Nearly three million people took part in each of the French Socialist Party’s two rounds of voting to choose its presidential candidate for 2012.
The SP’s “primary” was partly modelled on the US primary system, but with a big difference. In most states of the USA, voters are obliged to declare a party affiliation when they register to vote (though they can register as “other”), and a Democrat or Republican affiliation gives them the right to vote in Democrat or Republican primaries.
The SP devised its own system of qualifying to vote in its primaries: voters had to pay one euro and sign a declaration of support for “the values of the left”.
Ed Miliband’s scheme to have “registered supporters” vote in Labour Party leadership elections is a pale version of the same idea. It has an additional downside, that in the Labour Party all the “leadership” functions are concentrated in one person. The SP has a “leader” — its “first secretary” — who is elected by the party, a different person from its presidential candidate, or president or prime minister if in office.
The SP is delighted with the turnout for the “primaries”, which was more than expected, and much more than the SP’s 200,000 membership.
Turnout was strongest in the south-west, in Brittany, and in Paris, and weakest in parts of eastern France, more or less in line with the SP’s electoral map. Anecdotally, turnout is reported to have been sizeable in the poorer working-class suburbs, where the organisation of the SP, despite its historic links with the labour movement, has long been weak.
The exercise has been praised by people beyond the SP as an advance in democracy and “a new way of doing politics”.
It showed that, like it or not, parliamentary-reformist and vaguely “social” politics of the SP’s type still have a grip.
But new democracy it is not. The voters have no control over what the selected presidential candidate does. Their vote is a passive “consumer” democracy, and much less than the active control that party members of a democratic mass party can, through democratic debate, exercise over the party’s candidates and representatives.
Six candidates ran in the first round on 9 October, and then François Hollande defeated Martine Aubry in the run-off on 16 October.
Armand Montebourg, who appeared the most left-wing of the candidates, won 17% in the first round, though on a nationalistic programme (“deglobalisation”).
The tone of the contest was a shade more left-wing than Labour politics in Britain. Aubry denounced Hollande as “soft left” and a “candidate of the system”.
That is not a merit of the primary system, but an attempt to respond to the mood of French voters. In France, only 30% of people will tell pollsters that the capitalist market is the best way of running economic life, while in Britain, the USA, Germany (and China!), around 60% do.
None of the SP presidential candidates proposed any clear-cut working-class policies, even on a reformist level.