THE decisive victory of François Hollande at the Socialist Party primary yesterday marks the countdown to France’s 2012 presidential election. A former party leader and long-time apparatchik, Mr Hollande secured 57% of the vote, next to 43% for his rival, Martine Aubry, the mayor of Lille. His nomination was backed by all four of the defeated first-round candidates, and the margin of victory was clear, raising hopes among left-wing voters that he will be able to unify the party around his candidacy.
In a telling image broadcast live last night, Mr Hollande embraced Ms Aubry and each of the defeated first-round candidates before cheering crowds outside the Socialist headquarters on the Paris left bank. It was a carefully orchestrated show of unity, after a campaign that had exposed not only ideological but personal differences among the candidates.
Beside Mr Hollande stood a grinning Arnaud Montebourg, whose protectionist campaign for “deglobalisation” secured him a surprise 17%, and third place, in the first-round vote, and even Ségolène Royal, Mr Hollande’s former partner and mother of their four children, who was beaten into fourth place in the first round with just 7%.
In the end, Mr Hollande benefited from his poll lead as favourite both to win the nomination, and to beat Nicolas Sarkozy, the incumbent president, in next spring’s election. Mr Montebourg, who took great delight between the first and second rounds in playing an extravagant courtship game with the two finalists, finally announced that he would vote for Mr Hollande—but only because he looked the better-placed to win the presidency. Mr Hollande has topped such polls ever since Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former IMF managing director, was excluded from the race after his arrest in New York on sexual-assault charges that were later dropped.
The Socialist primary exercise has put the party in extraordinarily buoyant mood. For one thing, turn-out, already high in the first round, was even stronger yesterday, with 2.8m votes cast by left-leaning voters. This has lent the party a fresh, modern air.
For another, the Socialists now seem set to rally behind Mr Hollande, an instinctive consensus-seeker. Last time round, when Ms Royal won the primary to become the Socialists’ 2007 presidential candidate, the party was deeply divided, and she led her somewhat solitary election campaign from outside the party hierarchy.
This time, Mr Hollande has urged unity, and reached out to his defeated rival. Like the Labour Party ahead of Britain’s 1997 general election, the French Socialists seem to be so fed up with losing elections that they will do whatever it takes to win. The last presidential election they won was in 1988.
Although all polls suggest that Mr Hollande would beat Mr Sarkozy hands down were the presidential vote held today—one this month gave him 60% next to Mr Sarkozy’s 40%—there are plenty of obstacles in the way.
One is that Mr Hollande now has to try to reconcile the left wing of his party, represented by Mr Montebourg, with the social-democratic middle. He needs the left-wingers if only to stave off a far-left threat from outside the party, where a grumpy anti-establishment politician, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, enjoys support.
Yet Mr Hollande also needs to appeal to the centre if he is to pick up voters disillusioned with Mr Sarkozy. This will mean some complicated political gymnastics, and will expose him to a charge of incoherence that the right has already identified. During the primary campaign, Mr Hollande called in one breath for ambitious deficit-reduction and in another for the creation of up to 70,000 new teaching jobs.
Mr Sarkozy, who has yet to declare his candidacy, has been notably absent from the airwaves in recent months. Once he throws in his hat officially, the poll gap between the two politicians could narrow, not least because the president is a formidable campaigner.
Mr Sarkozy will doubtless make much of the inexperience of Mr Hollande, who has never held a ministerial job. Mr Hollande will point to rising debt and deficits on Mr Sarkozy’s watch. In the end, the choice will be only partly political: it will also be between a big hyperactive personality with experience but mixed results, and a largely charisma-free alternative in Mr Hollande, who campaigns as a “normal” candidate. After the whirlwind of Mr Sarkozy, that could just be what voters want.