French Socialist primaries: the week I felt sorry for the ‘third man’

This week, much media attention in France was devoted to Arnaud Montebourg, who came third in the first round of the Socialist Party primaries after François Hollande and Martine Aubry. Nobody expected him to do so well – he grabbed 17% of the vote – and his success immediately created a dilemma: who should he back for the run-off vote this Sunday?


The outspoken Montebourg ran on a platform of “deglobalisation” and belongs to the far left of the party. He says himself he has almost nothing in common with Hollande and Aubry, calling them “two sides of the same coin”. Nevertheless, he was still expected to somehow come out in favour of one or the other, as that’s what losing candidates do. After all, they all belong to the same party, right?


Arnaud Montebourg. (Photo: AFP).

This week, then, saw a cacophony of media statements from the Montebourg camp. First, he said that he would write Hollande and Aubry a letter asking for political pledges and would decide on that basis, but hinted that he might still not back either candidate. Next, we heard that he would “probably” choose to back one of them in the end. By Thursday, when he had still not made up his mind, his spokesman said he would back neither Hollande nor Aubry. Just shortly afterwards, his entourage contradicted that statement, saying he would indeed choose one of them, once he had finished “consultations” with the two front-runners. Clearly, the guy had a hard time deciding.


Finally, on Friday, the "third man" announced in an interview that he would not openly call on his voters to back either candidate. However, he himself would be voting for Hollande on Sunday, “in a personal capacity”.


Cruel dilemma


This messy compromise belies the cruel dilemma Montebourg must have faced this week – in a way, I felt sorry for him. Not only does he have little in common politically with either candidate, but he dislikes them both – especially Martine Aubry, since he sees her as defending a politician in the south of France, Jean-Noël Guérini, who is suspected of corruption.


Montebourg’s dilemma was compounded by the fact that Hollande is ahead in the polls and is therefore most likely to win on Sunday, and subsequently beat Nicolas Sarkozy in next year’s presidential poll. Moreover, all of the other losing candidates have now backed him (admittedly, one of them, Ségolène Royal, is the mother of their four children). So Hollande would therefore be the logical choice.


But this is where Montebourg’s past comes back to haunt him. During the presidential campaign in 2007, he ridiculed Hollande (and Royal) live on TV, a moment few journalists have forgotten (it was brought up again this week, with Montebourg saying he “regretted” the incident). Acting at the time as Ségolène Royal’s campaign spokesman, he declared that Royal “only has one fault, her partner” (a reference to Hollande, since he and Royal were still together at the time, at least officially). The journalists on set were gobsmacked and Royal suspended Montebourg from his functions as spokesman for one month.


Arnaud Montebourg ridicules François Hollande (in French), January 17th, 2007.


In light of all this, openly backing Hollande would probably have been a stretch too far for Montebourg.

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Very good take. Only the future will tell us if there has been some kind of arrangement behind the doors. If the left win...

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