Who Are the Candidates in France's Left-Wing Presidential Primary?

Manuel Valls
Former French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, Paris, September 5, 2016. Valls is the favorite to win the country's left-wing presidential primary. BERTRAND GUAY/AFP/Getty Images

Four years in power have not been kind to France's left. The sitting Socialist president Francois Hollande has been called the most unpopular since World War II. Polls suggest that no left-wing candidate will make it to the second round of voting in the presidential election in the spring.

But 2016 reminded us that politics is unpredictable and nobody can be ruled out for a shock victory. So as the French left gears up for a primary to choose its presidential candidate with the first round on January 22, here are the runners and riders for the job.


Manuel Valls —The Moderate

Spanish-born Valls, 54, served as prime minister in Hollande's government from 2014 until 2016, when he stepped down to launch his presidential bid. As such, he has the benefit of direct government experience, but the downside of association with a much-disliked administration at a time when anti-politics feeling is running high.

He will also face competition from Emmanuel Macron, a fellow alumnus of the Hollande government and a progressive centrist who is running separately from the left-wing primary as an independent.

At a campaign launch on Tuesday, Valls made sure to include a few nods to Euroscepticism; he said Europe needed to do more to restore sovereignty to members and help those who feel dispossessed by globalization. He has also spoken about the need to "reaffirm secularism" and to focus in particular on Islam, some tenets of which he has previously suggested are incompatible with French culture.

Policy cheat sheet: All welfare benefits to be merged into a single "decent income;" French budget deficit to be brought below 3 percent but above zero; opposes Turkey's bid to join the EU.
Poll rating: A December poll by Harris granted Valls 45 percent support in the first round of the primary.

Arnaud Montebourg —The 'French Bernie Sanders'

Montebourg, 54, also worked under Hollande—he was the president's economy minister until 2014—but was ousted for outspoken criticism of the administration.

A leftist unafraid of controversy, Montebourg blends protectionist economics with firey rhetoric; he said on announcing his bid in the summer of 2016 that Hollande had broken "the ideals of the left," and claimed to be inspired by Bernie Sanders's Democratic primary campaign. He said he would bring an end to the controversial labor market reforms introduced by the Hollande government, and introduce a 20 billion euro stimulus package aimed at boosting growth and bringing an "end to blind austerity." He also wants to give citizens (somewhat vague) new direct democratic powers to influence government policy.

But Montebourg faces a crowded field on the left, with fellow hardliner Benoit Hamon (see below) competing for the same primary votes, and leftist former education minister Jean-Luc Mélenchon running as an independent.

Policy cheat sheet: More economic stimulus, a "new treaty of Rome" to make Europe more democratic post-Brexit, more intervention in favor of French businesses, particularly in the tech sector.
Poll rating: Two polls in December put Montebourg in the mid-20s in the first round, a distant second behind Valls.

Benoit Hamon—The Other Leftie

Montebourg may have claimed the Sanders mantle but Hamon has been the primary candidate most excitedly touted by the far left outside of France. That's largely because of his commitment to a Universal Basic Income; a basic wage paid to all citizens (as opposed to Valls's "decent income," which is means tested).

It's a fashionable idea on the left, and one that Hamon argued in an article last year is necessary to "free our fellow citizens from the fear of the future and its financial uncertainties." Within his home country, Hamon also has leftist kudos thanks to his 2014 resignation over Hollande's pro-business reforms. But as it stands, he is trailing his rival Montebourg in the polls.

Policy cheat sheet: Basic income for all, more investment in ethical jobs in the "social and solidarity economy" and measures to address "burnout" at work, new direct democracy powers for citizens to suggest laws.
Poll rating: December polling put Hamon between 10 and 15 percent.

Vincent Peillon—The Liberal

A lateish entrant to the race—he only declared in mid-December—former education minister and Member of the European Parliament (MEP) Peillon is, like Valls, a moderate. He has defended Hollande against attacks from the left, and wants France to engage more passionately in EU affairs.

One area where he differs from Valls is his comparatively tolerant stance on Islam and secularism; where Valls last summer backed bans on the "Burkini" Muslim swimsuit, which he called a "provocation of radical Islam," Peillon opposed the policy.

Policy cheat sheet: Closer co-operation with Germany in the EU, a trillion euros of clean energy investment.
Poll rating: Peillon has not yet figured in any polls.


Sylvia Pinel: Leader of France's other major left-wing party, the Radical Party Of The Left.

François de Rugy: MP and green candidate.

Jean-Luc Bennahmias: Centrist and leader of the small Democratic Front political group.