The 2012 Parti Socialiste primary: a beauty contest?

More people have had a say in the Socialist candidate’s selection process thanks to the ‘open primary’ experiment. But this is not at all the same thing as the ‘democratisation’ of the decision-making process. In fact the kind of political contestation which can build new debates, and involve and engage new types of citizens, was systematically removed from the process.

Philippe Marlière
28 March 2012

Primaires Citoyennes

Primaires Citoyennes (‘Citizen Primaries’) were held in France in October 2011. This primary was deemed ‘open’ because all ‘left-leaning’ voters in France were eligible to select the left-wing candidate for the 2012 presidential election in April and May 2012. Although this was a project initiated by the Socialist Party (Parti Socialiste – PS), all left-wing parties were invited to take part in the selection process. In the end, only candidates from the PS and from the Radical Party of the Left (Parti Radical de Gauche – PRG) entered the race.


The PS in France has never technically speaking been a mass party. However it has always emphasised the importance of remaining a ‘party of activists’ as opposed to a ‘party of supporters’; that is to say a party which has ‘politicised’, ‘organised’ and politically ‘active’ members. If the PS is truly a ‘party of activists’ and not a ‘party of supporters’, one has to wonder why French Socialist activists have given up on keeping the selection of their presidential candidate to themselves. This is indeed an enigma which is worth understanding and explaining. As Richard S. Katz puts it:

‘Candidate selection is a vital activity in the life of any political party. It is the primary screening device in the process through which the party in public office is reproduced. As such, it raises central questions about the ideological and sociological identities of the party as a whole. Moreover, because different modes of selection are likely to privilege different elements of the party and different types of candidates, they may raise questions about the nature of the party as an organisation as well.’[1]

In France, some have represented the open primary as an event in the ‘democratisation’ of political life. They have also argued that by involving voters in the choice of candidate, the primary would help mobilise left-wing voters behind the selected candidate. What is more, partisans of the open primary expected the procedure to further ‘politicise’ party members, rather than make them redundant.

I want to critically examine those assumptions. Can an open primary ‘democratise’ the candidate selection process and, at the same time, strengthen the role of party members? It is also important to raise questions about the ideological and sociological implications of such a procedural change. Did the organisation of an open primary give voters a greater stake in party policy formation or more choice? Did it politicise and empower them? Conversely, might not this type of election be more similar to a beauty contest where questions of personal presence and alleged charisma take precedence over political substance?

The personalisation of an election

In 2009, Terra Nova, a think tank close to the PS, and centre-left media (Libération, Le Nouvel Observateur) progressively forced their pro-primary agenda on the PS. Except for Arnaud Montebourg, all party leaders were against the idea. The proponents of the primary pointed to the popular successes of the primary in the Italian Left in 2005 (over 4 million voters) as well as the popular dynamics created by the democratic primary which led to Barack Obama’s victory in 2008. 

The PS’s catastrophic result in the 2009 European election (16.48%) provided a window of opportunity for the pro-primary forces. The primary election was eventually adopted because party leaders considered that it would help diffuse a situation of crisis within the party, and help the party as a whole to improve its tarnished image following the disastrous Reims Congress in 2008. In Reims, Martine Aubry very narrowly beat Ségolène Royal to the post of party leader after an acrimonious campaign. Aubry’s supporters were accused of vote rigging.

There are also structural reasons to explain the party decision. Since the early 1990s, the PS has been transforming itself into an archetypal ‘cartel party’: professional politicians and their political advisors now represent a large chunk of the membership. Rank and file activists’ numbers are dwindling and political office-holders are overrepresented. The PS currently runs the overwhelming majority of regions and the major municipalities. It is a party deeply embedded in the political and economic institutions of the Fifth Republic. The PS appeals to educated people who compete for positions of power and jobs. Party factions which used to reflect ideological divides have been replaced by écuries présidentielles (‘presidential stables’), i.e. groups of members supporting presidential hopefuls.

