French Socialists to hold their first US-style primary

by , Hüseyin Koyuncu // Published September 21, 2011
Candidats a la primaire socialiste

This month I started work at FairVote, where I will spend the next eight months as an intern. I’m a 21-year-old student at Sciences Po, one of France’s leading universities, where I study political science. France will hold its next presidential election in April 2012, in the midst of next year’s presidential election in the United States. This timing provides an opportunity to compare the way each country chooses its president, which will be the focus of my work at FairVote. My blog today focuses on France’s Socialist Party and its potential nominees. 

Both major parties in the United States have extended nomination processes, with candidates often spending a year campaigning before the first states start holding their nominations, and the nomination voting itself taking weeks, if not months – in 2008, Barack Obama won the Iowa caucuses in early January 2008, but ran contested races against Hilary Clinton into June, culminating in his nomination at the Democratic convention in August.

In contrast, French’s major opposition party, the Socialists, are only now holding a nomination contest, which will take place over the course of a single week next month – but will borrow from American tradition in having primary elections with far more participants than would be possible in their previous  in-person convention system. 

With incumbent president Nicolas Sarkozy having a favorability rating of only 23%, the socialist nominee will likely be the favorite next year. The French Socialist Party is looking to get out of its leadership crisis with a candidate able to reconcile and consolidate the party and wins the next election. 

On October 9th and 16th, the Socialist Party (PS) will first hold the first open primaries in French history. Privately administered by the party itself, the election will be in two rounds, unless one member obtains an absolute majority in the first round. The winner of the primary will be the Socialist nominee for President.

Approved in October 2009 by 68% of members of the PS, the principle of open primaries to all supporters and not just activists is seen as a solution to the crisis in the party after its third consecutive defeat in presidential elections. Its solution shows us how the party wants to break with its past, characterized by excessive professionalization of party’s cadres.

For the first time the Socialists have given themselves, through the primaries, an image of openness. This is the first time in France one party let just "supporters" to nominate its candidate for president rather than party members. For the PS is a major break with what has been its modus operandi since its inception: the control of decisions by its militant base. 

The primary creates more of an opportunity for a democratic correction for French presidential elections. The candidate is selected under the same conditions as the President of the Republic, a vote in direct elections. He or she therefore proceeds in the same legitimacy that incorporates the candidate's personality, its ability for the public, a logic that we can also find in the U.S primary system. 

It develops democracy in their operation: the choice of leader is no longer in the hands of just the most active party members, but every French citizens who has planed to vote for Socialist Party for the next election, has the opportunity to choose his candidate.   It also responds to a need for contemporary personification of politics. This shift to a more personalized politics explains why the primary system is also being implemented in other parliamentary systems in Europe - Italy, United Kingdom, and gradually in Germany.

The Socialist primary has not yet taken place to determine which candidate for president in 2012 but the PS has a program or at least broad guidelines. This project, called "Change" has 30 proposals, seeks to address "the problems of the French" in different areas. After the primaries, the presidential candidate will be subject to this project. 

The subordination of candidates for a joint project does not allow flexibility in the implementation of a real exchange of ideas. Unlike in the United States, the primaries won’t affect the party’s positions – it is a choice among personalities... The primary sets up at the top of the PS a form of competitive individualism, which is increasingly fashionable in the liberal world, and deprives the members of their appointment power.. 

Turning to the race itself, July 13thwas the deadline for submitting nominations for the primaries held by the PS in order to determine the candidate to be the party's official candidate for the presidency in 2012.There are officially six candidates running for the primaries. In this review of the field, the poll numbers are from a poll that was done on 15th September by BVA : 

  • François Hollande: the former first secretary of the PS (1997-2008) is the favorite in the polls, with 43% support in the poll
  • Martine Aubry: the Mayor of Lille and the first secretary of the Party since 2008, Aubry jumped in the race after previous frontrunner Dominique Strauss-Kahn was arrested in the race and is polling at 28%;
  • Segolene Royal: the defeated candidate in the 2007 presidential election runoff against Sarkozy, Royal is the president of the Poitou-Charentes, and is polling at 12%;
  • Manuel Valls: the mayor of Evry and member of the first district of Essonne, is polling at 9%;
  • Arnaud Montebourg: MP, President of General Council of Saône-et-Loire, and PS national secretary of the renovation, Montebourg is the youngest candidate in the primaries along with Manuel Valls, polling at 7%;
  • Jean-Michel Baylet: the only non-socialist candidate as the president of the Radical Party senator from the left and Tarn-et-Garonne, he has decided to run for the PS primary and is polling at 1%.

As to Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former president of the International Monetary Fund nicknamed DSK in France, all speculations about his possible candidacy now that criminal charges against him in the United States have been dropped, are unfounded because the nomination for the primaries is closed. In addition, over 60% of socialist militant base respondents do not want to see DSK nominee for presidential elections in 2012.

The first round of the Socialist primary will take place in less than three weeks. Beyond the candidate's choice, the real challenge of the Socialist Party is its goal of drawing at least one million voters. They expect a lot from this event to restore the credibility to the party in order to win the next presidential election.