A guide to France’s left-wing primary debates
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A total of seven candidates from France’s main left-wing parties will take part on Thursday in the first of four televised primary debates that could make or break the ruling Socialist Party.
The debates, which will be held over the course of the next two weeks, are seen as crucial for a successful turnout in the country’s left-wing presidential primaries on January 22 and 29.
As the first round of voting approaches, there is dwindling support among French voters for the Socialist Party, which has been left fractured by ideological differences and the outgoing President François Hollande’s unpopular leadership.
FRANCE 24 spoke with Thomas Guénolé, a political scientist and lecturer at the prestigious Sciences Po University in Paris, who emphasized the Socialist Party's divisions ahead of Thursday’s debate.
FRANCE 24: Why are the left-wing primary debates important for the Socialist Party?
Thomas Guénolé: The Socialist Party is historically the main left-wing party in France. But it is strongly divided between its own right-leaning and left-leaning members. François Hollande, the current president of the French Republic, comes from this party, and has governed with a right-leaning agenda. He has decided not to run for a second term, because he feels he cannot unify the left.
There are two things at stake for the Socialist Party. First, they need a high level of participation. The conservative primary [in November] drew more than four million voters. If, for example, only one million turn out for the left-wing primaries, it will be considered a failure. The second thing at stake is that the Socialist Party is also split among former economy minister Emmanuel Macron, who is pro-free trade and deregulation, and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who’s a proponent of alter-globalisation [a movement that opposes the negative effects of neoliberal globalisation].
FRANCE 24: Who are the Socialist Party candidates, and what are their strengths and weaknesses?
Guénolé: There are [four Socialist Party] candidates in the upcoming left-wing primaries. There’s Manuel Valls, who was prime minister under Hollande until he recently resigned to run for the presidency. Over the last 10 years, Manuel Valls has been the most right-leaning of the Socialist Party. There are even some who have accused him of being right wing, period. He has backed economic austerity, strict immigration policy… But for this campaign, he is trying to run on a different platform. During his tenure as prime minister, he repeatedly used the 49.3 [a clause in the French constitution that allows governments to force through legislation without a vote], now he says that it’s too brutal. He also says that he now wants reconciliation, whereas he was quite confrontational as prime minister. He’s basically trying to remake his image, even though it’s contradictory.
Next there’s Vincent Peillon, who is an esteemed university professor. He’s well known among academic circles, where he’s considered an authority on the issue of secularism. He’s also a former minister of education. He’s unbeatable when it comes to three subjects: secularism, education and defending the rights of France’s Muslim minority. But beyond that, he doesn’t have much to say.
Then there’s Arnaud Montebourg, the former economy minister. He’s got one strong position, which is that he wants to do the exact opposite of Hollande and Valls when it comes to the economy. He basically wants to copy [former US president Franklin D. Roosevelt] and the New Deal. He’s really selling it hard. His main challenge will be to address other issues than the economy.
Last but not least, there’s Benoît Hamon, who is running as the most left-leaning Socialist Party candidate. He has proposed such audacious measures as introducing a universal basic income, and the 32-hour workweek. His main weakness is that he can be easily attacked on how he plans to finance these proposals.
Each candidate has their own weakness to overcome. Valls has a credibility problem, Peillon lacks breadth, Montebourg is strong on economy but doesn’t have a diverse enough platform, and Hamon has a feasibility problem.
FRANCE 24: Why is there dwindling voter support for the Socialist Party?
Guénolé: There are two kinds of left-leaning and centre-left leaning voters. There are those who believe there’s no more Socialist Party because they have betrayed economic policy and who will likely vote for Mélenchon or Hamon, and then there are those who see the Socialist Party as traitors for the opposite reason.
The primary is a secession war within the Socialist Party. It’s an electoral one, but there are those who want free trade and deregulation, and those who want alter-globilisation.
FRANCE 24: What will happen if the debates fail to rally voters?
Guénolé: The debates have two main challenges. The first is to garner enough viewers and to keep them watching, and the second is keep people interested by discussing a wide enough range of issues to compel them to vote.
Each candidate needs to be at their best, but not too aggressive, because the aggressive candidate always loses in France… They will also likely be confronted with a specific problem they need to solve, which will probably be their main weakness.
The winning candidate’s ability to succeed in the presidential elections [in May 2017], however, depends on turnout in the primary. If it’s more than three million, they’ll have legitimacy. If it’s less than two million, then their opponents and the media will say that it’s a failure. They’ll be the winner of a competition to hold a castle that’s collapsing.