For the first time in France’s history, a major political party – the Socialists – has held democratic primary elections. Using rules explained in my blogpost earlier this fall, the Socialists decided to place the choice of the party’s presidential nominee in the hands of the people rather than those of party barons.
Nearly three million voters participated in the groundbreaking process, with 57-yeard old left-centrist Francois Hollande emerging victorious. Hollande, who had led the head of the party until his departure from the leadership in 2008, needed two rounds in order to achieve the necessary majority over challenger Martin Aubry, the party’s current leader and a darling of the left. When matched against Aubry in a runoff, Hollande won the second round with 56% of the vote.
Hollande, the so-called “Mr. Normal,” will now represent the party in the April 2012 general election as the Socialists seek to unseat incumbent first-term president Nicolas Sarkozy. Though conceding that defeating Sarkozy will be an extremely difficult task, Hollande has sought to position himself as the only candidate capable of restoring the French dream. “I have measured the task ahead; it is heavy and serious,” Hollande asserted. “I must live up to the hope of the French, who have tired of the political presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy.”
After a Historic Contest, a Party Seeks to Unite
Although Socialists are proud of their first primary election, the high-stakes contest inevitably made public the profound divisions within the party. The party’s most critical responsibility now is to unite behind its official candidate, lest bitter feelings and ideological squabbling endanger the party’s chances against Sarkozy. “No candidate has lost,” Hollande declared after his victory. “We must be united as we to begin the march into the general election.”
Despite a tense end to the campaign, Aubry has acknowledged her defeat and has promised to back Hollande. “I know that all those who have supported me are ready to be in the service of our official candidate,” Aubry noted. “As the head of the PS, I will put all my energy and strength into ensuring that Francois Hollande becomes our next president.” Other members of Socialist Party’s leadership – including losing first round candidates Arnaud Montebourg and Ségolène Royal – have echoed this sentiment. Indeed, in a display of unity, all Socialist leading figures posed together for a ‘family photo’ .
The focus on party unity is in marked contrast to the 2007 presidential election, when the PS largely deserted then-party nominee Royal, leaving her to conduct her campaign against Sarkozy without the support of other party leaders. In retrospect, many political commentators have concluded that such public displays of disunity severely undermined Royal’s candidacy. According to Hollande, after 24 years in opposition, the only way the Socialists can defeat the political Right is to place inter-party feuds aside in the interest of France.
Sarkozy Appears Vulnerable
With only five months remaining until the general election, President Sarkozy appears vulnerable. According to a November 2011 Ipsos-Le Point poll , only 36% of French people believe the head of state will be reelected, a number that has not changed since July, when the polls had asked exactly the same question. The November poll also found that only 8% of French people consider Sarkozy’s reelection certain (another 28% see it as likely or probable), and predicted that Hollande would win in the second round with 58% against 42% for Sarkozy .
Part of Sarkozy’s flagging approval numbers can be attributed to a pushback among, French people against the president’s alleged “extraordinary” persona, that of an egotistical man who appreciates flashy accessories and has a super model wife. With Sarkozy sporting such a pejorative reputation, it should come as little surprise that the media has sought to portray Hollande as an “ordinary man” who seems grounded, cheerful, and self-effacing – an image Hollande has both embraced and cultivated.
The Guardian, for instance, has referred to Hollande as “l'homme tranquille,” or “the quiet man,” while Hollande himself has exclaimed, “France needs a normal president.” Combined with a slowing French economy –a recent poll found that 28% of French people believe Hollande could solve the country's economic and financial crisis, versus 22% who think so of Sarkozy – this favorable contrast in personalities could be enough to propel “Mr. Normal” to the presidency.
The role of the primary in this election will certainly be of long-term interest. Although voter turnout was far less than a government –funded election, millions of French voters helped the Socialists pick a nominee. The media covered the race closely, including airing highly-rated television debates. Whatever the outcome of the 2012 elections, one enduring outcome may well be an opening up of the process by which France’s major parties select their leaders.