The French left-wing primary: who will be the real winner(s)?

Another election, another surprise: last Sunday’s left-wing primary’s 1st round vote saw Benoit Hamon pull ahead with over 36%, 5 points clear of ex-Prime Minister Manuel Valls.

Two other presidential candidates will be watching this Sunday’s 2nd round vote as closely as the left-wing primary finalists themselves: Emmanuel MacroN and Jean-Luc MélenchoN (the M&Ns). For the result will either feed or quash their hopes of becoming France’s next President.

“The most important thing is to take part” (or not, as the political case may be…)

Baron Pierre de Coubertin, French historian and mastermind behind the modern Olympic Games, once said: “l’important, c’est de participer”. For the M&Ns, the most important thing was to NOT participate in the left-wing primary – to fully distance themselves from President Hollande’s track-record. Yet, both are politically much closer to one of the finalists (M&N Emmanuel to Valls and M&N Jean-Luc to Hamon) than to anyone else running for the presidential elections; both also share in the history of the socialist party:

  • M&N Emmanuel was a Minister colleague of 4 of the 7 primary’s candidates (Montebourg, Hamon, Peillon and Valls) in President Hollande’s government
  • M&N Jean-Luc was member of the Socialist party for 20 years; he too served as Minister, under the Jospin Government (1997-2002), working alongside current Minister for the environment Ségolène Royal, finance Minister Michel Sapin, and Jospin’s head of communication…Manuel Valls.

True, the M&Ns stand at opposite ends of the socialist spectrum, stretching it to the point of rupture.  But so do Valls and Hamon. As last night’s debate between the finalists confirmed, they are offering a clear choice between two distinct lefts. Their problem is: the M&Ns have grabbed that political space already, and more clearly incarnate that option in French voters’ mind. Despite not participating in the primary; or rather, precisely because they did not participate, one of the M&Ns will likely come out the real winner.

The left has a good chance still, the question is: which left?

Come Monday, we will likely see the beginning of a shift in dynamics that could send the face of the new, future left-wing into the 2nd round of the Presidential election:

  • If the polls are right and Hamon wins, many center-left socialists would rally M&N Emmanuel, and probably put him into closer orbit around the ultimate prize: the Presidency (with latest polls signaling a Macron win against either Fillon or Le Pen in the 2nd round). Should center-right Francois Bayrou decide not to stand (we should know on Monday), change “probably” to “almost certainly”.
  • If the polls are wrong and Valls wins, many of the harder left socialists could defect to M&N Jean-Luc. It would weaken Macron and lead to a probable Le Pen v Fillon face-off in the 2nd round – and likely Fillon win (hence, somewhat ironically, Fillon, Le Pen and Mélenchon will all secretly be rooting for Valls on Sunday). Should Fillon fail to convert his spectacular primary win into right-wing unity, the Front National internal divisions widen, or any scandal overshadow their campaign, who can say for sure that Mélenchon does not stand a chance of making it to the 2nd round?

One thing is for sure: no pollsters or political commentators have so far entertained a scenario where the left-wing primary’s winner would get past the 1st round of the Presidential election: he (whether Hamon or Valls) would come 5th (8% and 9% respectively) according to the latest polls – after Le Pen (27%), Fillon (26%), Macron (20%) and Melenchon (13%).  This would be the worst ever result in socialist party history.

For sure?

Recent electoral history in the UK, the US as well as in the French right and left-wing primaries seems to be making least likely outcomes the new norm.  If history repeats itself, then Hamon or Valls are in with a chance. It would require some extraordinary turn of events in existing dynamics, but there are still 3 months to go, and we have just seen how dynamics can dramatically change in only 3 weeks.

The only certainty out of the polls: the French electorate is more volatile than ever.  In that environment, and with the socialists having de facto 3 bites of the Presidential cherry (albeit with quite different visions of socialism), we should not casually discard the prospect that one of them will capture voters’ imagination. As to the other two, well, “l’important, c’est de participer”, n’est-ce pas?

Remember, also, that the Presidential election is “only” half of the picture.  Parliament (“legislative”) elections will follow in June. As things stand it is a realistic prospect that France is heading towards a period of institutional instability (possibly a “cohabitation” even), with a parliament majority that is different from (or not sufficient to provide outright support to) that of France’s new President, no matter who that is.  Whether this will influence the way French people vote on 23rd April and 7th May is anybody’s guess.




  • Bertrand Huet

    Bertrand joined FleishmanHillard Brussels in 2010, where he advises many clients across several regulatory and reputational issues arising from Europe’s financial services, digital, taxation and macropolitical agendas.   Previously, he was head of EU Public Policy at the Association for Financial Markets in Europe. Fluent...

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