A fair measure of churning within the French Left is almost inevitable if the result of Sunday’s Socialist primary race to choose a presidential candidate for next summer is any indication. A dark horse is clearly on the ascendant in the midst of the general disenchantment against President Francois Hollande. Viewed from a different prism, the anti-incumbency factor is palpable. It thus comes about that Benoit Hamon, the staunchly leftwing outsider who wants to introduce a universal basic income, legalise cannabis and tax robots has topped the poll in the first round of the primaries.
Remarkably, this is testament too to the inbuilt resilience of democracy in France and critically enough, within the Left camp. He will face the pro-business former Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, in a final-round clash between the party’s warring leftwing and free-market factions. Thus far, Hamon, said to be the most Left-wing of all the candidates, has a distinct edge over Valls. He has scored 35 per cent of the votes, while Valls, who is on the right of the party, secured 31 per cent.
The result has been suitably encouraging for Hamon to claim that he could “rewrite a page of the history of the left and of France”, adding that the outcome marked an end to what he called “old approaches that no longer worked on the left”. In the moment of defeat, it would be presumptuous on the part of Valls to draw a fine distinction between the “idealism” of Hamon and the “serious left” that he claims to personify.
Given the libertarian spirit of French democracy, it would be prudent to leave the choice to the voter, without alluding to “certain defeat” (of Hamon) and “possible victory” (for himself). It would be presumptuous too to aver that the Socialist party is heading for implosion in the elections.
The outlook in France, which will almost inevitably impact the thorny issues now confronting Europe, will hinge on the voter who will have to decide between a Left, that is strong on ideology, and a Left that has trimmed its sails to the winds of change. The racist and Islamist turmoil within France has had its impact on the Left, as it has on the Far Right and the political spectrum generally. Small wonder that Valls is said to be seeking traction in an election that is expected to see the country tilt to the right.
With voters across Europe moving to the right, it is hard not to wonder whether the Left is also poised for a Right turn. The final-round battle between Hamon and Valls will be an encounter between two wings of the Socialist party, which has been bitterly divided throughout François Hollande’s troubled presidency.
As much as the country, the French Left is on the turn.