After Hollande Steps Aside, Valls Is the Only Serious Candidate

François Hollande’s prime minister is the only one who could give the French Socialists a chance in next year’s election.

Prime Minister Manuel Valls, President François Hollande and other French Socialist Party leaders listen to a speech in Paris, September 8
Prime Minister Manuel Valls, President François Hollande and other French Socialist Party leaders listen to a speech in Paris, September 8 (PS/Mathieu Delmestre)

François Hollande bowed to reality on Thursday, when the Socialist Party leader announced he would not seek a second term as president of France.

No leader in the history of the Fifth Republic has been less popular than Hollande, whose approval rating hit a 4-percent low in one survey last month.

Hollande squandered what little goodwill he had left when Un président ne devrait pas dire ça… (“A President Should Not Say That…”) appeared last month: a tell-all book in which the outgoing president is quoted disparaging other Socialist Party bigwigs, including his prime minister, Manuel Valls, and foreign minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault.

Both were reportedly outraged by the publication, which dumbfounded the entire French political class. It will only help cement Hollande’s legacy as an inapt and feckless president, who failed to balance competing interest in the ruling Socialist Party and was unable to revitalize the French economy.

Unemployment, at 10 percent, is at the same level as when Hollande took office in 2012. Growth has been lackluster ever since.

Culture clash

The debate in the party is now whether to accept market reforms, Tony Blair-style, or protect the social welfare state, which in France is both particularly generous and particularly onerous for businesses.

As in other Western democracies, this debate takes place against the backdrop of a culture clash between cosmopolitan, outward-looking voters, mainly in the cities, and more traditionalist voters in the small towns and countryside.

The former are attracted to a mix of liberalism and social democracy, which is what Hollande’s former economy minister, Emmanuel Macron, is running on. Polls suggest he would get around 15 percent of the votes in the first round of the presidential election next year.

By nominating the socially conservative François Fillon, the center-right Republicans have made clear they intend to compete by appealing to the second group of voters, who might otherwise be drawn to Marine Le Pen’s protectionist Front national.

Fillon and Le Pen would divide up half the electorate between them in the first round.

That leaves space for the Socialists on the far left as well as in the center.

Hopeless far left

The two men who have so far announced a candidacy to succeed Hollande are both from the far left of the Socialist Party: Benoît Hamon, who resigned as education minister in 2014 when Hollande enacted liberal economic reforms, and Arnaud Montebourg, who was fired as economy minister for resisting those same reforms and replaced by Macron.

The few polls that have put Montebourg in contention don’t show him winning more than 7 percent support nationwide, less than the Left Party’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

Pollsters haven’t seriously considered the possibility that Hamon may be nominated yet.

None of these men would prevail in a runoff against Fillon anyway.

The case for Valls

The better option would be nominating a reformer, but one who doesn’t propose to slash hundreds of thousands of public-sector jobs and relishes the prospect of battling it out with the unions, like Fillon.

Valls is that person. Not only has he defended reforms, from allowing small companies to opt out of collective bargaining agreements to liberalizing intercity transport; as a former interior minister, he also has a law-and-order profile that could help the party win back working-class votes from the Front national at a time when France is still under threat from Islamic terrorist attacks.

Polls in 2015 (there are no more recent surveys) showed Valls comfortably beating Le Pen in a runoff.

The odds are still against him qualifying for the second round. But who else is there?