The party is splitting in all directions. And in terms of his campaign, nothing is happening. Since winning the primary election at the end of January the official Socialist Party candidate Benoît Hamon has virtually been missing in action, drowned out by the continuing media coverage of the François Fillon 'fake jobs' scandal and by the criticism aimed at him by the right wing of his own party, many of whom are tempted to back the centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron. All this has left former education minister Hamon looking powerless, reduced simply to playing a walk-on part in a presidential election unlike any other.
On Thursday it was reported that the important figure of Jean-Yves Le Drian, defence minister and one of President François Hollande's closest political allies, will be backing former economy minister Macron. On Wednesday it had been the turn of former mayor of Paris Bertrand Delanoë to come out in favour of the independent candidate and former merchant banker, who is currently favourite in the polls to go into the decisive second round against the far-right Front National's Marine Le Pen. It was, Delanoë told France Inter radio, a question of choosing the most 'useful' vote to keep out the far right. He said: “We have to give strength to the candidate who will be able to beat Marine Le Pen … the fight against the extreme right is the priority battle. The effective vote in the first round [editor's note, there are two rounds of voting] is a vote for Macron,” he insisted.
Above all his comments help maintain the mood music of disunity and division that weakens any election campaign, and the defections are clearly not over yet. As well as Delanoë and Le Drian the president of the National Assembly, Claude Bartolone has also let it be known in an interview with Paris Match magazine that he is “ready” to vote for Macron in the first round if he judges that “democracy is in danger and it's the only alternative”. Hollande's key ally, the government spokesman and agriculture minister Stéphane Le Foll is also said to be making up his mind between Macron and Hamon. Each time the same arguments are paraded: that of choosing the most useful vote against the far right, plus a recital of the criticism that Hamon is too sectarian, too critical of Hollande's presidency or, quite simply, too far to the left.
The candidate's team, with its strategic hesitations and its sometimes chaotic organisation, seems both unable to stop the right wing of the party from torpedoing his campaign and from hitting back, either in form or in substance. Some people close to Benoît Hamon have been getting quite worked up in recent days, irritated by what one described as a “Care Bear riposte”. “We've had enough! We have to attack Macron,” says the same source. One campaign team member Laura Slimani, former president of the Young Socialists, is clearly on the same wavelength. In a Tweet, below, she applauds those party members who have pointed out that “to support Macron is to leave the Socialist Party”. The first signs of a change in strategy indeed came on Thursday when Hamon described Macron's presidential project as a “stepping stone” for Marine Le Pen and the FN.
The majority of long-term Hamon supporters are convinced that, contrary to the dominant media view and that of a section of the party, these defections to Macron are rather a good thing for the coherence of Benoît Hamon's campaign. And that they also are also good in terms of giving the candidate credibility among an electorate of the Left that is disgusted by the PS and tempted to vote for the radical left candidate Jean-Luc Méclenchon. “Today a certain number of departures aren't bad for us because we know who voted for us in the primary,” says Antoine Détourné, a councillor at Arras in northern France and who has been working on Hamon's policies. “Delanoë has the air of someone on the Left but he's not part of the young guard. The problem we're seeing is that of people with long careers in the Socialist Party … they are not damaging farewells,” he says.
Though the socialist old guard or “elephants” as they are known may be popular within the party itself they are often removed from the younger and more left-wing electorate that Benoît Hamon has managed to mobilise in his campaign, and on whom he is still counting for the first round of the presidential vote. “Macron wants to incarnate renewal and modernity, but he's just attracting some old party bigwigs and those who've retired from politics,” says Hamon's campaign director Mathieu Hanotin. “If it's too hard for these socialists, well, let them go. What we're noticing is that more and more militants are proud of seeing the PS rediscover its true colours. The party is mobilising itself again, in a good way, and the 'old school' political behaviour of some only strengthens us.”
“The neoconservatives at the head of the party have the idea that we are, as a matter of course, not worthy of being in charge,” says the Member of Parliament Pouria Amirshahi. Having left the PS while an MP because of his disagreement with the government's policies, he has joined Hamon's campaign team to deal with foreign affairs issues. “In their eyes we are here illegitimately, exactly as the Right has always thought of the Left when it is in power. Yet while they have kept the appearance and apparatus of social democracy, they have become not just social liberals but neoconservatives. In Macron they've found a product they like and they've bought it.”
“It's by no means certain that the spectacle of Macron opening his arms wide and of ageing male liberals rushing towards him is so serious,” says another member of the campaign team who asked to remain anonymous. “If they feel more at ease with [centrist François] Bayrou and [Alain] Madelin [editor's note, a liberal and former economy minister] than with us, we won't cling on to them. We prefer to have with us women of the Left such as [Anne] Hidalgo, [Christiane] Taubira, [Najat] Vallaud-Belkacem, [Marisol] Touraine, [Marylise] Lebranchu and [Martine] Aubry [editor's note, respectively the current mayor of Paris, former justice minister, current education and health ministers, the former civil service minister and former head of the PS],” he says. “We're backing a noticeable and generational change on the Left and it's only normal that there is a deep divide inside the PS in relation to the issues of the future that we are supporting, between the real alternative that's being proposed and those who want to just continue to support liberalism.”