Uncertainty ahead for the French Parti Socialiste

Uncertainty ahead for the French Parti Socialiste

The upcoming primary of the Parti Socialiste could lead to substantial political tensions within a party already weakened by the President Hollande presidency and a costly power struggle against labour unions.

Two events unfolded in late June that highlighted the deep crisis that the French Parti Socialiste (PS) is currently going through. The PS decision to hold primaries ahead of the 2017 presidential elections and the government action ahead of the June 23rd protest in Paris showed a strong wave of internal dissent within the party.

The PS has previously organised primaries ahead of the 2012 and the 2007 elections. However, the upcoming polls will be the first time in the history of the French fifth republic that the ruling party votes to determine its candidate. This comes as a stern reminder of the current historically low approval rates of President Francois Hollande.

Ahead of a major union-led anti-reform protest in Paris planned for June 23rd, the PS further highlighted its internal crisis. The Ministry of the Interior had initially given the go-ahead to the police prefecture of Paris to ban a march that was deemed a threat to local security. However, socialist MPs associated with the leftist branch of the PS strongly opposed the decision, creating a major internal rift. The government was forced to backtrack and allow the protest in a show of political weakness.

Primaries: Three probable options

The PS primaries will be held in January 2017. The political lines of opposing candidates are yet to be fully defined; however, three main tendencies can already be found in the opposing factions of the party. These may well come to define the future of the PS after it has been severely weakened by President Hollande’s term.

1) Strengthening the existing political structure of the party

Claude Bartolone, head of the PS, represents the official line of the party. According to Bartolone’s camp, the primaries’ goal is to solidify the political structure of the PS, link the party back to disillusioned voters and strengthen the socialist position around President Hollande’s current policies. While this position has not been challenged so far, it is unlikely that a party battered by internal dissent and low approval ratings will be able to rally around the unpopular figure of Hollande.

2) A clash between the main rival personalities of the party

Finance Minister Emmanuel Macron is a clear example of this.  While Macron has not yet officially announced his intention to run in the party’s primary, he is gradually building up a support base that could potentially serve as a launch-pad for a campaign. In April, Macron started his “En Marche!” movement and since then he has been multiplying efforts to separate himself from Hollande’s shadow. With an explicitly liberal economic policy, Macron’s stance is aimed at bridging the gap between the centre-right and the centre-left, while breaking off with the leftist parts of the PS.

Parti Socialiste

Hollande between Valls (left) and Macron (right) | Le Figaro

Among other key PS figures, Prime Minister Manuel Valls and Lille Mayor Martine Aubry will potentially try to rally the party in their own constituencies by positioning themselves as the only true representatives of the Socialists capable of staging a successful campaign. The key question will be whether Valls and Aubry will openly challenge president Hollande and move to become candidates in the primaries. This would further weaken the president’s position and could lead to a further reshuffling of the government.

3) Fragmentation of the PS between centre-left and leftist party members

Since June, the party has been battered by internal rifts linked to a controversial labour market reform. PS members of parliament staged two unsuccessful attempts to block the government-backed bill. While these votes fell short because of a lack of strong support within parliament, it highlights a deep disagreement concerning socio-economic policies in the PS. The more centrist and liberal line is likely to rally around Emmanuel Macron, while the official line of the party is to maintain a social democratic stance. Key PS members such as Benoit Hamon and former Minister of Industry Arnaud Montebourg are expected to drive the leftist side of the party toward a political clash with the socio-liberal part of the PS. It remains unclear whether Hamon or Montebourg will run in the primaries, but their potential candidacies would deal a major blow to the PS overall political standing.

The growing attractiveness of extremes

The upcoming PS power play is likely to further strengthen the position of the far-left and far-right parties. As both the PS and Les Republicains (LR) enters a politically costly primary campaign, Front National (FN) and Front de Gauche (FG) leaders will increase their attacks against pro-EU and establishment-linked parties. In a June poll, Jean-Luc Melenchon, leader of the left-wing FG, received more voting intentions than President Hollande for the first time. This is likely to weigh heavily on the centrist-leftist debate within the PS and lead to further tensions within the ruling party.

On the other hand, Marine Le Pen’s FN continues to maintain a position of relative strength and is expected to augment its political capital following the Brexit vote. There is a potential that voters disillusioned with EU and France socio-political as well as foreign policies and disenchanted with traditional parties will increasingly turn toward FN.

In the coming months, much will depend on the capacity of the PS political structure to deal with diverging ideologies and rival interests within a weakened party. Should key members of the government and of the PS start pursuing individual campaigns, this would mark a clear rupture with Hollande presidency and potential implosion of the party.

Categories: Europe, Politics

About Author

Riccardo Dugulin

Riccardo Dugulin is an analyst at Drum Cussac, a global business risk consultancy. He specializes in supporting international organizations and large corporations operating in emerging markets by providing them with critical risk management intelligence. His regions of expertise are the Near East, the Gulf, North Africa and Continental Europe. He previously worked as project manager for a French medical assistance company. He gained field experience in the Middle East having worked for leading think tanks in Dubai and Beirut. Riccardo holds a Master in International Affairs from the Sciences Po – Paris and a Bachelor in Middle Eastern Studies from the same university. Follow him on Twitter @RiccardoDugulin.