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Hollande in firing line as feuding Socialists face electoral meltdown

Stéphane de Sakutin, AFP | From left to right: President François Hollande, Prime Minister Manuel Valls and Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron stand accused of betraying the Socialist Party's core beliefs.

France’s Socialist president is so unpopular many in his own party want someone else to run for the presidency next year. But the dearth of alternatives mirrors the sorry state of a party crippled by divisions and a gruelling spell in office.


Twice the France Inter anchor challenged François Hollande, and twice the embattled president dodged the question. At the third attempt, the veteran journalist finally got an answer. “Are you still left-wing?” he asked, yet again, during a feisty interview on February 19. To which Hollande replied, somewhat cumbersomely: “All my life has been the life of a man who is committed to the left and remains so.”

It is not uncommon for French presidents to try to raise themselves above the political fray. But the awkward session on France’s leading radio station highlighted the gulf that has emerged between the Socialist president and his base. Surveys have long shown that the vast majority of left-wing voters have lost faith in their president. Now a large chunk of Hollande’s own party has made it abundantly clear it wants someone else to run for president next year.

The incumbent French president traditionally represents his party in an election, without a contest. Hollande, whose approval ratings have sunk to a dismal 19%, says he has not made up his mind if he will run in the 2017 election. He has consistently repeated his pledge not to run if he fails to bring down unemployment, currently at an 18-year high of 10.6 percent.

While that is unlikely to happen given the sluggish economy, Hollande is still expected to seek a second term in office. But his ratings are so poor that, as things stand, he appears unlikely to beat either far-right leader Marine Le Pen or whichever candidate is chosen by the mainstream conservatives in primaries later this year.

‘Hollande is finished’

Thomas Guénolé, a political analyst for Paris-based institute Vox Politica, said many in the media were “refusing to acknowledge the obvious: that Hollande is finished”. He likened the embattled president to a faraway star that still appears to radiate but is in fact spent. “The only thing that can possibly save him is a miracle like the Sofitel scandal,” he argued, referring to the infamous hotel incident that destroyed Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s presidential hopes and turned Hollande into an unlikely frontrunner in 2012.

Hollande's 'gift' to the far right

Last month, several Socialist Party members hinted at the possibility of legal action if the party fails to organise a primary to designate its candidate for next year's presidential election. They pointed out that such a vote is mandatory under the party’s statutes, which make no exceptions for incumbent presidents.

The idea of a primary has gained traction in recent weeks, receiving the endorsement of Martine Aubry, the powerful mayor of Lille. Though hardly far left, the former labour minister is closely associated with the 35-hour workweek, which is reviled by business leaders but cherished by many French workers.

Last week, Aubry and 17 other left-wing figures co-signed a scathing op-ed in Le Monde, France’s daily of record, accusing Hollande and his prime minister, Manuel Valls, of crippling both the Socialist Party (PS) and the country. They said the government had drifted away from the party’s core ideals, pointing to its economic policies, its restrictive stance on refugees, and its bid to strip dual nationals of their French citizenship when convicted of terrorism. "Enough is enough," Aubry wrote, asking: "What will remain of the ideas of Socialism when, day after day, its principles and its basis are being undermined?" On Tuesday, her supporters quit the party’s executive board, cementing the split at the heart of France’s ruling party.

Stripping the left

Le Monde described Aubry’s scathing op-ed as “the climax of three destructive months” that began with the hugely divisive citizenship-stripping debate and escalated with an equally fractious attempt to reform France’s labour market. In between the two, Hollande’s government lost its last emblematic left-wing minister with the departure of Christiane Taubira.

The former justice minister had given the left a rare chance to exult at the start of Hollande’s term when she successfully shepherded same-sex marriage into law, facing down fierce – and often offensive – resistance from conservative opponents. But even that victory left a bittersweet taste as the Socialist president gave Taubira only lukewarm support, at one stage suggesting French mayors could refrain from celebrating same-sex unions if it troubled their conscience.

