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Historic election 'drubbing' for France's Socialists

Martin Bureau / AFP | French presidential election candidate for the Socialist Party Benoit Hamon at the Maison de la Mutualite in Paris on April 23, 2017, after the first round of the Presidential election.

France's beleaguered Socialist party suffered a severe and demoralising defeat in the first round of the French presidential election Sunday, a result that could spell disaster for the century-old party, according to analysts.

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The party's candidate, Benoît Hamon, scored just 6.2 percent of the vote, according to projected results, putting him in fifth place in Sunday's first round. Not only did he finish far behind the two candidates set to face off in the second round - the far-right Marine Le Pen and centrist Emmanuel Macron - he also lost out to far-left firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon and scandal-hit conservative François Fillon.

"Symbolically, the fact that the Socialist Party (PS) is not in the top three and not even the leading leftist party is a disaster," said political scientist Remi Lefebvre of the northern city of Lille.

'The left is not dead'

Hamon's defeat was a swift reversal of fortunes for the Socialists, who just five years ago rode a wave of popularity that resulted in François Hollande being elected president, bringing the left back to power after three rightwing presidencies in a row.

The party, founded in 1905, also secured a huge majority of France's regions and even a majority in the Senate for the first time.

Hamon: 'The fight goes on'

But Hollande failed to turn around a moribund economy and saw his popularity ratings sink to record lows, leading to a decision not to stand for re-election and passing on the Socialist mantle to thee 49-year-old Hamon.

Hamon tried to put a brave face on what he admitted was a "historic drubbing" on Sunday.

"The left is not dead," he said. "The fight continues... with the parliamentary elections."

After the second round of the presidential election, French voters return to the polls to elect a new parliament on June 11 and June 18.

Socialist (PS) chief Jean-Christophe Cambadelis said Friday that the party will be fielding candidates in all 577 of France's parliamentary districts, adding: "The party still has good days in front of it."

No 'third way'

Hamon proved unable to sustain the magic that won him the Socialist primary in January, ahead of former prime minister Manuel Valls, with innovative proposals such as a universal basic income.

Key Socialist stalwarts deserted him, led by Valls, who last month threw his weight behind Macron, the centrist former Socialist who came out on top in Sunday's vote.

Hamon's poll numbers slid steadily from a high of around 17 percent, with the charismatic Melenchon steadfastly refusing to join forces and Macron also siphoning off  support with his promise of a 'new' movement.

Melenchon, who enjoyed a late surge in the race after strong debate performances, scored 19 to 20 percent on Sunday.

"Melenchon's political goal, which was to beat the PS, was unimaginable just a few years ago," Lefebvre said.

The party failed to find a "third way... between social liberalism and the radical left," said Thibaut Rioufreyt, a political scientist based in the city of Lyon.

The PS joins the ranks of other social-democratic forces in Europe that have recently suffered deep losses, such as in Greece, Austria, Spain, Ireland and the Netherlands.

"The problem with social democracy is that it does not have the answers to new changes in modern society such as globalisation, the digital revolution and the ecological transition," Rioufreyt argued.

But the June parliamentary elections hold out some hope for France's Socialists, Lefebvre said.

"Political parties don't disappear just like that. The PS has been around for 100 years, (with) an organisational structure, elected officials, activists, a tradition and a memory."

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)
 

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