I would have normally had at least two or three posts on this by now but as I was in the US for 2½ weeks until last weekend, I didn’t catch any of the three pre-1st round debates—sure, I could have watched them en différé online but didn’t—and was admittedly not following French politics too closely while stateside, what with the unbelievable political nightmare unfolding outre-Atlantique and that naturally dominated political discussion in my entourage there. Also, it didn’t seem to be hugely important—unlike last November’s primary of the right and center—as there is not a soul in France and Navarre who thinks that the PS primary winner has a snowball’s chance in hell of even making it to the 2nd round of the presidential election, let alone winning it (and the participation rate would tend to bear this out: some 1.6 million voters on Sunday, compared to 2.6 in the 2011 PS primary 1st round and 4.3 in the right’s one in November). I did, however, get back to France in time to vote in the primary’s first ballot—disclosure: for Benoît Hamon, sans état d’âme—and watch Wednesday’s debate between the top two finishers Hamon and Manuel Valls, who will square off in the 2nd round on Sunday. Three brief comments.
First, it is labeled the primary of “La Belle Alliance Populaire” (BAP), signifying that it was open to all comers on the left—including Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Emmanuel Macron—but this was a joke. There was not a chance that these two gentlemen were going to participate in an exercise organized by the Rue de Solférino and with the strings pulled by PS First Secretary Jean-Christophe Cambadélis (a.k.a. Camba), who gives the word “apparatchik” a bad name. It was a Socialist Party primary, point barre, with candidates who could have fostered discordance and semer la zizanie in the debates—e.g. la trés gauchiste Gérard Filoche and Pierre Larrouturrou, the latter of the minuscule but intriguing Nouvelle Donne—ruled ineligible by Camba even before they could submit their qualifying signatures. The non-PS candidates who were allowed to participate were there strictly pour la figuration: François de Rugy and Jean-Luc Bennahmias—both former EELV members now with their own microscopic écolo groupuscules no one can remember the names of (and with Bennahmias being a drôle de zigoto to boot)—and Sylvia Pinel, who presently heads the diminutive, centrist Parti Radical de Gauche, holds a ministerial post in the current government that everyone needs to Google to remember what it is, and who is mainly distinguished for saying nothing whatever of interest when speaking before a microphone. The Socialists were nonetheless desperate to have her run in the BAP primary, as they absolutely needed a woman. Six mecs et pas une seule nana: l’image aurait été dévastatrice pour le premier parti de la gauche…
It appeared from the moment François Hollande threw in the towel in December that the primary would pit Valls—on the right end of the PS—against Arnaud Montebourg on the left, and with the former having the edge. I evoked back then the prospect of a dark horse, who did indeed emerge in the person of frondeur Hamon. As for Vincent Peillon, he could have been an interesting competitor to Montebourg but his candidacy was unexpected—he announced out of the blue four days before the December 15th deadline—and, as he had faded from public view since leaving the government in 2014, never got off the ground. I didn’t take Hamon extremely seriously until his appearance on France 2’s semimonthly two-hour political interview show ‘L’Émission Politique’ on December 8th, in which he impressed everyone who saw it (I didn’t). He took off from that moment and I started to predict that he would overtake the eternal gadfly Montebourg to face off against Valls in the 2nd round, and that he did. It was indeed an almost foregone conclusion by the day of the 1st round that Hamon would finish in first place.
Second, the BAP primary, as everyone knows, is less about selecting the strongest Socialist candidate for the presidential election—as the PS is all but hors course for this—but rather the person who will lead the party for the next five years—or what remains of it after the shipwreck of Hollande’s quinquennat. Not only is the PS looking at a rout on April 23rd but risks emerging from the June legislative elections with a parliamentary group resembling the one after the 1993 wipe-out, when it was reduced to 56 deputies (out of 577) in the National Assembly. The party is deeply divided, between a social-libéral, productivist, militantly républicain wing led by tough guy Valls and a more leftist, anti-libéral écolo-friendly one—now represented by Hamon—but that is less sécuritaire and with a more liberal conception of laïcité. For the latter alone I lean in that direction. As Valls has become radioactive for large numbers of PS voters—personally, I can’t stand him—the prospect of him leading a post-election PS—again, what remains of it—would almost guarantee either a formal split in the party or sizable defections to Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise. The crisis in the left would worsen. So better to go with Hamon.
As for my own vote for Hamon, it’s strategic. My intention at this date is to vote for Emmanuel Macron in the 1st round on April 23rd. I did not take Macron’s candidacy seriously at all until his mega rally at the Palais des Sports on December 10th (which I was going to attend—just to go—but couldn’t make it to). A 39-year-old presidential candidate who has never run for public office and with no party behind him, ça prête à sourire. But the success of his Paris rally—before a packed arena of at least 12,000—changed everything, and particularly as he’s been repeating the feat at every rally he’s held since then, drawing unprecedented crowds in places like Nevers, Clermont-Ferrand, Lille, and elsewhere in the French heartland (Marine Le Pen, by contrast, held her big 2012 Paris rally at the Zénith, which seats but 6,300). And this is being reflected in his rising poll numbers. I’ll have more about Macron at a later date but suffice to say now that he is presently occupying a wide space in the center of the political spectrum, spanning the center-left to center-right. And he has a general discourse that I find congenial: social-libéral but liberal in the North American sense on questions de société and laïcité. And he’s pro-Europe. As the prospect of a Marine Le Pen-François Fillon 2nd round is looking increasingly unpalatable—though Fillon is now in deep trouble on account of Penelopegate—Macron is presently the only candidate, according to the polls, who can knock one of these two out. And then win.
If Valls were to be the PS candidate, his social-libéralisme would complicate matters for Macron. But with Hamon the candidate, many Valls voters will likely go to Macron. Hamon widens the space for Macron while at the same time reducing that of Mélenchon, from whom he will likely take voters. D’une pierre deux coups. Thus my strategic choice for Hamon.
Third comment, on Wednesday’s debate between Hamon and Valls. I’m always impressed with French political debates, as the politicians are so articulate and in command of the issues. They all sound like Hillary Clinton discussing policy—and make US Republicans look like the bumbling, gaffe-prone nitwits they are. Hamon-Valls was, however, the best I’ve seen in a long while. It was a superb debate. Valls was good and less aggressive than expected. But Hamon was downright excellent. It was the first time I’d seen him at any length and was suitably impressed. He killed it. Now I’m talking here about form, which, in a high-stakes debate, is more important than substance. Hardly anyone remembers the details of policy proposals or dwells on inconsistencies. It’s the overall impression that counts. Hamon was extremely articulate, demonstrated mastery of the issues, was fast on his feet, adopted the right tone, and never missed a beat. He simply came across very well (one may see the whole debate here, beginning at around 29:00). As for his proposal on the revenu universel and whether or not this is realistic, who cares? Personally speaking, I discount grandiose promises made by candidates early in a campaign and that need to be financed. The more a promise will cost the taxpayer and impact on the budget, the less I take it seriously. In any case, Hamon’s performance has made victory in this coming Sunday’s 2nd round an all but done deal.
À la prochaine.