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Hollande’s tease over 2017 candidacy leaves left adrift

French President Francois Hollande smiles during a ceremony for the start of the week of the retired and elderly people at the Elysee presidential Palace on October 4, 2016 in Paris.  / AFP PHOTO / POOL / PHILIPPE WOJAZER

French President Francois Hollande smiles during a ceremony for the start of the week of the retired and elderly people at the Elysee presidential Palace on October 4, 2016 in Paris. / AFP PHOTO / POOL / PHILIPPE WOJAZER

As France’s Socialists fine-tune arrangements for their presidential election primary, their deeply unpopular standard bearer Francois Hollande is keeping everyone guessing about whether he will stand, leaving the left in disarray.

The president, whose approval rating is languishing in the mid-teens largely because of a dismal economic record, will only decide after the right-wing Republicans party nominates its candidate in late November.

“If I go for it, it will be to win, not just to take part,” Hollande told the Journal du Dimanche (JDD) at the weekend.

On Wednesday, the Socialists were just getting around to setting up a supervisory body for their two-round primary, set for January 22 and 29.

Five candidates are in the running so far.

Meanwhile, Marine Le Pen, the undisputed leader of the far right, is already in full campaign mode, unencumbered by rivals and set for a predicted first- or second-place showing in the first round of the presidential vote on April 23.

The Republicans’ primary next month is shaping up to be a close race between veteran former prime minister Alain Juppe and Nicolas Sarkozy, who lost the presidency to Hollande in 2012.

While Hollande claimed that his decision would not depend on who emerges as the Republicans’ nominee, when asked whether he might stand aside, the 62-year-old leader told the JDD: “Of course! Otherwise I wouldn’t wait until December.”

– Toxic for party –
Whatever Hollande decides, the delay has already been toxic for the Socialist Party.

Hollande’s 38-year-old economy minister Emmanuel Macron, bursting with ambition if rather short on experience, quit his post in August to position himself for a possible presidential run as a centrist.

Prime Minister Manuel Valls — who has carefully cultivated his brand as a strict Hollande loyalist but who is widely expected to run if his boss steps aside — had harsh words for the upstart.

“At this moment, you cannot leave, you cannot desert,” said Valls, whose support stood at 23 percent in a recent hypothetical lineup. “There is no place for individual adventures.”

Hollande’s party is even more exposed on its left flank, which is in open revolt, having dissented as one over the labour reforms that brought millions into the streets this year.

Two former ministers — Macron’s predecessor Arnaud Montebourg and ex-education minister Benoit Hamon — are among the candidates in the left’s primary.

After the Republicans’ primary, Hollande will have less than two months — straddling the end-of-year holidays — to make his case for nomination, something of a humilitation for an incumbent that underlines his weakness.

“It’s totally unheard of that an outgoing president is prepared to go along with” a nomination contest, said pollster Jerome Fourquet.

– Hollande or bust? –
The party’s first secretary, Jean-Christophe Cambadelis, insists Hollande remains the Socialists’ only hope, saying if he doesn’t run, the party will “explode”.

In any case, according to the polls, no Socialist can even make it past the first round, with a right-wing candidate and the unchallenged far-right Le Pen virtually assured of berths in the May 7 presidential runoff.

When Le Pen’s father Jean-Marie passed the first hurdle in France’s 2002 election, eventually losing to Jacques Chirac, “it was a surprise, almost an accident,” Fourquet said.

Today, 25 to 30 percent of voters say they are for Marine Le Pen, whose popularity is bouyed by Europe’s worst migrant crisis since World War II, coupled with a string of jihadist attacks in France.

Le Pen established her credentials by winning 18 percent in the first round of the 2012 presidential vote, behind the incumbent Sarkozy and eventual winner Hollande.

Wags say that one way for Hollande loyalists to boost his chances would be to keep Juppe out of the running by voting for Sarkozy in the Republicans’ primary — since anyone can take part in that vote regardless of their political leanings, as long as they pay two euros ($2.25).

“It’s a cruel fate for the man on the left to have to vote on the right to avoid the worst,” the satirical weekly Canard Enchaine wrote on Wednesday.

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