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French presidential primaries: what do they tell us?

A Parti Socialiste Francais banner on a demonstrationA turnout of over 2.5 million voters in the French Socialist Party (PSF) presidential primary: more than 5% of the electorate, well over twenty times the membership of the PSF, paying at least €1 to participate and each allowed to cast their vote at one of almost 10,000 polling stations across France. An impressive exercise, there is no doubt, a level of “engagement” way beyond what anyone expects for our own Labour Party “registered supporters” scheme.  So what can we learn from it in Britain?

Firstly, the first round of the primary (the second is due in two weeks) offers little comfort to the Progress wing of Britain’s Labour Party. François Hollande, right-wing social democrat though more Brownite than Blairite, was in front with 39.2%, but he may well lose the next.  argued in yesterday’s Guardian that he was “the only figure of the left able to appeal to the centre, and even to the last remaining Gaullists in Sarkozy’s party“. As Jon Worth points out, “even Jacques Chirac has said he would vote for him.

Martine Aubry, successful Mayor of Lille and daughter of Jacques Delors, who is to his left but hardly the hardcore Socialist she is painted by the French Right, polled 30.7%. She is best known for introducing France’s 35 hour week. Although seven points behind, she alone faces Hollande in the run off and is best placed to win the 16.8% of voters who backed Arnaud Montebourg, a strong critic of globalisation who has called for greater state ownership of the banks and a crackdown on tax havens. Although Hollande is well placed to win the 5.7% polled by Manuel Valls, he will struggle to win the 6.9% polled by his estranged-wife and the Socialist candidate last time, Ségolène Royal (full results here).

It will be a close run-off, complete with shades of the Miliband brothers’ contest in the Hollande-Royal. However, it is already evident lacks what we believe is a key attraction to Progress — a bias towards candidates of the political centre. It turns out that French voters who identify themselves as pro-Socialist are just as likely to vote for candidates of the Left.

However, that is a poor reason for the Left to advocate the introduction of such primaries in Britain for the election of Labour’s leader. Whereas in France, the person being selected is a candidate for the presidency, a post with considerable power but whose power is also counter-balanced by that of the French Congress, the post for which Labour’s leader is a candidate is very different. The British Prime Minister is not set apart from Parliament but first among equals in their cabinet and in the House of Commons. Accountability, checks and balances come from within the Cabinet, Parliament and also the Labour Party itself. Creating the claim of a powerful popular mandate would serve only to reinforce the concentration of unaccountable power at the centre which developed during the Blair years with ultimately disastrous consequences.


  1. Norrette says:

    “It turns out that French voters who identify themselves as pro-Socialist are just as likely to vote for candidates of the Left.”

    Jon, am a bit confused by this – can you elaborate?

    1. Jon Lansman says:

      Norette: By candidates of the Left I meant the Front de Gauche and Melenchon. In other words non-members participating in the primary were not only not necessarily PSF voters or even non-aligned but could be Front de Gauche voters (or considerers).

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