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Socialists back-pedal on US-style primaries

Text by Joseph BAMAT

Latest update : 2011-04-02

With support for President Nicolas Sarkozy tanking, French Socialists are feeling increasingly confident about next year’s presidential election and skeptical of plans to hold primaries open to all left-leaning voters.

The heavyweight former leader of France’s opposition Socialist Party (PS), François Hollande (pictured, above), officially announced Thursday that he would be a candidate in the party’s first-ever primaries (an election in which party members or voters select candidates for an upcoming election) in October. But while the vote to choose the PS candidate for 2011’s all-important presidential election gains contenders, a growing number of voices within the party are calling for the idea to be abandoned.

With just 12 months left before the presidential election, many within the PS hierarchy are now frantically back-pedaling on the much-vaunted primary system. Political analysts in France now believe that a drawn-out divisive leadership battle could damage the candidates who are polling well today: Martine Aubry, and IMF boss, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, in particular.


Former Socialist Party leader François Hollande is the fourth candidate to announce his bid for the presidency. Ségolène Royal, who lost to President Nicolas Sarkozy in the 2007 election, as well as Manuel Valls and Arnaud Montebourg have already declared their intention to run as the PS' candidate in 2012.

MP Fraçois Lamy, a close ally of party leader Marine Aubry, recently said the primary vote was not “highlighting the candidate’s ideas,” but worryingly their “divisions”. The most outspoken detractor, MP Michel Vauselle, launched a petition to cancel the PS’ primaries last month.

The sinking support within the party for broad, open primaries comes as Socialist’s chances of winning next year’s presidential elections gains ground. “When we decided to have primaries we didn’t’ think the left could win in 2012,” Socialist MP Claude Bartolone told RMC radio in a surprisingly candid interview last week.

Based on recent local elections and several opinion polls, the conservative vote appears increasingly split between President Nicolas Sarkozy’s ruling UMP party and the resurgent National Front. The prospect of a Socialist president in 2012 is therefore becoming increasingly tangible.

Divided leadership

According to Gérard Grunberg, a research director at Paris’ prestigious Science Po university and a PS specialist, the decision to have open primaries came at a time when the Socialists were eager to recover from a hard battle over who would lead the party.

Socialist voters endorsed the idea of a US-style nomination process, which would allow all those who describe themselves as left-leaning to participate in picking the party’s candidate back in 2009. In the past, it was a closed nomination process restricted to registered party members.

In September 2009, Martine Aubry had just beaten out Segolene Royal, the PS’ unsuccessful presidential candidate in 2007, for the party’s top post. In a reconciliatory effort, Aubry espoused Royal’s idea of US-style primaries in order to rally the leadership behind that single plan.

“It was an idea that was supposed to pay off,” explains Grunberg, “A democratisation of the political process that appealed to the left.” But today many argue that the primaries seem to be doing little more than emphasising the party’s divisions.

The French free daily newspaper 20 Minutes said on Friday that the committee in charge of planning the Socialist internal vote was now looking to scale back the plans for wide national primary vote, but no official announcement has been made.

Date created : 2011-04-01


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