Center-Left in No Man’s Land

Rémi Lefebvre

The difficulties facing Benoît Hamon’s campaign reveal a French Socialist Party being outflanked on its right and left.

Benoît Hamon at a rally in August 2016. Wikimedia Commons

Interview by
Jonah Birch

This weekend’s first round of the French presidential election is likely to see the Socialist Party (PS), a mainstay of the country’s politics for decades, receive its lowest share of the vote since the 1960s.

Only five years after winning the presidency under François Hollande the Socialists, like center-left parties across Europe, are in deep crisis. Hollande’s decision not to stand in the election — an unprecedented move for a sitting president — was followed by a primary in which young left-winger Benot Hamon upset centrist Manuel Valls to claim the party’s nomination.

But, standing under a tarnished party brand, beset by betrayals from its establishment and unable to match the dynamism of his left-wing rival Jean-Luc Mélenchon, Hamon has struggled to impose himself on the general election and looks likely to poll in single figures.

Jacobin contributing editor Jonah Birch talks to Rémi Lefebvre, author of a recent book on the party’s presidential primaries, about the campaign and what it can tell us about what the future holds for the PS.


Can you explain, first of all, how Hamon managed to win the Socialist Party primary?


First of all, it was an open primary, for all voters not just party members. This is the second time this had happened. It was in the context of extraordinarily poor polls for [PS president] François Hollande. The left of the Socialist Party managed to impose the primary on him and, seeing he would likely lose it, he decided not to stand. In June of last year, he thought he could succeed but, by November, the polls were so bad he decided not to stand. It was a huge surprise. It opens the game.

This primary was one of defeat. Everyone knew that the candidate who won the primary would not be the next president. The Socialist base was divided: half of it believed Hollande had done a good job and accepted the liberal politics he supported. Now, of course, the vote for Emanuel Macron. But then they supported Manuel Valls, who it seemed would be the candidate. But he was very unpopular with partisans of the Left.

So, with the open primary, many of these outside the party — communist, Mélenchon voters, ecologists, socialists against Hollande — turned out to defeat Valls. Some even announced to the pollsters that they wouldn’t vote for the Socialist candidate in any circumstance.

But there was also the success of Benoît Hamon. And I think that came about because left voters wanted to feel like they were voting for something rather than simply against things all the time. They accepted a utopian program because there has been so much despair over the last five years. They used the primary to support a “futur désirable” (“desirable future”), which is Hamon’s slogan. His program was quite ecological, much moreso for example than the program of Arnaud Montebourg, which was more classically leftist.

But this has caused problems, too. One of his centerpieces was the universal income, which is a very new measure in France. The French public more broadly was not used to hearing about this kind of policy. From an ideological point of view Hamon was very ambitious, and the transition was rapid. It was very difficult because Hamon managed to win the primary but the selectorate of the primary was not the same as electorate. So what made for his success at the primary is now a handicap for the election.


Montebourg was the favourite from the Left going into the campaign — how did Hamon manage to surpass him?


The primary happened very fast. After François Hollande announced he would not stand in mid-November, the others were only able to campaign for about three weeks in January. And for most of that time people were concentrating on the right-wing primaries [for the center-right Les Républicans]. Arnaud Montebourg was seen as a favorite going into the primary but his polling numbers were poor during those weeks.

Hamon was more popular with the media and eventually succeeded with a clear, ambitious, and strategic agenda. Campaigning on universal basic income, decriminalizing drug use, and so on won over leftist electors. Additionally, he performed quite well in televised debates, which contributed to a youthful image that was important in allowing him to dispel early notions that he was a career politician. This strange mixture of factors along with his focus on running a “positive campaign” — he did not attack Hollande directly, for example — contributed to his success in the primary.


Why has Hamon not been able to transfer this success to the general election?


Votes are being drawn away from Hamon in both directions – towards Macron and towards Mélenchon. The problem for Hamon is that he stayed with the Socialist Party and, frankly, the PS has become bullshit. Over the last five years it has stood for terrible policies including stoking nationalism and pro-business austerity.

Additionally, under the duress of the extremely short campaigning period, Hamon decided to form an alliance with the environmentalist faction of the French Left [The Green Party, EELV]. He lost three weeks negotiating with them, which was bad politics and diminished his image. Following this he attempted to align with Mélenchon but this was not possible — they fundamentally stand for different things. Mélenchon would rather renounce his candidacy than compromise his politics in this way.

The reality is that the Socialist and moderate voters have become much more politically polarized recently. The PS is unlikely to bring back voters who have become disillusioned with Hamon since the primary. Some will go for Macron. Among these will be voters who align ideologically with Macron — for example, the electors who went for Hollande in 2012 — but there will also be a lesser-evil vote against François Fillon and Marine Le Pen, either of whom would be a nightmare for the Left in the second round. So there will be people who are quite left-wing who will vote for Macron to prevent that result.

Others will vote for Mélenchon, who has run a very good campaign this year – much better than in 2012. He has been far more skillful in connecting with the French public. Many of his ideas are very novel and audacious as well. Hamon’s appeals to universal income have not really connected with French workers. Similar to right-wing rhetoric around welfare policy in the United States, many see it as “paying people to do nothing.” This is a problem for Hamon because it makes him the candidate of middle-class urban intellectuals and bureaucrats rather than the traditional left base of workers.

There is a segment of left-wing voters who are wary of Hamon as a representative of the PS because they are fed up with the party. Even if they voted PS in the past they will not do so now. Given these various factors, I think there is a real possibility that the PS will disappear.


