Author: Nicholas Vinocur
PARIS — Manuel Valls, France’s Socialist former prime minister, said Wednesday he would back centrist Emmanuel Macron in an upcoming presidential election instead of his party’s own candidate, speeding the collapse of a major center-left force.
After weeks of internal debate and closed-door meetings with Socialist MPs, Valls told BFMTV that backing Macron was the best way to keep far-right leader Marine Le Pen from power winning power in May.
“I’m not going to take any risks,” said Valls, who lost a left-wing primary election to former education minister Benoît Hamon earlier this year.
Valls’ decision to back Macron — who is not a member of the Socialist Party and quit his cabinet post last year amid disagreement over policy — marks a watershed moment for French socialism. More than a slap in the face for Hamon, it accelerates the breakup of a party that took its current form in 1971 under ex-President François Mitterrand and stretches its roots to the turn of last century.
But the immediate effect was to bring up years of bottled acrimony. Former Industry Minister Arnaud Montebourg blasted Valls as a “man without honor” whose word meant “nothing.” MP Berger Karine Berger tweeted that Valls’ behavior was “pathetic.”
MP Mathieu Hanotin, another Hamon backer, said: “Manuel Valls chose to go back on his word (of backing the primary election’s winner)… This shows us a political class that is ready to do anything to stay in power.”
Between Hamon and Valls, there will be little love lost. The former education minister, who battled Valls’ government as a rebel backbencher for two years, has repeatedly accused his ex-boss of “betrayal”. Valls responded to the accusation last Sunday in an editorial where he accused Hamon, without naming him, of “cynicism” and “pretending” that the world beyond the socialist party “did not exist.”
Kiss of death?
Valls’ move raised two immediate questions: Will it help Macron get elected president next May, and what will it do to the Socialist Party?
On the first score, the answer is: marginally — with a risk of negative effects. Deeply unpopular by the end of his term in government, Valls won just under a million votes in the final round of a primary he lost against Hamon.
But many Valls supporters shifted their support to Macron on the day of Hamon’s victory. Their backing is largely factored into Macron’s overall support already. Some socialists may have been waiting for a signal from Valls, but not many.
Conversely, Valls’ support could prove toxic for Macron. It binds him more tightly to the legacy of France’s least popular president since World War II, allowing critics to argue that Macron is a “mini-me” version of President François Hollande who will pursue his policies once in office. The implied links to Valls and Hollande are especially repulsive to right-wing voters, whose moderate fringe may be tempted by Macron but would balk at voting for anything resembling a “socialist government.”
Wary of getting Hollande-ed, Macron is trying to keep the socialists at arm’s length. “I did not start a bed-and-breakfast, sorry to say,” he said earlier this month. “We started a political movement and I am a candidate for the presidency of the Republic.” He added that politicians who chose to join his movement were acting as “individuals” and not representatives of their group.
Long live the Socialist Party
On the question of the socialist party’s future, Valls’ departure hints at an imminent collapse — or at the least a radical reconfiguration that would leave the ruling group vastly diminished in size and more clearly positioned to the left.
During a speech Tuesday, Macron warned that anyone who wanted to run for legislative office for his En Marche! movement would first have to rescind any party membership. This was a signal to the 72 MPs who, according to a BFMTV tally, have already announced that they would join Macron’s movement that there would be no turning back.
Hamon heads into the election with the support of 192 MPs, against a formidable competitor to his left: firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon. More radical than Hamon and unimpeded by any party affiliation, Mélenchon is overtaking him in the polls and squeezing the socialist into a narrow box between himself and Macron.
“The Socialist Party as we have known it since 1971 is dead,” said Gerard Grunberg, a professor at the Sciences Po political science institute in Paris and specialist in left-wing politics. “Hamon’s mistake was not understanding that here is always someone who is more left-wing than you are. Mélenchon wants to kill the Socialist Party, which no longer has any credibility.”
While socialists attacked Valls for killing their party, Grundberg argued that its demise started much earlier — almost immediately after Hollande won power in 2012. Within months, a rebel wing of the party detached itself from government and began to fight its policies. Hamon joined their ranks after quitting his cabinet post in 2014, going so far as to sign a motion of censure against his own government.
“They are the ones who stopped their own government from governing,” Grundberg said of Hamon and the other socialist rebels. “The left did not let its party govern, although, of course, Hollande’s weak leadership plays an enormous part in this as well.”