The French Socialist Primary Results: What They Mean and What’s in Store

Here are a few loosely connected and provisional thoughts on Sunday’s Socialist Party (PS) primary:

The Contenders: Aubry and Hollande

The race between François Hollande and Martine Aubry—which will be decided in next Sunday’s runoff—is open and competitive. According to the official results, of the 2,661,284 “voters of the left” who participated in Sunday’s election, 39% chose Hollande and 30% preferred Aubry. While impressive, Hollande’s victory was far less decisive than predicted. Aubry, for her part, narrowed the gap between herself and the frontrunner.

The conventional wisdom holds that Aubry has more votes “in reserve” than her rival —i.e., votes that went to candidates eliminated in the first round but that she can win in the runoff. Predicting what orphaned voters will do in the second round is difficult. But it is clear that Arnaud Montebourg’s surge to 17% of the vote—the election’s big surprise—will be decisive. Montebourg outflanked the five other candidates on their left. Aubry is commonly viewed as slightly to the left of Hollande. It is thus reasonable to assume that Montebourg voters are more likely to favor Aubry in the runoff.

Ségolène Royal, after nearly being elected president five years ago, plummeted to a paltry 7% in the primary. Her supporters will face an unpalatable choice between their champion’s ex-partner and her onetime political rival (in 2008, Aubry and Royal faced off in a bitter socialist leadership contest that Aubry ultimately won). Polls indicate that Royal voters are more likely to break towards Aubry (on Wednesday, October 12, however, Royal let bygones be bygones and endorsed Hollande).

Hollande should be able to count on the votes of Manuel Valls, who only won 6% for his intelligent but somewhat belated bid to renew the PS along Blairist lines.

Given the primary’s unconventional nature, it is hard to know what the “voters of the left” will do. Will they follow the endorsements of candidates eliminated in round one? What will they care about the most—their candidates’ platforms or the likelihood that they can beat President Sarkozy in the general election (polls suggest the former)? The fact that the candidates are differentiated more by subtle nuances than by vast ideological differences makes knowing which factors will ultimately count even more uncertain. Still, it seems likely that the final outcome on Sunday will be close: a gap of 55%-45% or considerably less. Hollande is still ahead, but his lead is dwindling by the hour.

Arnaud Montebourg has made “alter-globalization” the order of the day in the PS. Of the six candidates, Montebourg ran the most idea-driven campaign (with the possible exception of the Third Way campaign of Manuel Valls), one entirely organized around the theme of “de-globalization.” In a nutshell, he believes that the imperatives that have driven governments of the center-left as well as the center-right over the past twenty years—European integration, the Euro, anti-inflationary monetary policies, privatization, reducing barriers to global trade—must be rethought in the name of greater social justice, environmental sustainability, and democracy.

Versions of these ideas have been floating around the anti-globalization movement—the 1999 Seattle protests, organizations like ATTAC—for well over a decade. In France, they are the core agenda of parties like the New Anti-Capitalist Party or NPA (a reincarnation of the Trotskyist organization the Ligue communiste révolutionnaire), Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s Front de gauche, and, to a lesser extent, the Greens (at a European level, one could also cite Oskar Lafontaine’s Die Linke in Germany). Montebourg’s 17%, and the competition that will occur between Hollande and Aubry for these voters, injects these concerns into the mainstream of PS politics.

Montebourg, of course, has never been in government (unlike Aubry) or led a party (contrary to Hollande). This makes embracing radical views a little easier. Aubry will be more inclined than Hollande to pay lip service to Montebourg’s ideas, but both runoff candidates are too closely associated with the policies he is criticizing (implemented under Mitterrand in the eighties and Jospin in the nineties) for his proposals to be seamlessly integrated into their own platforms. It may be the case, moreover, that Montebourg attracted voters who are unlikely to cast a ballot for the PS in the general election and who participated in the primary solely to support his ideas and to push the PS further to the left.

One way or another, Montebourg’s third-place finish is a significant moment in the emergence of the “anti-globalization” or “anti-liberal” left, which has unquestionably inherited communism’s role as the leading alternative to the PS on the left end of the spectrum. Another way to think of Montebourg’s success is as a revenge of the “no” voters on the 2005 European Constitutional Treaty:  the “no’s” were defeated within the PS, but won nationally. Interestingly, while the “yes” line was aggressively pushed by Hollande, the party leader at the time, Montebourg was a leading figure of the “no” camp.

Montebourg’s score could play out in the general election in interesting ways. Sarkozy and his UMP will likely accuse the PS of leftward drift and of embracing irresponsible policies (particularly in relation to France’s European commitments). But it’s not sure this will play to Sarkozy’s advantage. As I have mentioned, one of the most striking features of current French politics is a large “anti-liberal” or “anti-globalization” constituency of varying ideological stripes. In this camp one finds, in addition to the NPA and Mélenchon on the left, right-wing politicians like the dissident Gaullist Nicolas Dupont-Aignon and, of course, the National Front’s Marine Le Pen. All are anti-European, critical of globalization, and, arguably, anti-capitalist to a degree. This easily adds up to about a quarter of the electorate, and perhaps a good bit more. French society clearly wants to have a conversation about these issues, but it has mostly been confined to the (ever-widening) margins of the system. Montebourg will force the socialists to talk about it. Could this make the right seem more out of touch, more sterile, more unthinking—and the best representative of “la pensée unique” (the “one way” of thinking)?

The PS’s unprecedented idea of an open primary was a success, but with puzzling implications. What made the primary unusual was the fact that it was “of the PS but not in the PS.” That is, it was organized by just one party, for the purpose of selecting that party’s presidential candidate, but it was open to any French voter prepared to embrace the “values of the left” and willing to pay a euro. The idea was to make the system for choosing candidates more democratic. It was also a way for the PS to lay claim to being the dominant party of the left broadly construed—i.e., beyond the handful of relatively unusual people who take out a membership in the party. In this respect, the primary succeeded: though there are only about 200,000 card-carrying PS members, well over ten times that number voted last Sunday.

But some have questioned whether the model of an open party primary is really such a good thing. Sarkozy has made the unpersuasive and undoubtedly self-serving argument that primaries are contrary to the traditions of the Fifth Republic (so what? so were five-year presidential terms until recently). Others make the more serious charge that parties like the PS are historically activist-driven political movements, which will suffer when their membership is dissolved into the general mass of the electorate and a more image-based politics ensues. The most damning critique was made by the political scientist Dominique Reynié in a recent interview in Le Figaro. The real reason for introducing the primary, he contends, was that it serves as a means for settling the party’s debilitating personal conflicts. As such, the primary ultimately discourages ideological debate, substituting personality for substance in a party in which personality, traditionally, was supposed to be secondary. If this is true, the current primary pave the way for a more Americanized system, in which personality trumps ideology and process comes before substance. For the time being, at least, politicians like Montebourg and competition from the “left of the left” is partially mitigating this threat.

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