In late January, Taubira resigned in protest at the government’s bid to amend the constitution so that terror convicts can be stripped of their citizenship. Like many others on the left, she made no secret of her disgust at a policy previously associated with Le Pen’s far right. Days after her resignation, more than a third of Socialist lawmakers rejected the proposed constitutional reform, and several more abstained.

By then, Hollande’s economic policy U-turns – ditching the party’s traditional Keynesian ethos in favour of sweeping tax cuts for business – had already driven a rift through his camp and estranged swathes of Socialist voters. “His economic platform is now virtually identical to that of the right,” said Guénolé. “In fact on some issues he has gone further than [his right-wing predecessor] Nicolas Sarkozy.”

Guénolé said the Socialist president had altered the delicate ideological balance that underpins his party, “founded four decades ago on a compromise between two lefts: one socialist, the other social-democratic”. Hollande, he argued, has veered to the right of social democracy. As a result, “he is now opposed by both the party’s socialist component and moderate social democrats, like Aubry, who believe he has gone too far.”

19th century vs 21st century

While Hollande has not responded to Aubry’s challenge, his prime minister seized on the opportunity to call for a “clarification” within the party. Valls, a would-be Tony Blair, is fond of describing the turmoil within the PS as a tussle between “modernisers” (i.e., his government) and the “old guard” (i.e., Aubry and the left of the party), between a “19th century left wing” and a “21st century” one, between a left that “confronts the real world” and one that “clings to lofty ideals”. Reacting to Aubry’s op-ed, he said it had “one advantage: obliging everyone to clarify where they stand”.

French commentators say Valls’s strategy is to position himself as the party’s saviour after its almost inevitable debacle next year. He is hoping his personal popularity will make up for the shortage of allies within the party. “That is a good strategy to win a primary, but you need support from the rank and file to take control of the party,” cautioned Guénolé.

Blaming France's 'bloated' labour code

In addition to his many foes on the left, Valls now faces an unexpected challenge on his right in the shape of maverick economy minister Emmanuel Macron. A former investment banker, Macron has spoken of “lifting the blockages” and “shattering the glass ceilings” he blames for France’s economic woes. His repeated digs at the 35-hour week and France’s labour laws have infuriated many Socialists and sowed chaos in the government. They have also turned him into a darling of business groups and a fixture of the French press.

Macron is so toxic to many on the left that Hollande has barred him from defending the labour reforms he is hoping to push through parliament in the coming months. The proposed changes, designed to introduce greater flexibility in the labour market, have triggered a furious response on social media and a petition signed by more than 800,000 people urging the government to back down.

‘Heading for the abattoir’

The scale of the backlash, which revived the dreaded prospect of student protests and a united trade-union front, forced the Socialist administration to announce a pause in the legislation on Monday. It showed support for France’s much-maligned Code du travail (labour code) stretched well beyond the confines of trade unionism. In other words, it suggested the so-called “19th century left” [old fashioned left] was alive and kicking.

According to Guénolé, Valls’s depiction of a battle between modernisers and conservatives within the PS amounts to little more than political posturing. He said it was perfectly possible to reconcile socialism and reformism, pointing to Britain’s Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn and Greece’s former firebrand finance minister Yanis Varoufakis. But he acknowledged the left of the Socialist Party had failed to produce a candidate “with the notoriety and determination required to aim for the presidency”.

The political analyst said the only viable option for a Socialist candidate in 2017 would be to offer a radical break from the Hollande presidency, “something Sarkozy achieved on the right [in 2007] when he cast himself as the anti-Jacques Chirac”. But the almost impossible odds may help explain the dearth of obvious candidates. “Right now, the Socialists’ election prospects are so bleak anyone who carries the party’s mantle would be heading for the abattoir,” he said.

After four gruelling years in power, whoever flies the Socialist flag will be leading a severely diminished force. The party has lost a third of its elected officials in a string of electoral drubbings. Its base has also shrunk dramatically. Two years ago the PS set itself a target of half a million members by 2017. Instead it lost a further 40,000, hitting a low of 131,000 by June 2015. Judging by the disillusionment and anger voiced by party members in recent months, it is safe to assume the haemorrhage is not over.

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