The men met for their weekly lunch as usual the day after Valls hinted in a Journal du Dimanche interview that he might run in the primary even if Hollande also put his name forward. The French president has so far declined to say whether he would try for a second term.
On the day that mainstream conservative party Les Républicains completed its orderly and successful primary, which ended with a resounding victory for long-time dark horse François Fillon, the Socialists seemed intent on compromising their chances of nominating a candidate with even a vague hope of making it past the first round of the presidential election, due April 23, 2017.
Ministers and party bigwigs attempted to play down the dispute, against all evidence — and some were reduced to urging their two bosses to “talk to one another,” in the words of Education Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem. Even the government’s official spokesman Stéphane Le Foll, who also serves as agriculture minister and is a long-time Hollande ally, took it upon himself to ask the two men to “have a frank explanation” of their differences.
“There won’t be a primary between the president and the prime minister, this doesn’t exist,” Le Foll said, although it was not clear if he was really in the loop. He added that if Valls wants to run, he should resign as prime minister.
The tension was so high on Sunday that the French presidency had to formally deny rumors that Hollande was about to fire Valls and replace him with Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve, a close ally.
At stake is who best to represent the Hollande-Valls position — that of the center-left governing Socialists — in the next election. It is challenged both from the outside — with perennial far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon and reformist former economy minister Emmanuel Macron — and from the inside, with two former Hollande ministers who oppose his economic policies running in the Socialist primary, to take place in January.
Commenting on the Right’s primary Sunday night on French television, Macron criticized Valls and said he ought to have resigned, as Macron did last August, before airing his disagreements with the president.
Valls’ ire against Hollande was triggered by the publication in October of the book “Un president ne devrait pas dire ça” (“A president shouldn’t say that”) in which the French leader candidly analyses his first term, his mistakes, and provides unrestrained commentary about his ministers and other politicians.
Valls has often criticized the book as bad for morale – both for the government and for the Socialist Party – but his exasperation mounted as Hollande seemed unable to make a decision whether to run and with the deadline for registering for the Socialist primary due on December 15.
The prime minister had always thought his turn to run for the presidency would only come in 2022, one of his aides recently recounted, but the prospect of an electoral disaster, should Hollande fail to mount an effective campaign, prompted him into action.
Hollande only recently realized that his prime minister was plotting against him. One presidential aide was quoted in Le Monde as saying: “We always thought Macron was the traitor. In fact, it’s Valls…”
Trepidation in the Socialist camp increased when Fillon emerged as the favorite, then the winner, of the conservative primary. That provides an opportunity to hit at what Valls called Fillon’s “tough on the poor, generous to the rich, brutal platform.”
Fillon projects an image of “composure, dignity” that is the opposite of former president Nicolas Sarkozy and he is a formidable adversary for the Left, Valls added.
If current polls are any measure, Valls’ chances of making it past the general election’s first round are as slim as Hollande’s. Furthermore, the French prime minister might not even win his party’s nomination. If the Socialist rank-and-file continues to support Hollande throughout his doomed presidency, they still hold Valls — who garnered only 7 percent of the vote when he ran in the Socialist primary in 2011 — in contempt.
The problem for the Socialist Party now is that if Hollande runs, Valls can no longer support him with any credibility. If Hollande gives up, he can try to get the party’s nomination but could well lose to Arnaud Montebourg, the former economy minister who is running on a protectionist, anti-EU, damn-the-Germans platform.
The Socialists are now at risk of being ridiculed in the presidential election. There is a strong likelihood that whomever they choose as candidate will come in fifth in the first round next spring — behind Fillon, Le Pen, Macron and Mélenchon.
“And in such falls, there’s no floor,” lamented a Hollande adviser Monday, noting that back in 1969, the Socialists garnered just 5 percent of the vote in the election that sent George Pompidou to the presidency.
Author: PIERRE BRIANÇO