The outing ( or exposure… to a wider public) of the party crisis by young party insiders with few political resources forced Martine Aubry - the leader of a party allegedly ‘in crisis’ - to make a U-turn. Aubry agreed to consult members about the organisation of an open primary. The party leader’s change of heart pre-empted a further offensive from the pro-primary lobby and disarmed Ségolène Royal, her main political opponent. On 1 October 2009, 68% of activists voted in favour of an open primary (45.95% turnout).

The rules of the game

As soon as the principle of a primary election was adopted, two questions arose:

-  When should the vote take place? Several months before the April-May presidential ballot or closer to it? François Hollande and other ‘smaller’ candidates were of the view that the candidate should be nominated several months before the election so that the primary could create a political dynamic leading to popular mobilisation. Friends of Dominique Strauss-Kahn wanted a primary shortly before the presidential election. DSK could not declare his candidacy before the end of 2011. As incumbent president of the International Monetary Fund, he had a duty of discretion and could not get involved in partisan politics. In the end, Aubry chose a compromise date, neither too early nor too late. Contenders had until 13 July 2011 to register their candidacy, and the two rounds were scheduled on 9 and 16 October 2011. In short, voting technicalities were conditioned by party rapports de force and leaders’ personal agendas.

-  Should it be a competitive primary (e.g. USA) or a formal vote to endorse the best placed candidate in the polls? The ‘smaller’ candidates wanted a real competition. DSK’s supporters preferred an uncompetitive election, i.e. an election but with no heavyweight opponent against him. Until his arrest in New York City in May 2011, DSK was largely ahead in the polls and therefore felt that he had everything to lose from a competitive vote. 

DSK: the making of an imaginary candidate

From January 2010, Dominique Strauss-Kahn took the lead in all the polls and was declared the ‘most presidential’ of all putative candidates. In February 2010, a TNS Sofres/Logica poll for Libération showed that only DSK could defeat Sarkozy. On 23 November 2010, Le Nouvel Observateur alleged that DSK was ‘invincible’. On 6 December 2010, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, one of the former student leaders during May‘68 in Paris, implicitly declared his support for the IMF director by saying: ‘Do we want to stand by our left-wing principles and lose, or do we want to defeat Sarkozy?’ On 14 April 2011, Le Figaro published a poll which allegedly showed that DSK would win an absolute majority in the first round of the presidential election! (Opinion Way-Fiducial) There is a rational explanation for DSK’s extraordinary and speculative ratings in the polls. The media and the public were seeing him as the most ‘right-wing’ of all Socialist candidates. DSK’s popularity was based on the fact that opinion polls test candidates’ profiles and personalities rather than policy. Furthermore, in these polls, he benefited from the overwhelming support of the conservative and centrist voters who were interviewed.

It follows that most party heavyweights started to rally around DSK. Aubry seemed to have given up on presenting her candidacy. Then, on 14 May 2011, the media bubble burst: DSK was arrested in New York, and the Socialist leaders who had allowed themselves to be intoxicated by those hypothetical polls were left shell-shocked. 

To sum up, agenda-setting and the control of the campaign timetable were all in the hands of the party leadership. In the run up to the primary vote, the party (endogenous force) and the media (exogenous force) were closely intertwined as the example of DSK’s ‘imaginary candidacy’ has shown.

Voting procedures, candidates and campaign

In order to participate in the open primary, voters had to:

-  Be registered on the French electoral rolls by 31 December 2010 or be a member of PS or PRG; 

-  Pay a minimum contribution of €1; 

-  Sign up to a Charter pledging to adhere to the values of the Left: ‘Freedom, equality, fraternity, secularism, justice, solidarity and progress’. 

The candidates had to be sponsored by Socialist office-holders. Only six of them managed to qualify: 

-  Martine Aubry, 61: PS leader, Mayor of Lille and minister in Lionel Jospin’s government. 

-  François Hollande, 57: Ex-party leader, deputy. 

-  Ségolène Royal, 58: Presidential candidate in 2007; President of the Poitou-Charentes region and twice minister. 

-  Arnaud Montebourg, 49: Deputy, President of the Council General of Saône-et-Loire; PS Secretary for Renewal (Chargé de la Rénovation); one of the major proponents of the primary in the PS. 

