Successful primaries give French socialists momentum

François Hollande secured a clear victory in France's unprecedented open socialist primaries. Now he

As Hollande stated, the vote was a victory not only for him but also for the French left. Extensive media coverage, a high turnout of 2.7 million voters and a decisive result will give the socialist candidate greater democratic legitimacy and momentum. An incredible 6 million viewers watched the final TV debate on Sunday between Hollande and the runner-up, Martine Aubry.

Known by some as the Iron Lady of French politics (albeit on the left), Aubry was gracious in defeat and immediately called for the party to unite after the primaries. Supporters were singing football and rugby-inspired songs, repeating the slogan "tous ensemble, tous ensemble (all together)" outside the Party's headquarters on the Rive Gauche.

Open primaries were initially suggested by a progressive think tank, Terra Nova, and encouraged by a few reformist leaders with a modernising agenda. Opening up the selection of the Party's candidate, they argued, meant fully embracing twenty-first century politics and would force the Parti Socialiste to go beyond its organisational structure and address the concerns of society as a whole.

Political differences seemed to emerge between the two finalists between the first and second rounds. Aubry was portrayed as the traditionalist left-winger and Hollande the centre-left moderniser. But Martine et François have a lot in common. They are from the same generation, in their 50s. She is the biological daughter and he the spiritual son of Jacque Delors, the former President of the European Commission, and the two of them worked closely with Lionel Jospin. They both attended the Ecole Nationale d'Administration, the elite institution that trains senior public servants. There are a few differences in policy emphasis, but what distinguishes them mostly is their style and personality.

Essentially, Hollande won because he is seen as the candidate best placed to beat Nicolas Sarkozy. He is an impressive orator, a steady and calm figure compared to the hyperactive, petulant President. But will this be enough for the PS to finally return to power next year?

Three million voters took part in the primaries, but 20 million are needed to ensure the victory of the left next year. The French socialists haven't won a Presidential election since the re-election of François Miterrand in 1988. Their last whiff of power came to an abrupt end when the incumbent Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin, failed to get through to the second round in the Presidential elections in 2002. Being beaten into third place by the National Front's Jean-Marie Le Pen is a deep scar in the French socialists' collective consciousness.

Perhaps the left's successive defeats will help Hollande keep the traditionally fractious PS unified. He will probably make use of the defeated primaries candidates during the campaign to show that he is a leader willing to unite and use the talents of his party. The overwhelming feeling within the Party is that unity has to be now or never. The party machine is therefore ready for the battle, with an enlarged army and a solid programme.

In the most recent poll, Hollande is at 63 per cent, with Sarkozy on 38 per cent. But the socialists can't take anything for granted. The President is trying to tone down his hyperactive personality and appear more presidential. The recent arrival of his baby with Carla Bruni will probably give him a bounce in polls.

The media attention and the turnout during the primaries are clearly cause for concern for the French right. Ministers and MPs from the governmental majority -- and even Sarkozy -- successively raised legal concerns, expressed exasperation about the intense media coverage, criticized the candidates and their programmes, but, in the end, proved unable to deal a blow to the left's new found democratic legitimacy.

The right is angry, the left is determined.

Determined to win the Presidential elections for the first time in over two decades.

The primaries were an effective prelude. Now the real battle commences.

Emma Reynolds is the Labour MP for Wolverhampton North East and Shadow Minister for Europe.

Axelle Lemaire is the French Socialist candidate for next year's French parliamentary elections for the new constituency of Northern Europe.

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Labour’s best general election bet is Keir Starmer

The shadow secretary for Brexit has the heart of a Remainer - but head of a pragmatic politician in Brexit Britain. 

In a different election, the shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer might have been written off as too quiet a man. Instead - as he set out his plans to scrap the Brexit white paper and offer EU citizens reassurance on “Day One” in the grand hall of the Institute of Civil Engineers - the audience burst into spontaneous applause. 

For voters now torn between their loyalty to Labour and Remain, Starmer is a reassuring figure. Although he says he respects the Brexit vote, the former director of public prosecutions is instinctively in favour of collaborating with Europe. He even wedges phrases like “regulatory alignment” into his speeches. When a journalist asked about the practicality of giving EU citizens right to remain before UK citizens abroad have received similar promises, he retorted: “The way you just described it is to use people as bargaining chips… We would not do that.”

He is also clear about the need for Parliament to vote on a Brexit deal in the autumn of 2018, for a transitional agreement to replace the cliff edge, and for membership of the single market and customs union to be back on the table. When pressed on the option of a second referendum, he said: “The whole point of trying to involve Parliament in the process is that when we get to the final vote, Parliament has had its say.” His main argument against a second referendum idea is that it doesn’t compare like with like, if a transitional deal is already in place. For Remainers, that doesn't sound like a blanket veto of #EUref2. 

Could Leave voters in the provinces warm to the London MP for Holborn and St Pancras? The answer seems to be no – The Daily Express, voice of the blue passport brigade, branded his speech “a plot”. But Starmer is at least respectful of the Brexit vote, as it stands. His speech was introduced by Jenny Chapman, MP for Darlington, who berated Westminster for their attitude to Leave voters, and declared: “I would not be standing here if the Labour Party were in anyway attempting to block Brexit.” Yes, Labour supporters who voted Leave may prefer a Brexiteer like Kate Hoey to Starmer,  but he's in the shadow Cabinet and she's on a boat with Nigel Farage. 

Then there’s the fact Starmer has done his homework. His argument is coherent. His speech was peppered with references to “businesses I spoke to”. He has travelled around the country. He accepts that Brexit means changing freedom of movement rules. Unlike Clive Lewis, often talked about as another leadership contender, he did not resign but voted for the Article 50 Bill. He is one of the rare shadow cabinet members before June 2016 who rejoined the front bench. This also matters as far as Labour members are concerned – a March poll found they disapproved of the way Labour has handled Brexit, but remain loyal to Jeremy Corbyn. 

Finally, for those voters who, like Brenda, reacted to news of a general election by complaining "Not ANOTHER one", Starmer has some of the same appeal as Theresa May - he seems competent and grown-up. While EU regulation may be intensely fascinating to Brexiteers and Brussels correspondents, I suspect that by 2019 most of the British public's overwhelming reaction to Brexit will be boredom. Starmer's willingness to step up to the job matters. 

Starmer may not have the grassroots touch of the Labour leader, nor the charisma of backbench dissidents like Chuka Umunna, but the party should make him the de facto face of the campaign.  In the hysterics of a Brexit election, a quiet man may be just what Labour needs.

What did Keir Starmer say? The key points of his speech

  • An immediate guarantee that all EU nationals currently living in the UK will see no change in their legal status as a result of Brexit, while seeking reciprocal measures for UK citizens in the EU. 
  • Replacing the Tories’ Great Repeal Bill with an EU Rights and Protections Bill which fully protects consumer, worker and environmental rights.
  • A replacement White Paper with a strong emphasis on retaining the benefits of the single market and the customs union. 
  • The devolution of any new powers that are transferred back from Brussels should go straight to the relevant devolved body, whether regional government in England or the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
  • Parliament should be fully involved in the Brexit deal, and MPs should be able to vote on the deal in autumn 2018.
  • A commitment to seek to negotiate strong transitional arrangements when leaving the EU and to ensure there is no cliff-edge for the UK economy. 
  • An acceptance that freedom of movement will end with leaving the EU, but a commitment to prioritise jobs and economy in the negotiations.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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