Hollande Hopes to Emerge Stronger from Primary

A left-wing nominating contest might be a blessing in disguise for France’s historically unpopular president.

Prime Minister Manuel Valls and President François Hollande of France speak at the Elysée Palace in Paris, June 15, 2016
Prime Minister Manuel Valls and President François Hollande of France speak at the Elysée Palace in Paris, June 15, 2016 (Elysée)

France’s Socialists said on Sunday they will after all organize a presidential primary for the 2017 election, forcing François Hollande to beat off several left-wing challengers before he can pivot to the general election.

It is the first time a sitting Socialist Party president is forced to prove himself in a primary.

Hollande’s critics invoked standing party rules which do require a nominating contest. Except those rules were only written in 2011 to allow for a then-unprecedented open primary on the left. The Socialist Party leadership could have easily thrown out the rulebook from five years ago and made Hollande’s life a little easier.

The fact that it didn’t says a lot about how weak the president’s position is.

An Ifop poll published on Sunday puts Hollande’s approval rating at 14 percent. It hasn’t been much higher through the last few years, nor has there been a less popular president in French history.

The causes are obvious: stubbornly high unemployment, labor unrest and a leader who, by oscillating between liberal economic reform and old-school socialist planning, doesn’t seem to know what he’s doing.

Blessing in disguise

But the primary could be a blessing in disguise.

To the extent that Hollande has reformed the economy — by liberalizing Sunday shopping hours, for example, and allowing small companies to opt out of collective bargaining agreements — it has divided the French left.

The Greens left the ruling coalition in 2014 only for some of their leaders to return to government in a cabinet shakeup earlier this year. Martine Aubry, Hollande’s rival in the last primary, has led the parliamentary fight against his reforms. Arnaud Montebourg, the former industry minister and a left-wing firebrand, is certain to challenge Hollande this time.

“The Socialist Party is seeking, rightly, to unite the left with this primary,” Hollande’s reformist prime minister, Manuel Valls, told Le Journal du Dimanche, “because we need to be present in the second round.”

Recent polls predict Hollande would be pushed into third place by the nationalist Marine Le Pen and whoever the center-right Republicans nominate (probably Alain Juppé or Nicolas Sarkozy). The only way Hollande can make it into the runoff is if the whole center-left rallies behind him. A primary victory might make that more likely.

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