-  Manuel Valls, 49: Deputy, Mayor of Evry. 

-  Jean-Michel Baylet, 65: Senator; President of the general Council of Tarn-et-Garonne; former minister and President of the Radical Party of the Left. 

First round

The six candidates participated in three televised debates on 15 September, 28 September and 5 October 2011. All debates had excellent ratings (more than 5 million viewers, i.e. over 20% of audience share). They followed the same format: each candidate made a short introduction and conclusion. Each of them was grilled by different journalists on policy issues. Candidates could not challenge each other directly, so the situation was not conducive to critical exchanges between candidates.

Most French media agreed that it was hard to find major differences between the contenders. After the first debate, Le Monde newspaper noted that all candidates (including Arnaud Montebourg, allegedly the most left-wing of all) agreed that the reduction of public deficits would be the priority for any Socialist president, and that austerity measures would have to be implemented[2]. Policy disagreements were fairly marginal. Montebourg’s interventions contrasted with the other candidates insofar as he was critical of the way the crisis of the banking sector had been handled by European governments.

2,661,284 voters cast their ballots.

-  François Hollande: 39.17%.

-  Martine Aubry: 30.42%.

-  Arnaud Montebourg: 17.19%.

-  Ségolène Royal: 6.95%.

-  Manuel Valls: 5.63%.

-  Jean-Michel Baylet: 0.64%.

Second round 

Although the candidates allegedly represented different political and ideological orientations in the party (notably Montebourg was presented as a voice for the party Left), all ended up supporting Hollande, not on the grounds of political or ideological proximity, but because opinion polls were predicting his emphatic victory.

François Hollande and Martine Aubry contested a run-off election on 16 October 2011, after a televised debate held on 12 October 2011. In this debate, there was again little to separate the two on policy issues. In order to appeal to the more left-wing segments of the electorate, Aubry presented herself as the true flag-bearer of socialist values. During the debate, alluding to Hollande’s alleged elusiveness, Aubry said that she followed a ‘coherent political line’ and that her opponent was ‘vague’. Snapping at Hollande, she denigrated the ‘wimpy Left’ and regretted that her opponent had used so-called ‘right-wing terminology’ to discuss policy issues. Ironically, had DSK run for the primary, Aubry would have most probably ended up supporting him. Hollande, ahead in the polls, just had to lower the temperature of the exchange, wryly responding: ‘I am not from the sectarian Left’[3].

2,867,157 voters participated in the second round: François Hollande won with around 56.6% of the vote vs. 43.4% for Aubry, becoming the official candidate of the PS and its allies for the 2012 presidential election.

The appearance of change

The open primary vote was supposed to facilitate a democratic conversation on policy and political strategy. During the primary campaign, the public had little of it. In truth, the media and Socialist candidates spent a considerable amount of time gauging the ‘presidential profiles’ of candidates: do they look ‘presidential’ enough? Are they up to the job?

Hence the increased impact and influence of opinion polls throughout the campaign. This is not to say that opinion polls would have played no part in the campaign had the PS left the selection of their candidate to their members only. But it does mean that the open vote exacerbated the influence of the polls. There were 41 polls carried out before the first round. Most of them failed to meet basic standards in terms of sampling and methodology. Days before the first ballot, most announced that Hollande was largely ahead and predicted a crushing victory that never was. They all overestimated Ségolène Royal’s standing and underestimated Arnaud Montebourg’s[4].

An electoral study showed that there were greater turn-outs[5]:

-   In urban areas (where polling stations are more easily accessible);

-   In areas in which candidates hold a political office (the ‘friends and neighbours’ voting effect);

-   In areas where the PS has a strong network of activists on the ground.

Qualitative exit polls in urban polling stations have also shown that middle-class and middle-age voters with high cultural capital were overrepresented in the electorate, whereas lower class and younger voters had largely failed to turn up[6]. 

The end of a party of activists

In the Socialist tradition, the party fulfilled various functions that derived from its ideology and its ‘historical project’. Espousing an ‘emancipatory project’, the party was constitutive of an ideological melting pot which shaped a worldview. This entailed the politicisation of party members, but also the political socialisation of dominated groups. The selected candidate was on the whole acting as the propagator in chief of the party programme.

