Six nominees, three televised debates and some 3.2 million euros later, the French Socialist Party is ready to hold its first ever primary poll. Instead of asking only party members to choose the Socialist candidate for the 2012 presidential election, they’ve opened the question to the public.
Almost 10,000 polling stations across the country will open their doors Sunday, and anybody who is willing to pay one euro and swear political allegiance to the left, can vote for their preferred candidate. If none of the candidates gains a majority, a second round will take place a week later.
The event has seen the opposition Socialist Party basking in the media spotlight, leaving their political rivals gritting their teeth in the shade. “This has been a huge success for the Socialists,” says FRANCE 24 politics editor, Sylvain Attal. “All the candidates have benefited in gaining credibility, even those unlikely to win.” That refers to the two younger candidates, Socialist lawmakers Manuel Valls and Arnaud Montebourg, and the one outsider in the race, leader of the small centre-left Radical Party, Jean-Michel Baylet.
The candidate expected to steal the show is François Hollande, the former partner and father of four children with Ségolène Royal, who lost out to Sarkozy in 2007. She is expected to come third in the primary, after former party chief Martine Aubry, who has a strong following among women.
Both Hollande and Aubry are more popular than Sarkozy, polls have shown over the past six months, although neither has reached the levels of Dominique Strauss-Kahn. He was widely expected to win the primary by a landslide and go on to crush Sarkozy in the election, before being shamed out of the race by sex crime allegations.
No primary for the UMP, there’s only one Sarkozy
Even the ruling UMP party came out in praise of the Socialist primary. Prime Minister François Fillon, a Sarkozy ally, told reporters Wednesday that it was a “major political event” for France and said that the UMP should aim to do likewise, but not ahead of the 2012 election.
His admission came as an about-turn for the UMP, who just a few months ago tried to cast doubt on the process. Party chief Jean François-Copé joined other UMP members in lambasting the poll
when he described it as a “profoundly scandalous mock election” that “endangered the freedom of individuals”.
“The UMP declared it a catastrophe in order to steer voters away from [the idea],” explains FRANCE24's Attal. But their argument – that compiling data on political allegiances is a contravention of French electoral law – was thrown out of the window when the Socialists promised to destroy the lists once the results had been compiled.
Since then, the primary has only gathered steam. Three live televised debates between the six nominees – the last of which took place on Wednesday – each attracted millions of viewers. “The level of interest, especially for these TV debates, shows a real popularity for the primary among French people,’ says Jérome Saint-Marie, director of the opinion department at the CSA polling agency. “Some 25 per cent of people say they might vote on Sunday, and 10 per cent say they definitely will, which is huge.”
The success of the primary has left the UMP red-faced. “They were hoping that the Socialists would tear each other apart,” says Saint-Marie. “Instead, they managed to retain a sense of team spirit throughout. The UMP made a severe miscalculation in criticising the concept earlier this year,” he adds. “But they’ve realised their mistake now.”
Fillon promised UMP supporters that they would get their own chance to choose their presidential candidate, but only in future elections. “There will be no presidential primary [for 2012]," he told reporters Wednesday. “Because the president himself is running”.