With two weeks to go until the French Socialists elect their presidential candidate, Manuel Valls is not so subtly tilting to the left.
The former prime minister, who made a name for himself as a reformer, now says neither the 35-hour workweek nor France’s high wealth taxes need to be reformed after all.
Valls’ concessions to the left make short-term political sense. Benoît Hamon and Arnaud Montebourg, two far-left firebrands, are up in the polls. Valls is still the favorite to win the nomination, but only narrowly. Recent surveys suggest he could struggle in a second voting round against either of his opponents.
But he takes a longer-term risk.
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 Emmanuel Macron, the former economy minister under Valls who is running as an independent.
Valls’ challenge — assuming he wins the nomination — would be keeping the Socialists relevant in the presidential election in April and May.
François Hollande, his former boss, is so unpopular that he isn’t even seeking a second term. The Socialists will almost certainly lose their majority in the National Assembly. Neither Hamon nor Montebourg would stand a chance of winning the presidency.
Valls would, but he is competing in a crowded center. In addition to Macron, who is campaigning as the polar opposite of the National Front’s Marine Le Pen, the mainstream right’s François Fillon is appealing to socially conservative voters in Middle France.
Both Fillon and Macron are campaigning for far-reaching economic reforms. Given France’s traditional wariness of liberalization, that should give Valls an opening: between the Thatcherism of Fillon and the globalism of Macron on the one hand and the protectionism of Le Pen on the other.
Yet it’s precisely that more kindhearted, social democratic style of reform Valls is now distancing himself from.