Today, the candidate attempts to convince, not the party members, but the electorate. It follows that the candidate has to literally disown the party programme. The PS adopted a programme in 2011 after months of debates and after amending several drafts before its adoption by party members. During the primary campaign, candidates scarcely referred to it. In order to distinguish themselves from one another, each of them came up with new policy proposals. Some contradicted aspects of the party programme. Now, no one in the party ever mentions the party programme. The primary has therefore led to the delegitimisation of the party programmatic function. It has also degraded the programmatic role of party activists. By externalising the candidate selection process, the PS has also externalised the policy function of the party. Think tanks and experts – often remote from party life – are now in charge of preparing the candidate’s programme.

The primary gives an instant taste of democracy (the act of voting), but it does not closely involve the voters or the party members in party decision-making. In the words of Tancredi Falconeri in the novel Il Gattopardo (The Leopard): ‘Everything must change so that everything will remain the same’. Seen in this light, the primary bears the marks of the ‘Leopard syndrome’: it is at best a failed attempt to empower party activists or to further politicise party life.

The primary is also, faute de mieux, a choice which suits the new type of party activism in social democratic parties: distant, pragmatic and on an ad hoc basis[7]. It is contributing to the further discrediting of a traditional style of activism (committed, loyal and permanent) and to the further diminution of the activists’ input into party life. The primary election effectively facilitates the replacement of the ‘activist’ by the ‘supporter’. In this new situation, the party member is more and more allocated election-related tasks (canvassing, organising the primary election locally), and less and less involved in political decision-making.

So has the primary helped ‘democratise’ the candidate selection process on the Left?

More people have had a say in the Socialist candidate’s selection process. From a purely quantitative perspective, there was ‘democratisation’. However, in terms of voter mobilisation and politicisation, there is scant evidence that the primary has had any significant impact: the party elite have remained firmly in command throughout the main stages of the campaign and during the vote. (Conditions of eligibility to run; vote timetable) The primary seems to have had no effect at all on oligarchic tendencies in political parties as described by Roberto Michels[8].

So everything has changed so that everything can remain the same? It is too early to say, but that could very well be the case. As the Red Queen puts it to Alice: ‘Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that’. If the PS wants to achieve its goals of party democratisation and empowerment of both its members and electorate, it must certainly do much more than organise an open primary election.


This is a revised and much shortened version of Philippe Marlière’s inaugural lecture which took place at University College, London, on 20 March 2012.


[1] R.S. Katz, ‘The Problem of Candidate Selection and Models of Party Democracy’, Party Politics, 7 (3), 2001, p. 277.

[2] C. Guélaud, T. Wieder, ‘Des Socialistes Convertis à l’Economie Libérale’, Le Monde, 17 September 2012, p. 10.

[3] A. Lemarié, ‘ Aubry Reproche à Hollande d’Employer “des Mots de Droite”.’, Le Monde, 13 October 2012, p. 12.

[4] A. Garrigou, ‘Primaire Socialiste: “Certainement” N’est Pas Certain’, Le Monde Diplomatique, 10 October 2011, http://blog.mondediplo.net/2011-10-10-Primaire-socialiste-certainement-n-est-pas

[5] J. Fourquet, ‘Géographie électorale des primaires socialistes’, Fondation Jean Jaurès, Note No. 113, December 2011, http://www.jean-jaures.org/Publications/Les-notes/Geographie-electorale-des-primaires-socialistes

[6] J. Audemard, D. Gouard, ‘Jeunesse et Milieux Populaires  Grands Absents de la Primaire’, Libération, 20 Octoer 2011, http://www.liberation.fr/politiques/01012366660-jeunesse-et-milieux-populaires-grands-absents-de-la-primaire


[7] P. Seyd, P. Whiteley, New Labour Grasroots: The Transformation of the Labour Party Membership, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2002 and C. Crouch, Post-Democracy, Oxford, Polity Press, 2004, p. 76.

[8] R. Michels, Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy, New York, Free Press, 1962 (first published in 1911),

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