to keep Sarkozy out of the Elysée Palace in 2017.

The former president is almost certain to win his party’s presidential nomination. Some polls suggest he and the Front‘s Marine Le Pen would beat Hollande into third place, all but guaranteeing a victory for Sarkozy in the second voting round.

The most likely candidate to take Hollande’s place is his reformist prime minister, Manuel Valls. Although his approval rating has slipped recently too, 45 percent of French voters still have confidence in him.

A self-avowed social democrat who has spearheaded the Socialist government’s late-game conversion to a more business-friendly policy (Hollande won the 2012 election declaring finance his enemy), Valls could push Le Pen out of the runoff and should then be able to appeal to moderate voters, giving the Socialists a fighting chance.

But they might not let him. According to Politico, Valls’ biggest enemies are in his own party.

Heavyweight Socialist opponents, including former economy minister Arnaud Montebourg, are pushing for the Socialist Party to designate its presidential candidate in a primary contest open to all left-wing voters. That could be dangerous for Valls, who won just 6 percent of the votes in the last primary, while Montebourg won 17 percent.

Valls made no friends on the left by using an arcane constitutional prerogative that let the government force through liberal economic reforms without a vote in parliament. The measures — meant to boost employment — included a shortening of labor arbitration procedures, a weakening of protections in some professions, such as pharmacists and notaries, giving coaches the right to compete with intercity trains and allowing shops to open on more Sundays.

Perhaps timid by international standards, the reforms were controversial in France. Many leftwingers saw them as an erosion of the French social model.

The Greens had already quit Hollande’s coalition in protest. Other far-left parties refused to back him in the most recent local elections, allowing Sarkozy’s conservatives to take over control in 28 départements. It doesn’t look like the French left is ready for a “Third Way” leader like Valls.

As a result, it is more likely to go into the next election with Hollande as leader and lose — once again — to the right.

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