- Former education minister Benoît Hamon and former prime minister Manuel Valls won the first voting round in the French Socialist Party’s presidential primary on Sunday.
- Arnaud Montebourg, a former industry minister, finished third. He immediately endorsed his fellow leftist Hamon.
- Hamon and Valls are due to face off in a second voting round next week.
- Polls suggest Valls, a social democrat, would be more competitive in April’s general election. But even he would struggle to qualify for the runoff in May. François Fillon of the center-right Republicans, Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front and Emmanuel Macron, a center-left independent, are more popular.
Around midday, some 400,000 voters had participated in the primary. That compares to a turnout of 740,000 around the same time in 2011, when the left organized a presidential primary for the very first time.
Nearly 4.3 million people voted in the first round of the Republican primary in November.
Valls jeopardizes credibility as a reformer
Valls has shifted to the left in the last few weeks, abandoning reforms of the 35-hour workweek and France’s high wealth taxes that he previously supported.
The reason is obvious: Valls angered the left with the liberal reforms he enacted as prime minister. He needed to convince the Socialists he is still one of them.
But there is a longer-term risk in this strategy, as I argued here last week. Valls’ electability in a general election would hinge on his credibility as a social democrat. If he veers too far to the left, true believers may decide there is no point in supporting him anymore over Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the otherwise hopeless far-left candidate, while more moderate center-left voters could defect to Macron.
Socialists could make same mistake as Labour
If the Socialists nominate Hamon or Montebourg, they could make the same mistake as Britain’s Labour party: give up the political center without a fight.
Neither Hamon nor Montebourg would contemplate shrinking the French state, which consumes more than half of the nation’s economic output.
The former has galvanized the youth vote with plans to legalize marijuana, reduce the official workweek from 35 to 32 hours and provide a universal basic income of €750 per month.
The latter advocates protectionism in the form of reserving 80 percent of public contracts for French companies, something that would violate EU competition laws.
Valls has dismissed all this as fantasy. “It’s easy to promise the impossible when you know deep down that you will never be accountable,” he said.
That, too, could be said of Jeremy Corbyn and the people around him.
François Hollande, the incumbent Socialist Party president, isn’t seeking the nomination for himself, having stepped aside for the good of his party.
Low growth, high unemployment and a hesitation to embrace market reforms made Hollande the least popular leader in French postwar history. In one survey last year, his approval rating hit a low of 4 percent.
He squandered what little goodwill he had left in the Socialist Party when Un président ne devrait pas dire ça… (“A President Should Not Say That…”) appeared in November: a tell-all book in which the outgoing president was quoted disparaging Valls, then still his prime minister, and Jean-Marc Ayrault, the foreign minister.
Both were reportedly outraged by the publication, which dumbfounded the entire French political class.
At 5 PM local time, some one million people had cast their ballots at 70 percent of the polling stations. Organizers expect turnout will reach between 1.5 and two million by the times polls close at 7.
Socialists supporting Macron
The unpopularity of the Socialist Party as a whole has given rise to speculation that some may throw their support behind Emmanuel Macron, the former economy minister who has decided to run as an independent rather than seek the left’s presidential nomination.
Macron tried to dispel such rumors on Thursday, saying, “There will be no deal between party machines.”
But prominent Socialists Party leaders, including Ségolène Royal, President François Hollande’s ex-partner and the incumbent environment minister, have already backed him.
Jean-Marc Ayrault, the foreign minister, suggested this week he might do the same if his party nominates a far-left candidate.
Macron and Valls have a contentious relationship. Nicholas Vinocur reported for Politico last year that Valls blamed his junior for distancing himself from the Socialist government when he was still serving as economy minister.
For example, after the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, Macron suggested the government should do more to provide jobs for young Muslim men, breaking with Valls’ hard line.
He also publicly repudiated a proposal to strip extremists of their French nationality.
“Valls fumed, publicly and privately, over the betrayal of this inordinately popular young Turk,” Vinocur reported, “casting himself by contrast as a loyal servant of the state.”
That, of course, was before Valls quit the government as well in order to try to take Hollande’s place.
Polling stations have closed across continental France. We are now waiting for the first results.
Montebourg eliminated, first results show
It looks like Benoît Hamon stole Arnaud Montebourg’s thunder on the left.
The former education minister placed first in the Socialist primary on Sunday, winning 35.2 percent support, according to preliminary results.
Manuel Valls, the former prime minister and center-left candidate, would get 31.5 percent.
That means Hamon and Valls will face off in the second voting round next weekend.
Montebourg quickly endorsed Hamon. Given that both men’s supporters are pretty far to the left, the numbers do not look good for Valls.
If the Socialists do nominate Hamon next week, they would essentially take themselves out of contention for the presidential election in April and May.
I have argued before that the French Socialists could make the same mistake as Britain’s Labour party: indulge in left-wing activism at the expense of electability. Hamon, with his support for legal marijuana and a universal basic income, fits that description.
No matter the merits of such policies, it’s not how Socialists gain the trust of Middle France.
As more results pour in, Hamon expands his lead over Valls by 35.8 to 31.4 percent support.
That concludes our live coverage. We hope to see you back next week for the second and final voting round in the French Socialist primary.