The seven candidates for France’s centre-left presidential nomination showed their profound differences on the economy and the EU on Thursday night even as they scramble to pull together a fractured Socialist party ahead of a widely expected crushing defeat in the spring.
A little more than a week before the first round of primary elections, the presidential hopefuls quarrelled on primetime television over the legacy of the deeply unpopular presidency of François Hollande, who ruled out a re-election bid last month.
Arnaud Montebourg, former economy minister, and Benoît Hamon, former education minister, directed implicit jabs at Manuel Valls, the former prime minister. Both were ousted from government by Mr Valls in 2014 and inspired a parliamentary rebellion against his business-friendly reforms.
Asked to describe Mr Hollande’s term, Mr Montebourg, from the left of the party, judged his term as “hard to defend”. Mr Hamon expressed disappointment, saying the Socialist presidency had left him with a “taste of unfinished business”.
Vincent Peillon, a former education minister and latecomer to the race, took aim at the government’s “brutality” that had “fuelled divisions” — a clear reference to Mr Valls’ use of a constitutional clause to force through legislation without the consent of parliament.
On the defensive, the former premier sought to emphasise his experience in dealing with an unprecedented wave of Islamist terror attacks, calling for a united front against the far-right leader Marine Le Pen and centre-right politician François Fillon. who are predicted to face each other in the runoff round of the presidential elections on 7 May.
Since stepping down as head of government, the Barcelona-born Mr Valls, a social democrat with pro-business leanings, has had to veer to the left of the party to keep a fragile lead in the primary contest. In tune with a centre-left electorate that has shifted to the right on economic and security matters, Mr Valls is predicted to emerge ahead in the primary’s first round on January 22. But two surveys recently suggested he could be beaten by Mr Montebourg in the primary’s second-round runoff on January 29. Mr Hamon, a leftwinger who advocates a 32-hour working week and taxes on robots to fund a universal basic income, has moved into third place and is expected to join forces with Mr Montebourg.
Whoever wins the Socialist nomination is unlikely to prevent a beating in presidential elections. With former economy minister Emmanuel Macron running as an independent, Mr Valls is predicted to attract only 10 per cent of the vote in the first round on 23 April. But the choice of nominee is likely to determine the line of the Socialist party for many years to come.
On Thursday evening, tensions flared over the €40bn in tax breaks the ruling Socialist government granted to companies to help restore profits. The policy failed to curb unemployment of nearly 10 per cent.
Mr Montebourg and Mr Hamon vowed to overturn Mr Valls’ jobs bill, which triggered mass union protests last year and did not obtain a majority in parliament. Mr Montebourg lashed out at EU-induced “austerity”, calling the Brussels deficit target of 3 per cent of gross domestic product “absurd and archaic”.
Mr Valls, meanwhile, appealed to unity. “I want to win,” he pleaded.
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