With a week to go before the first round of France’s presidential election, Anne Hidalgo is languishing at under 2 percent in the polls. If those voter surveys bear out at the ballot box on April 10, the performance would mark a historic low for the embattled Socialist Party. And so a distinct sense of foreboding reigned as supporters gathered Sunday for Hidalgo’s rally in Paris, where she remains mayor, with the party already poised for a post-election ideological reckoning.
The 19th-century Cirque d’Hiver, a circus venue in Paris’s 11th arrondissement (district), is something of a good luck charm for Anne Hidalgo. It was here in 2014 that she wrapped up her first successful campaign for Paris City Hall. And so, as if to exorcise the hard luck of her beleaguered presidential bid and harken back to the good times, the Socialists chose to return to the covered colosseum on Sunday for her last presidential campaign rally with one more week to go.
As a sign of how far the party has tumbled, just five years after Socialist President François Hollande ceded the Élysée Palace torch to centrist rival Emmanuel Macron, the arena’s 2,000 seats were slow to fill on Sunday. A stark contrast with Macron’s rally across town the night before, with its 30,000 supporters psyched to re-elect the incumbent. “We don’t have the same means,” a Hidalgo campaign official explained.
So forget the merchandise stand, the watchword here is sobriety. After all, the final score on Election Day counts for a party’s bottom line, too. The difference between scoring above or below 5 percent of the vote in France makes all the difference, with state financing subsidies slashed for candidates who fall below that golden threshold.
Despite the ominous polls, some of the Socialist supporters who turned up to cheer on Hidalgo on Sunday still believe their candidate could be this election’s dark horse. “We can do it. We absolutely have to convince the undecided and the abstainers,” said Léo, a 22-year-old party member who admits this has been “a difficult campaign”.
“The campaign was completely stifled by Macron,” a fellow member chimed in. “But we have nothing to be ashamed of and we will continue to relay our ideas.”
To muster the troops down the home stretch of this 2022 campaign, two Socialist heavyweights – Lille mayor Martine Aubry, and Bernard Cazeneuve, Hollande’s former interior minister, turned out on Sunday to lend a hand. Aubry, a onetime party chief and former Socialist social affairs minister, is still remembered fondly as an architect of France’s 35-hour workweek, cherished as a mark of social progress on the left.
Taking the stage in a sea of French, European and rainbow flags, sporting a blue jacket and a wide smile, Hidalgo began by paying tribute to the supporting pair of party luminaries. “Yes, the left that does France good is here! It is here with you, Martine, who changed lives, profoundly and lastingly, with the 35-hour workweek, with universal health coverage, with the law against exclusion. You, Martine, are for me an inspiration and a guide showing us the most essential way, the way of social justice and of loyalty,” the candidate declared.
Keen to prove polls wrong
Hidalgo then called for all hands on deck next Sunday, slamming the polls she deemed “limited and biased” and the “zealous pundits who scorned democratic debate”. Alluding to far-right pundit-turned-presidential candidate Éric Zemmour, Hidalgo declared, “Together, we can ward off the depressing luck forecast for this campaign, one that elevated vulgarity, promoted violent speech and held out a microphone to the hatred of others, to anti-Semitism, to racism, to sexism.”
After addressing the war in Ukraine and calling for an end to buying Russian fuel, “the gas of shame”, Hidalgo launched into an attack on Macron’s record after five years in office. “His record speaks for itself. As for his [re-election] platform, who would dare call it socially progressive? Who reduced to nothing the tax on big fortunes? He did!” she said. “Who did away with the hardship criteria we put into place for pensions?” she asked and the crowd replied: “He did!”
“If you have left-wing ideas, if you are concerned about social progress, about justice, about ecology, you have to know: Emmanuel Macron looks right through you!” she continued. “Come back to your first family, the realistic and reasonable left, one that admits its mistakes,” she appealed.
Having dispatched with Macron, Hidalgo’s next target was far-leftist candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon. A former Socialist who quit to start his own outfit further to the left, Mélenchon is running ahead of a pack of disparate leftists in the polls ahead of the first round and fancies his chances at advancing to the decisive run-off on April 24. Hidalgo accused Mélenchon, who has come out against sending weapons to Ukraine, of indulging Russian leader Vladimir Putin. “For now, you’d be voting for a candidate who refused to help the Ukrainians,” she told the crowd.
Turning to her own platform, Hidalgo laid out her key pledge: an emergency law in favour of young people that would order free everyday commutes for those under 26 and eliminate enrolment fees at all French universities.
“In the days to come, every vote won will provide new hope for the future. Each citizen we convince will be giving social justice and climate justice a chance. So let’s not give up!” she implored, her voice rasping, to general acclamation and chants of “Hidalgo présidente!“
‘Battle of the clans’
After the rally, some supporters boasted unswayable optimism, while others seemed to have already turned the page on an election to forget, thinking ahead to how France’s left wing might seek to rebuild. Daniel, for one, with more than 50 years of Socialist Party activism under his belt, wants to “get back to the fundamentals” of French socialism: tending to household purchasing power and fighting poverty. “Now everybody needs to park their egos so we don’t relive the same unpleasantness in five years’ time,” he scoffed.
And yet, behind the scenes, some fear a battle is in the offing between a new generation of Socialists and the old guard, the so-called “elephants”, angling to take back control of the party. Hollande, who served as party chief for 11 years before going on to win France’s top job in 2012, has made it known that he wants to “do his part” in the rebuilding process. The 67-year-old may even run for a lower-house National Assembly seat in June.
And he isn’t the only one of the party’s relative household names to be issuing clarion calls for a rebuild, even before the votes are counted. Suffice it to say, a new phase of uncertainty awaits.
“We know it’s a difficult time, but we don’t want a battle of the clans,” Socialist Party chief Olivier Faure told FRANCE 24, recalling that “every time we have managed to come together, we have won”.
Indeed, one of the paradoxes of the Socialist Party is that, while it has almost disappeared from the French political landscape at the national level, the party’s footprint at the local level remains deep: the Socialists hold the presidency in six of 13 French regions and hold nearly a quarter of the country’s 101 departments. Hidalgo, after all, stood as a party success story when she earned the 2022 Socialist nomination last October, a year after winning re-election as mayor of the French capital.
And so beyond next Sunday’s vote – and the first-round ouster and historic defeat all but the most ardent faithful expect the party to suffer – all Socialist eyes will be on the so-called third round, those make-or-break legislative elections in June.
This article has been translated from the original in French.