French Socialists seek to fight gloom over election chances

Candidates in TV debate clash over term of outgoing President

PARIS • France's Socialist candidates sought to fight widespread pessimism about their party's chances in this year's presidential election as they held their first televised debate ahead of a primary contest later this month.

More than 21/2 hours of intense discussion on Thursday saw the seven candidates frequently clashing over the term of outgoing Socialist President Francois Hollande that has demoralised and fractured the French left.

Recent polls suggest that whoever wins the Socialist primary, to be held on Jan 22 and Jan 29, would finish a humiliating fifth, or worse, if the election was held now.

Centrist ex-prime minister Manuel Valls has the most government experience among the candidates, but he faces a stern challenge from more left-wing rivals and past Cabinet colleagues Arnaud Montebourg and Benoit Hamon, polls show.

"We are here to debate in front of the French people to show that the left is still useful," Mr Valls said early in the debate, which was shown live on national television.

WHAT'S LEFT

We are here to debate in front of the French people to show that the left is still useful.

FORMER PRIME MINISTER MANUEL VALLS

In office until last month, he was frequently forced to defend his and Mr Hollande's record, particularly over economic reforms rammed through Parliament despite deep unease in the party.

The discussion would have made uncomfortable viewing for the absent Mr Hollande, who decided not to seek re-election last month in the face of catastrophic polling numbers.

Mr Montebourg, who was sacked from the government in 2014 after criticising Mr Hollande's economic policies, called the President's record "difficult to defend".

Earlier in the day, the high-profile Socialist mayor of Paris, Ms Anne Hidalgo, described Mr Hollande's four-year term in office as an "immense waste".

"We can win it in four months," Mr Montebourg said in concluding remarks, referring to the first round of the presidential vote in April. "Our biggest enemy is defeatism."

The charismatic former lawyer, who is a fierce critic of multinational companies and the European Union, wants to unleash a massive state spending plan to jump-start France's sluggish economy.

Polls currently predict that the election will come down to a second-round battle in May between right-wing nominee Francois Fillon and far-right candidate Marine Le Pen. Mr Fillon is currently forecast to win that contest.

The election is seen as highly unpredictable, however. The full range of candidates is still unknown and Western democracies are in a period of tumult due to a surge in anti-elite and anti-immigration feelings. French voters say jobs, security and immigration are among their top concerns.

The Socialists say they are expecting a few million voters to turn out to pick their contender in the two-round primary contest.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 14, 2017, with the headline 'French Socialists seek to fight gloom over election chances'. Print Edition | Subscribe