Thursday, 13 October 2011

The French Socialist Primaries

For the first time in France the Socialist Party is selecting its presidential candidate by a process similar to the American primaries. A timetable was established in October 2009 and nominations closed on 13th July 2011. There have been three televised debates between the candidates so far and at the first round of voting over 2 million votes were cast. Last night the fourth debate took place between the leading candidates for the second round on Sunday, Martine Aubry, the party’s First Secretary since November 2008; and François Hollande, who held the same post between 1997 and 2008.

Part of the agreed process was that before the Primaries took place, a set of policy positions was agreed by the Party and published as “Le Changement”. Only one or two of the candidates in the first round departed from this document, which amounts to the Socialist Party’s manifesto. They were able to do so because they were not front runners, and felt that expressing their opinions might act to harden the public statements of the two leading candidates.

I watched the televised debate last night and there was not much to choose between the two. François Hollande was tense at the start, but he seemed to me to be more succinct and direct when stating the policies he believed in like Banking, Taxation and Fiscal reform. When he didn’t want to answer a question, like when he was asked about reducing the number of fonctionnaires (government employees), he was not very skilled at avoiding it.

Martine Aubry, on the other hand seemed more relaxed and gave a polished performance but often less detailed and direct.

Of course when listening to the debate as a Brit you are very aware that the interviewers are exceedingly respectful and rarely ask difficult or awkward questions of a candidate who could be the next president. Most of them are public employees and there have been examples of well known TV personalities losing their jobs because they upset Sarkozy during his campaign. So almost all the questions were based on the Socialist Party’s programme and of course there was no right of reply from the other parties.

Normally parity of air time is very strictly maintained between political rivals. In this case, for instance, each candidate had a clock in front of their desks showing how long they had talked for. But this aspect is troubling the media because the Primaries are solely a Socialist Party matter and so they have had, during the series of debates, eight hours of free television time to deliver their message to the public without any challenges.

There is also a strange flaw in these Primaries. Anyone with an electoral registration card can vote! You don’t need to be a member of a left wing party, although you do have to sign a document saying that you support the values of the left! Theoretically, the right could have influenced the outcome by voting for the weakest candidates, but they do not seem to have intervened. I am not sure whether the public just haven’t understood this yet, or there is an unusual sense of “le Fair Play” at work!

How different all this is from the last Presidentielle in 2007! Then the defeated candidate, Segolene Royale, who has just suffered a humiliating defeat in the first round of the Primaries, was selected only a few months before the election. There was no agreed socialist programme and at times she was making it up as she went along. And against Sarkozy it sounded like it!

Who was the Socialist Party’s First Secretary then? François Hollande. And this time around, who was responsible for guiding the often fractious socialists towards, firstly a set of agreed polices, and secondly the Primaries? Martine Aubry.

I think that if people remember this it could be very telling in the next round on Sunday! 

On the other hand they may remember the laws, which carry her name, "Les Lois Aubry", and were passed  under the Jospin government.  These introduced the maximum 35 hour working week and, it is now generally accepted, were disastrous for business competitivity!


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