A cautious welcome for primaries in the French Socialist Party

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Just as une hirondelle ne fait pas le printemps (one swallow does not make a summer), une primaire ne refait pas un parti politique (one primary does not remake a party). But looking back at yesterday’s first ever US-style primary to decide the French Socialist Party’s candidate to oppose incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy in next year’s presidential election in France, the French left can legitimately feel a little better about its chances than any time in the recent past.

While the Socialist Party has conducted votes among party members to choose its candidates in the past, this is the first time that participation has been opened to allow members of the public (and not just party members) to participate. Anyone already on the electoral roll who states they agree with a broad statement of leftist republican French values, and who paid at least the nominal sum of €1 to participate, was allowed to cast their vote at one of almost 10000 polling stations across France.

In yesterday’s first round just under 2.5 million people participated – just over 5% of the eligible vote. But compare this to the membership of the Socialist Party that has peaked in recent years at just over 200,000 members and the primary turnout represents more than a ten-fold increase in engagement. 5 million watched the final televised debate among the six candidates, indicating an even wider interest in the process than was represented at the ballot box, although critics underlined that the debates were not high quality television.

In traditional French election style, the primary is in two parts – as none of the 6 candidates in the first round polled more than 50%, a second round will take place this coming weekend, putting first round victor François Hollande (who polled 39.2%) up against Martine Aubry (30.7%). Arnaud Montebourg (16.8%), Ségolène Royal (6.9%), Manuel Valls (5.7%) and Jean-Michel Baylet (0.7%) drop out [results here].

The role of Montebourg will prove to be key – his support comes from more to the left of the party, so much of his support will switch to Aubry. While Royal is more on Holande’s line politically, the rivalry between the two in recent years may mean her supporters may also favour Aubry. Hence a victory for Hollande is far from a foregone conclusion.

So while – initially – French socialists may have a spring in their step, the focus on their primary now may not in the end help deliver their candidate the Elysée in May 2012. Any such primary process is fraught with difficulties, underlined most clearly by the contest between Hollande and Aubry. The former is the more popular with the French electorate and would be the more likely to beat Sarkozy; he’s from the moderate, centrist part of the PS, and even Jacques Chirac has said he would vote for him. Aubry is more to the left, a successful Mayor of Lille and daughter of Jacques Delors. While she might better appeal to party tribalists, she is less well placed to be able to defeat Sarkozy.

The additional question for either candidate is how they transition from campaigning within the left in the primary to campaigning for the left against Sarkozy to secure the Presidency.

As the debate in Labour gathers pace about the role of primaries in UK politics, Labour supporters would do well to keep an eye on the French Socialist Party, not only this Sunday when the primary second round takes place, but into the future to work out whether activist engagement can be translated in ballot box success.

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