French Election Implosion of the Socialists

In an acrimonious nomination race, France's center-left Socialist Party may fall apart and become unelectable, writes Handelsblatt's Paris correspondent.
Quelle: dpa
Former Prime Minister Manuel Valls warned that if the French Socialists court the radical left, the party will fall apart, paving the way for the moderate or radical right.
(Source: dpa)

By selecting a candidate, France's Socialist Party wanted to bond and ensure its political survival. But things didn't go that way, the nomination race is splitting the party. France's political landscape is transforming in the process and the socialists are unlikely to govern again for decades to come.

This weekend the left-wing Benoît Hamon and former Prime Minister Manuel Valls face off in a second round of voting. Mr. Hamon has a better chance of securing a majority.

The two candidates have no common ground. Mr. Hamon is calling for an unconditional basic income and wants to abandon any policies that would consolidate state finances. He condemned the last five years of socialist government policy as a neoliberal aberration. Last year he tried to topple Mr. Valls in parliament with a no-confidence vote. The hostility couldn't be more obvious.

Meanwhile Mr. Valls is appealing to the Socialist Party's survival instinct by warning if it courts the radical left, it will fall apart, paving the way for the moderate or radical right. His position could potentially win a majority perhaps even within the party. But his arrogance has antagonized party members so much that they no longer want anything to do with him.

One person who would benefit from Mr. Hamon winning the presidential candidacy is rising star Emmanuel Macron. He is third in the polls and still has a chance of qualifying for the run-off for the presidency on May 7. If left-winger Mr. Hamon clinches the nomination, then a large proportion of moderate socialist parliamentarians and voters will switch to Mr. Macron. This is already so likely that Mr. Macron, formerly economics minister, is openly saying that he will not let all socialist delegates on his list stand in the elections because he wants “political renewal.”

Despite all its weaknesses and ambiguous rhetoric, the PS has been, for the main part, a reliable, pro-European voice.

On the other hand, Mr. Valls as Socialist contender would slow down Mr. Macron's current momentum. His views on economic policy are similar to Mr. Macron's and Mr. Valls has much more experience in domestic and security policy.

Mr. Valls could snatch away the critical points Mr. Macron needs to enter the run-off against far-right candidate Marine Le Pen or conservative nominee François Fillon.

The split at the Socialist Party, known in France as PS, has implications far beyond the next presidential election. The party was founded in its current form during the Epinay congress in 1971 and led by François Mitterrand. It was always left of Germany’s Social Democratic Party, the SPD, and never achieved political unity because it allowed other organized movements within the party. Mr. Mitterrand tried to cooperate with the French Communist Party, hoping to give it the kiss of death.

He succeeded; today the PCF is a fringe organization. But the PS paid a heavy price: It never defined its political course as the German SPD did in 1959 with its Godesberg Program. Politicians like Mr. Hamon like to fantasize about overcoming the market economy. Former socialist senator Jean-Luc Mélenchon purports to be the custodian of socialism and is attracting disillusioned socialists who see François Hollande as a traitor to his own ideals. Like Ms. Le Pen, he makes Europe into the enemy.

Despite all its weaknesses and vague rhetoric, the PS has been, for the main part, a reliable, pro-European voice.

Mr. Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl reinforced the European Union’s stance against Margaret Thatcher: That Europe should be more than just a platform for the free movement of goods and capital - a concept which has unfortunately fallen by the wayside in the wake of the euro debt crisis and thanks to the neoliberal disaster embodied by José Manuel Barroso’s presidency of the European Commission.

Mr. Hollande could be relied upon, both in the euro crisis and when it came to containing Vladimir Putin’s aggressive policy in the Ukraine. His conservative predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy had promised the new czar state-of-the-art battleships to attack with; Mr. Hollande prevented their delivery. His possible successor François Fillon, who visited Ms. Merkel on Monday, is more difficult to read. In Berlin he called for a stronger Europe, while in France he criticized the European Union as an outdated “community of Europe” and played with the notion of a “Europe of fatherlands,” bringing Mr. Putin into play as a possible security partner.

Following the clash in the primary, there will be no alternative to splitting the PS into far-left and social democratic parts, a development that is not encouraging given the global political situation and least of all for Germany.


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