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France's battered Socialists make last pitch to voters in primary debate

Éric Feferberg, AFP | Seven candidates are taking part in a presidential primary organised by the Socialist Party and its allies.

Left-wing candidates sparred in the last of three televised debates on Thursday ahead of a wide-open primary to designate a presidential candidate, with polls suggesting whoever wins will struggle to head off a humiliating defeat in the spring.

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As the race tightens, the seven candidates vying for the Socialist nomination were desperate to score points ahead of Sunday’s first round of voting, which will narrow the field to just two.

After five grueling years in power, they also sought to dispel the notion that France’s fractured and deeply unpopular ruling party is a fading force.

Polls suggest its candidate will fail to qualify for the second round of France’s presidential election on May 7, slipping behind far-right leader Marine Le Pen and conservative François Fillon.

Humiliatingly, the Socialist nominee is also tipped to fall behind hard-left firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon and centrist former economy minister Emmanuel Macron, both of whom have shunned the primary.

“The next presidency will be the last station before Le Pen,” warned former economy minister Arnaud Montebourg, one of the primary’s frontrunners, lamenting the prospect of a "France that is deprived of its left".

Technically, the two-round primary is not only a Socialist affair, with an array of satellite micro-parties joining the fray under the peculiar banner of the “Belle Alliance Populaire” (Beautiful Popular Alliance).

However, only four candidates have a genuine chance of winning – all of them Socialist Party members.

Valls’s rough ride

While President François Hollande has ruled himself out of the race, whoever wins the Socialist ticket will be saddled with the legacy of the most unpopular president in modern French history.

That burden weighs especially on Hollande’s former prime minister, Manuel Valls, a divisive figure on the left, who has stated his “pride” in the Socialist government’s record in office.

A pro-business reformist who is tough on law and order, Valls has touted his experience of government to portray himself as more “presidential” – and credible – than his rivals.

“I don’t want a left that makes unlimited promises,” he said on Thursday, opposing his budgetary caution to his rivals’ profligacy.

The primary’s hot favourite, Valls has endured a wretched campaign so far, marked by spectacular policy U-turns as well as a flour-bombing and a face-slapping in broad daylight.

Seen by many as a centrist, the Spanish-born former premier has been at pains to burnish his left-wing credentials, promising to boost public spending, hike teachers’ pay and pump money into France’s cash-strapped universities.

But many of his pledges contradict his record in office, none more so than his vow to scrap the so-called 49-3, a notorious clause in the French constitution that allows governments to force through legislation without a vote – and which he repeatedly used while in office.

While he fared better on Thursday, Valls was singled out for criticism during the first two debates, particularly by rival Vincent Peillon, a former education minister who is also vying for the centrist vote.

Peillon slammed the former prime minister’s restrictive policy on migrants, reproaching him for his public criticism of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-doors policy.

The former “philosopher-minister”, who has struck a rare Europhile note at a time of jingoistic patriotism and EU-bashing, also blasted Valls’s hardline stance on French secularism, which he argued was being distorted to antagonize the country’s large Muslim population.

Hamon in the line of fire

While polls suggest Peillon’s sober, professorial pitch is struggling to find an audience, the two remaining Socialists in the contest – leftists Arnaud Montebourg and Benoît Hamon – both have a genuine chance of qualifying for the run-off.

The primary’s dark horse, Hamon has dominated the campaign and the first two debates with a slew of bold proposals that include a costly universal basic income – a fashionable idea that involves giving all citizens a basic wage, regardless of personal wealth.

A Bernie Sanders fan, Hamon says the digital age calls for a new social model in which the shrinking workload is spread out more evenly across society, people get more leisure time, and robots pay taxes on the wealth they create.

Outsider Hamon shakes up primary race
Outsider Hamon shakes up primary race

And while critics say France’s 35-hour work week is too short, he wants to cut it further.

In all three debates, Hamon’s rivals have lampooned his proposals as ruinous and unrealistic, underscoring the threat he poses as they scramble to secure one of two slots in the second round of voting on January 29.

They stepped up their criticism on Thursday, with Montebourg – whose more traditional leftist pitch has been undercut by Hamon – claiming the latter’s costly flagship reform would lead to “fiscal caning” for French taxpayers.

The flamboyant former economy minister, who had been unusually subdued during the first debates, produced another flourish when he blasted the media’s darling Macron, a former investment banker who has surged in the polls despite having neither a party nor a programme.

An advocate of protectionist policies and a strong state, Montebourg has pledged to levy a €5 billion supertax on banks and free France from the shackles of budgetary austerity.

A second round between Montebourg and Valls had long been billed as the likeliest scenario. But Hamon’s rise means nobody can now be certain of qualifying for the run-off.

 

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