French Socialists Eclipsed by Macron Before Sideshow Primary

  • Polls show Socialist candidate to lose in April’s first round
  • Valls, Montebourg, Hamon in three-way race for nomination

In the run in to the Socialist primary, frontrunner and one-time Prime Minister Manuel Valls drew just 150 listeners to his campaign event in northwest France Tuesday.

The night before some 2,800 gathered to listen to his former Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron in a nearby town, with another 1,000 left outside.

Emmanuel Macron

Photographer: Christophe Morin/IP3/Getty Images

Since Macron quit the government last year to mount an independent run for president, he’s seen his support build steadily, while the Socialists have been dragged down by the record-low approval ratings of the incumbent Francois Hollande. A Jan. 17 poll by BVA projected that turnout could dip below 2 million on Sunday, compared with 4 million who voted last year in the primary of the center-right Republicans.

Squeezed between their former colleague in the center and Communist-backed Jean-Luc Melenchon, polls give the Socialists little chance of making it past the first round of France’s election next April, whoever emerges from the two-round primary that begins Sunday.

“Emmanuel Macron is the great troublemaker of the French presidential race,” Martin Michelot, a non-resident fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, said in his blog. “He is not only deeply cutting into the margins of the Socialist Party and making the current primary look like an expensive exercise in futility, but also seems to be able to capture all the votes from the center.”

Several Socialist heavyweights, such as Lyon mayor Gerard Collomb, are already backing Macron, and press reports have said Energy Minister Segolene Royal and even President Hollande may eventually do the same.

Macron’s Chances

Macron’s speech in Quimper, Brittany, on Monday was routinely interrupted with chants of “Macron! President!” and many in the crowd said they had previously voted Socialist. At Valls’s meeting in Lamballe, most were elderly and many said they’d only shown up out of duty.

While Socialist primary voters are unlikely to be nominating the country’s next head of state, their decision will still shape the dynamics of the race, and Macron’s chances in particular.

The 39-year-old former investment banker is trying to consolidate votes from the left and the center of the political spectrum to challenge Republican Francois Fillon and the nationalist Marine Le Pen for the two slots in May’s runoff.

Le Pen Leads

Macron has the backing of 19 percent of voters for the first round of the presidential vote, according to an Ipsos Sopra Steria poll for Cevipof and Le Monde released Thursday, up from 15 percent in December. If the Socialists pick a more left-wing candidate such as Benoit Hamon or Arnaud Montebourg instead of Valls, Macron’s support rises to 21 percent, just 4 points behind Fillon who is running second.

Le Pen moved into the lead this month with about 26 percent. Ispos didn’t ask how people would vote in the run-off, though polls have routinely shown that she would lose to either Fillon or Macron.

Valls would win just 10 percent in the April 23 first round of the presidential election, well behind Melenchon on 15 percent. Former minister Montebourg or Hamon would fare even worse, receiving just 7 percent.

An Elabe poll for Jan. 18 said Valls and Hamon are tied at 28 percent ahead of the primary, with Montebourg just behind at 24 percent. The other four candidates were all on 5 percent or less. The top two will face off in a run-off the following Sunday Jan. 29. Neither Elabe nor BVA asked how people would vote in the second round.

In their final debate Thursday night, the seven leftist primary candidates clashed over government spending with Valls and former education minister Vincent Peillon arguing for cutting France’s debt, and Hamon and Montebourg pushing for a more expansive government spending policy. Hamon was isolated in his call for a basic universal wage, with the others saying it would cost too much and undermine the labor market. Valls pushed his call for requiring all young people to do civic service for six months.

They all agreed that the European Union needed to cooperate more, especially on defense, to respond to U.S. President-elect Donald Trump’s expected isolationist policies.

A snap poll by Elabe said that among expected primary voters, Hamon was considered the debate’s winner by 34 percent, followed by Valls on 24 percent and Montebourg at 23 percent.

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