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Europe

French Left heads to primaries in sorry state

Five years after sweeping France's presidential and legislative elections, the Socialists are in a sorry state ahead of the first round of primaries: deeply unpopular and divided. Elizabeth Bryant reports from Paris.

France's president goes to the theater instead of watching his own party's primary debate. His former prime minister ducks a blow from an irate citizen. And whoever becomes the Socialist's pick for president this month has very little chance of winning the spring elections, polls and pundits say.

"The situation is absolutely desperate for the Socialists," says Paris-based analyst Bruno Cautres. "The most important thing about Francois Hollande's mandate is the Socialists have lost their identity."

So low have they sunk that Hollande, his ratings at rock bottom, announced last month he would not seek re-election. He made headlines most recently by choosing to see a play in Paris instead of catching the second TV debate, opting to watch a replay.

Looking ahead

Given deep voter disenchantment, it might seem normal for a leftist politician to sit out this election season. Yet no fewer than seven are on the ballot for the primaries, which are open to all French voters for the price of two euros. Among them: former Prime Minister Manuel Valls, three former ministers and three members of other leftist parties.

"In France, it's OK for politicians to suffer a setback, in some cases it's considered positive," says political scientist Jean Petaux of Sciences Po Bordeaux University. "They're positioning themselves for the next elections."

Valls embodies the party's more centrist leanings, although he has since tried to adopt more leftist rhetoric as candidate. As prime minister for much of Hollande's presidency, he pushed through controversial labor and security measures, sometimes ramming them through parliament with the help of a constitutional measure he now calls for repealing.

"Valls' strategic error was participating in the effort to keep Hollande from running," Petaux told DW. "That means he'll be held accountable for the errors of the past five years."

Frankreich Francois Hollande und Manuel Valls nach einer Kabinettssitzung (picture alliance/AP Photo/M. Euler)

Valls (right) is seen to be too close to Hollande to stand a chance of making the presidential runoff in May

Outside challengers

His main rivals embody the party's left wing. Flamboyant former economy minister Arnaud Montebourg champions anti-austerity, protectionist policies summed up by his 'Made in France' motto.

The dark-horse candidate is another ex-minister, Benoit Hamon, who wants to legalize marijuana and introduce a universal basic income of 750 euros ($800) a month.

Both fans of the firebrand US senator Bernie Sanders, Hamon and Montebourg are running neck-and-neck in the polls, behind Valls. Surveys suggest one of them will win the January 29 second-round runoff against the former prime minister, scooping up backing and supporters from the other.

But none appears to stand a chance of making the presidential runoff in May, much less winning it. Indeed, their biggest rivals for the leftist banner aren't even running in the primaries, which some already fear may suffer from low turnout.

An Odaxa survey this week looking at candidates from both the left and right, finds 32 percent of French citizens have a favorable opinion of far-left veteran Jean-Luc Melenchon. Topping the ratings is Hollande's maverick ex-economy minister, Emmanuel Macron, who describes himself as an independent, with 40 percent support.

Another poll this week placed Macron third, behind conservative frontrunner Francois Fillon and far-right National Front candidate Marine Le Pen. There were even rumors, denied by his office, that Hollande was considering backing Macron, a former protege whose candidacy was considered by some as a betrayal.

"In the beginning of the Emmanuel Macron story, everyone believed he was only the creature of the media," analyst Cautres told DW. "Now we see it corresponds to voter expectations for new faces in French politics."

Time for rebuilding?

For the Socialists, the elections mark a humbling end to five years in power that saw France hit by three major terrorist attacks, unemployment that peaked at 13 percent, and a series of rolling strikes over what economists describe as mostly modest reforms.

Hollande's presidency has been "an immense waste," lamented the leftist mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, in an interview with Le Monde newspaper, saying it had led the left "to a state of absolute confusion."

The party's very foundations have crumbled, Le Monde wrote in a separate editorial - including its traditional working class support base "which has yielded to the populist sirens of the National Front."

Marine Le Pen - Pressekonferenz (DW/E. Bryant)

Marine Le Pen has managed to tap into the Left's traditional working class base

Petaux believes history will judge Hollande more kindly. Nonetheless, he faults the party, which still venerates its long-dead icon Francois Mitterrand, for failing to capitalize on its years out of power.

"The Socialists did not work on a new political program or project during that time," he says, judging their 2012 presidential and parliamentary win more a repudiation of unpopular, center-right leader Nicolas Sarkozy.

"You can't mistake victory for strength," he adds.

If the Socialists lose power this year, as expected, this may finally be the time for reflection and rebuilding.

"The party needs to work on transforming itself, a bit like under Tony Blair with New Labor," Petaux says of the former UK prime minister, who helped to salvage and re-brand his battered party in the 1990s. "There we saw a real ideological revolution."

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