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Does the French Socialist Primary Matter?

CAMBRIDGE – Seven candidates are standing in the 2017 French Socialist Party presidential primary, which includes the Socialist Party and a number of smaller pro-government Green parties, formally known as the “Popular Alliance.” But one can be forgiven for not recognizing many of them. And three recognizable names will not be on the ballot this January: François Hollande, Emmanuel Macron, and Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

Hollande is only the second president since the birth of the Fifth Republic in 1958 not to seek a second term. The other was Georges Pompidou, who died in office in 1974. Hollande is also the third president to have served only one term. The others were Valéry Giscard D’Estaing in the 1970s and Hollande’s immediate predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy. The fact that the two most recent presidents have not lasted indicates how difficult governing France has become.

Hollande’s decision not to run again should have surprised no one: with a 4% approval rating, he would have faced a humiliating defeat in the election’s first round. While his presidency has been widely criticized, it also had significant achievements: legalizing gay marriage, making France a party to the Paris climate agreement, and restoring some balance to social-welfare spending. And although government debt has continued to rise, the unemployment rate is starting to fall – though too late for Hollande to benefit.

Hollande’s biggest flaw was that he could not incarnate the presidency: he simply did not look or sound particularly presidential. His shrill voice lacked the gravitas associated with the office, and he seemed statesmanlike only in situations that naturally created that image for him, such as the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris and, more controversially, France’s intervention in Mali in 2013.