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Elysee Palast in Paris
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

The Socialists who want to lead France

Mara Bierbach
January 12, 2017

Seven candidates are vying to be crowned the Socialist's candidate for the French presidential election. As they hold their first TV debate, here's all you need to know about frontrunner Manuel Valls and his challengers.


After the French Republicans crowned Francois Fillon their candidate for the upcoming presidential election, all eyes shifted to the Socialist party. The first of four television debates between the politicians aiming to lead French left takes place Thursday.

Seven politicians - four candidates from the Socialist party and three candidates from smaller parties affiliated with the Socialists - are fighting to win the first primary on January 22. Currently, no candidate is expected to win an outright majority - the top two finishers will thus likely face each other in a second primary on January 29. Who are the six men and one woman hoping to convince French progressives with their vision for the future?

Frankreich ehemaliger Premierminister und Vorwahl-Kandidat der Sozialisten Manuel Valls
Image: Getty Images/AFP/T. Zoccolan

Manuel Valls - the centrist frontrunner

Current polls show centrist Manuel Valls as the primary's likely winner. Despite the fact that he is seen as a close ally to wildly unpopular departing President Francois Hollande, Valls is currently polling at around 40 percent. He served as prime minister under Hollande from 2014 to 2016 and interior minister for two years before that. The multilingual son of a Spanish painter and a Swiss educator is considered to be part of the right-wing of the Socialist party. Valls has championed business-friendly policies, immigration quotas and a ban of headscarves in public institutions.

Frankreich Vorwahlen-Kandidat der Linken und ehemaliger Wirtschaftsminister Arnaud Montebourg NEU
Image: Getty Images/AFP/M. Bureau

Arnaud Montebourg - the left-wing favorite

Valls' closest contender is Arnaud Montebourg, a prominent voice among the left wing of the Socialist party. The former economy minister lost his cabinet post in 2014, after speaking out against Hollande's shift to more pro-business economic policies. He once called himself the "French Bernie Sanders" and is staunchly anti-austerity. Montebourg favors a strong government and economic protectionism. Current surveys show him narrowly beating Valls in a run-off.

Frankreich Vorwahlen-Kandidat der Linken Benoit Hamon
Image: Getty Images/AFP/P. Guyot

Benoit Hamon - the leftist wildcard

Rounding out the top three candidates is another prominent critic of President Hollande. Benoit Hamon quit his post as education minister in 2014 to protest the president's policy shift to the right. A member of the Socialists' left-wing, he is currently polling at just over 20 percent against all seven candidates, though a head-to-head against frontrunner Valls shows him only slightly behind. Hamon has criticized German Chancellor Angela Merkel's push for austerity in the European Union. Like Valls, Hamon has an international background - as a child, he spent four years in Senegal.

Frankreich Sozialist Vincent Peillon stellt sein Programm vor
Image: Getty Images/AFP/B. Guay

Vincent Peillon - the philosopher

The fourth Socialist competing for the nomination is seen as the least likely party member to make it to the second round of the primaries, polling at just under 10 percent. Former education minister Vincent Peillon has attempted to present himself as the candidate of "unity," as opposed to staunch leftists Hamon and Montebourg, or the pro-business Valls, who is despised by many in the left-wing of his party. Peillon, a former teacher, is currently a member of the European Parliament and holds a doctorate in philosophy.

Frankreich PRG-Kandidatin Sylvia Pinel
Image: Getty Images/AFP/J. Saget

Sylvia Pinel - the (not at all radical) radical

The youngest and only female candidate in the race for the presidential nomination is the head of the Radical Left Party (PRG), a small party closely allied with the Socialists. Unlike the name might suggest, the PRG tends to take center-left, not radically left-wing positions. Pinel, who studied European law, became a member of the French parliament as a 29-year old in 2007. She served as housing minister and minister for trade and tourism under Hollande. Experts see it as unlikely that any of the three candidates from smaller parties will win the nomination. They are currently all polling in the single digits, though Pinel does slightly better than smaller party competitors. 

Frankreich Sozialist Francois de Rugy stellt sein Programm vor
Image: Getty Images/AFP/A. Jocard

Francois de Rugy - the Green candidate

A former member of the Ecological Party, Francois de Rugy split from the ecological faction in the French National assembly in 2016 to support the Hollande administration. The self-described "ecological candidate" is currently polling at around 2 percent.

Frankreich Vorwahlen-Kandidat der Linken ind Präsident der Front Democrate Jean-Luc Bennahmias
Image: Getty Images/AFP/E. Piermont

Jean-Luc Bennahmias - the centrist outsider

The founder of the center-left micro-party Democratic Front is currently polling at around 1 percent. At 62, Jean-Luc Bennahmias, a former member of the European Parliament, is the oldest candidate.

Facing an uphill battle

Whoever wins the Socialist nomination will face an uphill battle. Incumbent Hollande decided not to run again amid abysmal approval ratings for him and his Socialist-led government. On top of that, two popular leftist politicians have declared that they will run for the presidency independently from the Socialist party. Former economy minister Emmanuel Macron is running on a centrist platform, while Jean-Luc Melenchon from the Left Party considers the Socialists not leftist enough. Macron is currently polling ahead of all Socialist candidates.

Conservative candidate Francois Fillon and Marine Le Pen of the National Front are thus far expected to win a majority of votes in the first round of the general presidential election in April. They would then face each other in a second election in May.

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