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Divided French Left Struggles to Block Marine Le Pen

The first round of the Socialist primary is Sunday. The winner isn't likely to matter.


The French presidential election in May has become surprisingly important, coming as it does on the heels of Brexit, Donald Trump’s victory in November, and a surge of support for right-wing candidate Marine Le Pen. But, not for the first time in French history, the Left is divided, making it unlikely that the ruling Socialist Party will even be in the final round of the presidential election.

The Socialist Party will hold the first round of its primary on Sunday, so voters can choose which Socialist candidate to promote to the second round of nationwide presidential voting, and then onto the big contest in April and May. The primary winner will likely be former French Prime Minister Manuel Valls. But that’s not likely to matter at all — Socialists are not expected to muster enough support to even make it to the second round.

The Socialists are one of two major political parties in France; Republicans are the other. François Fillon, the French Thatcherite, shocking many, grabbed leadership of the Republicans in November. He is expected to advance to the second round of voting in the presidential election, slated for May 2017. The Socialist candidate, whoever it may be, is not.

Instead, polls (whatever they’re worth) show Fillon and Le Pen, leader of France’s far-right National Front, making it to the second round of the presidential election. Only the top two candidates advance. Both are polling ahead of the entire left side of the political spectrum, which is shattered right now. There is the far left, led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon; the soon-to-be-seen Socialist candidate; and the center-left and increasingly popular maverick, Emmanuel Macron.

The irony of all this is that if you bundle together the left, you get well over 40 percent,” noted Marc Pierini, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe. “And yet they won’t be in the second round of elections.”

Macron, who openly champions Europe, is outpacing his fellow leftists and surging in the polls, but still trails Le Pen and Fillon. And his fellow lefties are unlikely to throw their support behind him as their standard bearer. Mélenchon hates the establishment too much, while Socialists worry that withdrawing their candidate would be tantamount to killing the party, Pierini says.

On the other hand, says Benjamin Haddad, a fellow at the Hudson Institute who is involved with the Macron campaign, a dismal overall fourth- or fifth-place showing would pretty much kill the party as well.

Experts like Europeum’s Martin Michelot say Macron himself has weakened, if not yet fatally, the Socialist Party. Though never a party member, he did once serve in a Socialist government as minister of finance. But he skipped the Socialist Party primary, moving ahead with his own, independent movement, known as En Marche (“Foward”). He is holding parallel meetings, collecting Socialist deputies who are defecting, and painting himself as a political outsider who nevertheless has the support of the chattering classes.

Macron, unlike the Socialists, could theoretically win the election — and is running as though he’ll do just that. On Thursday, he announced En Marche will field candidates in the June parliamentary elections, including Socialist defectors to ensure a legislative majority, to boot.

While Le Pen drags Fillon further and further right, Macron is hoping to capture the center ground and present himself as her true challenger. Both see the cleavage in France — as it is elsewhere — as being between progress and openness, on the one hand, or inward-looking and protectionist on the other. Macron and Le Pen just happen to be on opposite sides of that divide.

But the headwinds he faces are strong. French voters are sick of Socialists after five dismal years under the ridiculously-unpopular Francois Hollande. And like voters seemingly everywhere, they’re sick of the status quo and establishment politicians. All that is keeping Macron, despite his sunny narrative and plenty of Socialist support, behind Fillon and Le Pen.

The stakes are high, and not just for France. Le Pen has campaigned on an anti-immigrant, anti-Europe, and anti-euro policy. If she wins, Pierini says, she will “crash France into a wall.”

Photo credit: ERIC FEFERBERG/AFP/Getty Images

Emily Tamkin is the U.S. editor of the New Statesman and the author of The Influence of Soros, published July 2020. Twitter: @emilyctamkin