Which leadership style will prevail in the French primaries?

Posted On: 
18th November 2016

University of Exeter PhD Student Thibaud Deruelle writes ahead of the French primary elections on Sunday 20th November.

Former French President and candidate for France's conservative presidential primary Nicolas Sarkozy delivers a speech during a campaign meeting in Meyzieu.

With two primaries happening on each side of the political spectrum in France, the 2017 presidential elections seem to be oozing with uncertainty. The French are not too fond of bets, and it is just as well, for it is hard even for political experts to come up with predictions for the eventual electoral outcome.  
Traditionally, in France, contenders to the presidential elections are candidates that emerge 'naturally' from their political movements, giving to the whole idea of leadership the semblance of political providence. The French say that the presidential elections are the encounter of a man – or a woman – with the people. But now there is a paradigm shift happening in French politics. The Left is organising open primaries for the second time and the right for the first. The French public are being given the chance to redefine what they want from their leader.
Back in 2002, Jacques Chirac, the outgoing president and candidate of the right was re-elected with a staggering 82.2 per cent of the vote. This wasn’t because of an outpouring of love for him, but rather the rejection of his opponent, the now retired Front National’s Jean-Marie Le Pen. The results were met with resignation by voters, who prepared for five more years of entrenched leadership, and the politics of inertia. In contrast the newly appointed Minister of the Interior, Nicolas Sarkozy, was everywhere, dealing with everything. The French were impressed.  
Sarkozy based his own eventual presidential campaign in 2007 on the motto: “Everything becomes possible”.  He convinced the public that his leadership style matched the modernity of the time. Five years later the public voted against his energetic leadership style in favour of the Socialist Party’s Francois Hollande, the man who sold himself to French voters as normal, keen to listen and willing to be conciliatory.  
Fast forward another five years and the French seem once again unsatisfied with their choice. Francois Hollande’s ‘normal’ leadership style is not respected. French people no longer seem to think leaders emerge miraculously, that is why the left and the right are both holding primaries. This may be a sign of political maturity, but voters still don’t seem to know what type of leadership they want.
Contenders of the right wing primaries have similar economic aims and their debates have illustrated these strong similarities. The differences between candidates are about style rather than substance. Nicolas Sarkozy is back again, and wants a mode of governance based on constant referenda while Alain Juppé, former Prime Minister of the 90s, wants to convince voters that he is a careful leader with a reformist agenda.
Many people in France doubt anyone standing in the Socialist primaries stands a chance of becoming President. It is rather rare to see an outgoing president engaging in primaries without many serious opponents. This is not a good sign for Hollande, or the socialist party. Hollande’s Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, who has leadership style a la Sarkozy, could be a possible alternative, but he might just avoid the 2017 sinking ship and wait for 2022.
Nobody, from either side of the political spectrum is really sure about the type of leadership they want or should put forward – apart from the far right. Marine Le Pen is the only French politician that emerged as the natural candidate of her political movement. But beyond ideological consideration, wouldn't her victory be a giant step back? Primaries are complex and costly, adversarial and time consuming, but at least they are opening a new realm of possibilities in terms of leadership style. The election of Marine Le Pen would halt this paradigm shift and be a giant throwback to a model that does not bet on democratic process but on the old myth of political providence.