The French Socialist Party Primaries

The ‘primaries’, in September and October 2011 for the French Socialist Party’s candidate for President of the Republic in 2012 demonstrate two things. They were a brilliant illustration of how initiatives and events in the Fifth Republic invariably have significant unintended consequences, and drive the regime forward, shaping it. Second, they showed once again how personality politics is the organising principle of this oddest of republics.

The primaries were organised to do two things. First, to bring order to the chaos of selecting the party’s candidate, and stop the party erupting into civil war. Second, and this was the unspoken reason – to stop an outsider like Ségolène Royal, in 2007 not one of the inner circle at all, from hijacking the candidacy. As the party’s candidate in 2007, she went on to gather most of the left’s vote in the country in the fight against Sarkozy, but with her own party’s lack of enthusiasm for its own candidate, she failed to detonate sufficient support to carry it off.

This time round, with primaries, the party made it through to the selection of the former party leader, François Hollande (ironically, Royal’s former partner). There were three debates (the 15th and 28th September and 5th October) between the six candidates: Martine Aubry, François Hollande, Ségolène Royal, Arnaud Montebourg, Manuel Valls, and Jean-Michel Baylet (from the Left Radicals). There was a run-off debate between Martine Aubry and François Hollande on 12 October. Millions watched, and over 2.5 million voted in each round. So from that point of view the primaries were a real success. There had been real worries that the party would descend into farce if it did not capture national attention. One characteristic feature, however, demonstrated the paradox of the left in the Fifth Republic. The party pretends to be a classic social democratic, sometimes a radical socialist party, bristling with ideas, projects, and policies. In fact, because of the nature of the Fifth Republic, it is a vehicle for electing Presidents (not very successfully, to date, only 1 out of the 6). The primaries dramatically increased this personalised aspect of the party while pretending not to. There was already a party ‘project’ – drawn up mainly by the party leader, Aubry, which all the candidates had to support and not criticize (and yet none of them except Aubry did support it). Nor could they attack one another in policy terms, as they all supported the same document (which by October 2011, based on assumptions of growth, was already out of date; in fact, it was out of date even before it was drawn up). What was left were the ‘personalities’ and ‘characters’ which really drive the party. And yet all the candidates were on their very best behaviour for the cameras. Any expressing of their real feelings (most of them hated each other) would have seemed like awful squabbling, and would have threatened future unity in the presidential campaign. The result was a very dull campaign, devoid of serious policy proposals and of personality politics.

The result of round one was the only exciting moment. Baylet gained only 0.7% of the vote, and the right-of-the-party candidate, Valls, only 5.7%. But the first big surprise was the shattering defeat of Ségolène Royal, with only 7% (her tears for all to see, the only emotional moment of the campaign). The second surprise was for the party’s left, and until then a minor candidate, Arnaud Montebourg with a thumping 17% of the vote. The rest of the vote was split between the centre-left candidate, Aubry 30.6%, and the centre-right candidate, Hollande 39.2%, with Hollande carrying it in the run-off 56/44%).

So far, so good. The party has a presidential candidate. The party is united. From now until next April, Hollande’s campaign will develop with the usual – and highly complex – interactive dynamic of policy proposals (he made some bizarre ones during the campaign), and the deployment of his personality and character traits. The painfully elaborated PS ‘project’ will be ignored. Will he make it? Well, Sarkozy is weak. The polls, however, suggest the public have no more confidence in Hollande than in Sarkozy to sort out the economic crisis France finds itself in. Personality-wise, Hollande hesitates between portraying himself as ‘normal’ and letting off Mitterand-style volleys – he wants to ‘re-enchant the French dream’ (good grief). (And his new partner tweets “Quelle histoire, quelle histoire!” – a direct quote from ‘the Florentine’, Mitterrand, after the left’s 1981 victory – perhaps willing the transformation of her partner from Jolly Hollandais to Mighty Mitterrandian). The unresolved combination of the ordinary and the fanciful could be very damaging. Hollande to date simply does not have the gravitas of his ill-fated precursor for the candidacy – Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who probably would easily have knocked Sarkozy off his perch, if he hadn’t knocked himself off his own.

So, ultimately, it all comes back to ‘character’ and gravitas, but of a very troubling kind, for underlying all these images of ‘Sarko’, ‘DSK’ and ‘François’ (hmmm.., which one?) are the myths and psychic questions concerning ‘manliness’ and virility, which haunt French presidentialism (and which no one talks about). Strauss-Kahn’s testosterone has been talked about ad infinitum throughout 2011, but during the primaries campaign, Aubry (a woman) referred to Hollande as the ‘Gauche molle’, the ‘soft left’. This expression actually triggers in every French mind the English equivalent ‘he lacks balls’ (cf couilles molles – ‘bollockless’ might be a good if rather earthy translation). So Hollande starts his campaign with a series of unspoken suggestions about his being up to it, as it were. If Sarkozy declares his candidacy, the campaign will be a personality contest that will trigger a myriad of dispositions, unconscious beliefs, even neuroses, about men and masculinity in the French imagination (and one of the other candidates may well be the redoubtable Marine Le Pen, a woman leading a party with an almost psychotic relationship to virility and male violence). What a strange republic.

At the more mundane level of the Socialist party, the primaries will have a dramatic effect upon political organisation in the Fifth Republic. To date, the PS has negotiated (more or less) the unspoken dynamic between personality politics and the deep ideological convictions of committed socialists and social-democrats. For these primaries, anyone – who paid 1euro – could vote. Overnight, and again with no one commenting on it, the ideological raison d’être for French socialism has collapsed. Why be a ‘militant’ – i.e. tramping the streets, going door-to-door, sticking up posters, or debating the revolution on a wet Thursday evening – if Joe and Josephine Soap – and not you – are going to choose arguably the most powerful national leader in the Western world (domestically, the French President is even more ‘omnipotent’ than the US President). These primaries, by organisationally adapting to the Fifth Republic, while avoiding the clash of both ideas and overt personalities, arguably just killed off French Socialism. And for 2017, the right have decided they want primaries too. The Sixth Republic is on the horizon. We can, at this point, only speculate as to whether it will be as bizarre as the Fifth. 

One thought on “The French Socialist Party Primaries”

  1. So if I read you right, what the PS has done is to cement the Gaullist conception of the Republic even further: by taking ideological difference out of the argument by insisting on a common programme, and by extending the primary vote to the whole of the left,the party has effectively… taken the party out of the equation. The General would be quite pleased, non?


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