What did you make of [former Socialist Party prime minister] Manuel Valls’s decision to endorse Macron instead of Hamon?


Valls is a detestable figure who has been extremely cynical. He’s also very much in the minority of the party. For example, in the 2011 primary, he had only about 5 percent of the vote. He was not able to exert much influence on the party. Macron has coopted Valls’s style of politics and preemptively occupied the “political center” that he aspired towards.

But behind all of this there is a complicated political strategy at play that is focused on legislative elections, which are more important than presidential elections. The president can’t do much without a majority in the legislature. And people like Valls within the PS would be more than happy to cooperate with Macron’s centrist formation to form a majority. And so the strategy is far more about winning over those elected to the legislature than winning over the party members – the politicians are closer to Valls and the members are closer to Hamon. So the end-game is to give seats to Macron’s wing and potentially form a government with them in order to stay in the political game.


And what about prominent figures on the left of the party? Christiane Taubira [former justice minister under Hollande] or Martine Aubry [leading figure in the Socialist Party’s traditional stronghold in northern France] — what will they do?


The problem with Taubira and Aubry is that that they have not been courageous. They were, sometimes, bold with words — but they feared chaos. This was the overwhelming feeling in France in recent years. Take for example Aubry, who was critical of the PS. She decided in the end to support Hollande in 2012 even though she opposed his politics. This loss of militancy has been a catastrophe for the PS and French politics. All of the more left-wing members of the party lost their local elections. The party has been destroyed by power.


To what degree can the roots of this crisis be found in the last five years of the Hollande government?


The PS had full power in 2012: the presidency of the republic, absolute majorities in the national assembly, the deputies and the senate, as well as control in major cities. Exercising this power proved difficult because the economic situation was catastrophic with the deficit and national debt. Hollande was elected on a pretty ambiguous program, but he had at least campaigned against austerity and the power of finance.

That all changed in November 2012 — he pursued a political and economic program that was actually to the right of Sarkozy. He gave a lot of money in tax breaks to corporations without any negotiations or conditions. Then he pushed for laws to liberalize the labor market. The only thing Hollande did that was among the Left’s demands was the legalization of gay marriage. If not for this, his presidency was pure neoliberalism. If it had even tried to reduce unemployment, people may have been happy with their vote. But it didn’t, it continued the right-wing policies that preceded it. It was a betrayal of the Left.

In the end it meant a long period of humiliation during which Hollande used the power of the presidency to impose a new politics and discipline dissidents within his own party. For example, when he invoked article 49-3 of the constitution [a little-used measure to bypass the parliament] to change the labor law, this was an attempt to impose his will on those who would vote against his policy agenda. He pursued an authoritarian strategy with his own members of parliament and party.

This created a vacuum. The Left outside the PS — Mélenchon and the communists — were brought together in opposition, but couldn’t agree on their approach to the Socialists. So overall it was terrible because the National Front (FN) capitalized, leading to around half of all workers supporting them. The Hollande government sowed despair in the working-class and the FN was able to attract these disillusioned voters with nationalist rhetoric.


Looking from the outside, what have you made of the Mélenchon campaign and the role of the broader left in the election?


The campaign has been unprecedented. Several candidates can win. It has not just been the two competing. For example, during the debate with all eleven candidates it was incredible to see the far left, Lutte Ouvrière (Workers’ Struggle), speaking directly from an anticapitalist position to millions of people in France and globally. Can you imagine such a thing in the United States?

I think one area Mélenchon has done very well is environmentalism — which has been a focus of this campaign. Candidates like him from the socialist or communist left have tended to be productivist and, therefore, not always good on these issues. It is true that Hamon is somewhat more progressive on social issues, partly, I think, because Mélenchon is scared of embracing a discourse that is too permissive on the issue of immigration. He fears he did that in 2012.

Mélenchon is very much focused on attracting workers to his campaign. Hamon’s base, which is composed more of intellectual types, is far more open on issues of racism and Islamophobia. It also has a far different stance on Europe than Mélenchon. The problem is this doesn’t go far with the public. Urban intellectuals will vote for Hamon but they will not decide the election.


Would you say the difference over the European Union has been the most pointed between the two?


It has been quite striking. There has been a lot of discussion of the European Union in the campaign — and out of eleven candidates, only two are uncritical: François Fillon and Emmanuel Macron. There have been extreme-right criticisms and some left variants but overall a critical stance has become dominant among a majority of candidates. Specifically, the question is often framed in terms of Plan A and Plan B. Plan A means a reconstitution of the terms of France’s involvement, whereas Plan B would be an exit.

Mélenchon’s campaign has taken a quite radical position, arguing that a French exit from the European Union — Plan B — is possible. Hamon doesn’t believe that is the case. He supports new treaties in the European Union. So in the context of deep division among the French public, Hamon presents a positive image of Europe and France’s role in it whereas Mélenchon says the European Union has been a catastrophe. Mélenchon’s position has won votes.


What do you think Mélenchon’s relationship with the rest of the Left will be going forward?


While Mélenchon brings leadership qualities to the Left, it’s unclear how he will organize. In the final days of the campaign, will it become about him? Or will he be more open? Will there be hope or despair if he fails to win? He has certainly won the battle with Benoît Hamon, so now he can tell voters “vote strategically for me.” The problem is that the next president has to deliver on their promises. This will be very difficult for Mélenchon. But his pitch for the presidency is to transform politics — and he has a historic chance.