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U.S.-style primaries are inspiring the French Socialist Party

by Pauline Lejeune // Published October 14, 2009

On October 1st, members of the French Socialist Party (PS), the largest left-wing political party in France and the second largest party overall, were given the opportunity to amend their party's rules. At issue was how the party will pick their 2012 presidential nominee. With 68% support in favor of the change, Socialist voters have endorsed the general principle of a U.S.-style nomination process, which will allow all those who describe themselves as left-leaning to participate to the election process.

In France, the president is directly elected by universal suffrage, through a two-round runoff voting system. This means that the elected president always obtains a majority: if no candidate wins a majority of votes in the first round, the two highest-scoring contenders compete in a runoff. Since requirements for access to the ballot are rather lenient, the overall number of candidates easily exceeds ten, which makes it difficult to find a consensus choice and gives importance to the parties' selection of candidate. This is especially true for parties that usually make it to the second-round, like the PS, since they have to be able to reach a majority of votes.

In 2007, the PS had chosen its presidential nominee through primaries based on a vote of the party membership. These closed primaries have been associated with Ségolène Royal, the PS's defeated presidential candidate: even if she received significant numbers of votes from new members who had joined at a reduced dues level of 20 (i.e. $25), she ultimately lacked the necessary massive popular support to win. In fact, closed primaries failed to provide her enough legitimacy: she did not necessarily represent the opinion of the PS sympathizers or of the overall left-leaning partisans.

However, the 2007 socialist primary had created genuine enthusiasm among voters and particularly those who lean politically left. This is why, in an attempt to revive the party's failing electoral fortunes and to heal internal rifts, the PS is now trying to open itself to the "masses" through a popular primary opened to non-party members to select its 2012 presidential candidate.

Although the details have not been finalized yet, the idea is to favor electoral dynamics among the broader left. Popular primaries are supposed to amplify electoral dynamics among sympathizers, as shown by both U.S and Italian examples: Barack Obama's nomination by a pool of 35 million Democratic voters, or even the 2006 Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi's election by 4 million gave them strong legitimacy as candidates. Such broad deliberations match citizens' desire to participate in the nominating process and more broadly to the democratic dynamics of the general election.

Some of the particulars for this U.S.-style nominating process in the PS are still under discussion. First of all, conditions to be eligible to vote have to be precisely determined. They could include a modest fee of 1 and a statement of principles, in which voters would pledge to support the PS's candidate in the presidential election. Another issue to be seriously discussed is whether this kind of primary process would designate a coalition candidate (a united left candidate, or even a coalition candidate made up of left and center parties), or whether they should only be open to PS's leaders. This last option is more plausible, since left parties will have difficulties agreeing on a common candidate and a shared political platform. Furthermore, the French presidential elections have real financial and media implications for smaller parties, which would rationalize their willingness to participate in the first round. Last but not least, the PS has to settle on the primaries' schedule: they need to find a compromise between efficiently campaigning for the March 2010 regional elections and rapidly electing a candidate in order to concentrate on both the presidential election and campaign.

French socialists, inspired by the huge popular support for Barack Obama's nomination, aim to make their party more dynamic and united around their 2012 presidential candidate. They hope to gain strong popular support by implementing U.S.-style primaries.