How primaries cleared out old guard from French politics


The list of victims of the recent presidential primary elections held by the Left and Right in France is remarkable. Two presidents, two prime ministers and a number of senior former ministers have been rejected after rebellious voters gave their verdicts. The primary process - which ended on Sunday with the unlikely election of Benoît Hamon as the official socialist candidate for the presidential contest – has proved something of an earthquake for the French political establishment, writes Hubert Huertas.

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Even for someone used to the vagaries of political life, what has happened recently in France is completely astonishing. In fewer than 100 days – indeed it has been just 70 days since the French Right's first-round primary vote on November 20th, 2016 – seven to eight million voters have either chased all the country's leaders from the political landscape or forced them to leave.

First there was Nicolas Sarkozy, former president of the Republic and a fixture at the top of French politics for 25, even 35 years, who was rejected like any Tom, Dick or Harry in the first round of the Right's primary to choose a presidential candidate for 2017. Then there was former prime minister Alain Juppé, who for the past two years had been the hot favourite to win the primary and become the next head of state, who was sent back to his fiefdom in Bordeaux after being thrashed in the second round. Next up was the current president, François Hollande, who had become so unpopular that he felt obliged not to stand in the socialists' primary election, having been told in effect to get on his political bike.

On Sunday it was the turn of another former prime minister, Manuel Valls, the natural heir apparent when Hollande did not stand, to get his marching orders as the socialist primary voters unceremoniously dumped him. Even former economy minister Arnaud Montebourg could not escape the clear out. The left-wing firebrand who was seen, by the media at any rate, to symbolise internal socialist opposition to Hollande's government, also lost out in favour of Sunday's primary victor Benoît Hamon.

Rejected: President François Hollande and former prime ministers Manuel Valls and Alain Juppé. Rejected: President François Hollande and former prime ministers Manuel Valls and Alain Juppé.

Of course there are 'internal' reasons why Hamon won the socialist primary. But simply to focus on the respective strengths of the candidates does not allow one to grasp the full importance of what happened in Sunday evening's vote.

There is no doubt that former premier Valls's defeat owes much to a strategic error that goes back three years years and his time as the head of President Hollande's government in the full glare of the media. Valls spent most of that time in office trying to break with the traditional and very active left wing of the Socialist Party before seeking, in the three weeks of the brief primary campaign, to preach the message of uniting the party. His plan was thus to sit on a branch that he had previously been sawing.

It is also true that Benoît Hamon does not owe Sunday's victory simply to the failings of Manuel Valls, but also to the merits of his own campaign. He gained prominence on public broadcaster France 2 when he came across with a strong message on its political programme 'L'Émission Politique'. After that his proposals placed him at the centre of debates, including his policy of a universal income which, while it may be debatable in principle, has indeed started a discussion. He was also something of a revelation with the strength of his message in speeches and debates between the candidates.

But that said, there is surely a common thread linking the Right's primary election, the decision of François Hollande not to stand again and now the recent Socialist Party primary. The gusts that have propelled the 'outsiders' François Fillon and now Benoît Hamon to victory are part of a gale of national rage that have rocked all political parties. Two presidents and two prime ministers on the floor in two months, accompanied in their falls by the most high-profile of their rivals in media terms, Bruno Le Maire and Jean-François Copé on the Right, and Vincent Peillon and Montebourg on the Left. Who could have imagined that at the beginning of November, when many still thought that 2017's presidential election would be a re-match between Hollande and Sarkozy? Since then the political landscape has been turned on its head and the familiar landmarks removed. Now anything and everything can occur.

In terms of strict logic, the next victims of this stunning political clear out should be the far-right Front National (FN). For of all the political parties, it is the one that most encapsulates all the criticisms that are levelled against the political classes. Its politicians take on more than one political post at a time, it has problems with its funding, it is split by rivalries and it has pocketed public money for work that was never carried out. It has gone further than anyone else in making its party a family affair, with FN founder Jean-Marie Le Pen bequeathing the party to his daughter Marine Le Pen, as well as a parliamentary constituency to his granddaughter Marion Maréchal Le Pen. This far-right party has been in the public gaze for 35 years now and stands accused of all the failings for which the othes parties are blamed. So in all logic it should be the next on the list for a political clear out.

The problem is that logic is one thing and politics quite another. The Front National is what it is, and everyone more or less knows that, but the desire to change things is so great that the French public might be tempted to use the party as a hammer blow to complete the job. Why? Because the Front National has never been in government, and at the current moment that is clearly a considerable strength.

Those who occupy the political landscape today cannot ignore this reality and they now shoulder considerable responsibility. Who are the 'leading candidates' left standing? They are radical left politician Jean-Luc Mélenchon, Hamon, independent candidate and former economy minister Emmanuel Macron and even François Fillon, whose current difficulties over his wife Penelope's 'employment' makes him a likely candidate for the next political spring clean. The great clearing out that has occurred in the primary elections is evidence of an enormous political expectation, which is as much about calling people to action as it is about rejection. The French public watched the sometimes turgid debates and then voted in droves in November and in some number, too, this January, but they did so over and over again to get rid of leading figures. They queued up to get rid of first Sarkozy, then Valls.

The question is, will political logic between now and the presidential election in late April and May follow the logic of the current mood and stop the Le Pen family business? That is the key issue. It depends greatly on what the candidates opposed to Marine Le Pen say and do. They are conducting a campaign in a context that is dangerous both domestically and internationally. The winners in the primaries and those standing in the presidential election who have spared themselves such a process would thus be making a grave mistake if they believe that they are well-placed. For the current that has been sweeping them along is also an undertow.


  • The French version of this article can be found here.

English version by Michael Streeter

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