Last night, Le Parti Socialiste (French Socialist Party) inaugurated its first-ever presidential primary. What is beyond doubt now is that there are already two clear winners -- beyond Monsieur Hollande and Madame Aubry.
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Last night, Le Parti Socialiste (French Socialist Party) inaugurated its first-ever presidential primary. To be run over two rounds, the conclusion will take place next Sunday, when both party members and citizens -- prepared to sign a declaration supporting values of the left -- will choose between the centrist François Hollande (who won last night's first round with 39 percent of the vote) and the more traditionalist Martine Aubry (who obtained 31 percent). While it is still unclear who the Socialists will elect to face French President Nicolas Sarkozy next spring, what is beyond doubt now is that there are already two clear winners -- beyond Monsieur Hollande and Madame Aubry.

First, Le Parti Socialiste itself has triumphed. With well over two million people participating in the primary, more than twice the number they had expected, this experiment in party democracy was an unmitigated success. The first televised debate between the candidates drew over 5 million viewers and, across the nation, the atmosphere in polling stations was fraternal and good-natured. This mirrored the spirit of the intra-party debate which had preceded the vote. Over the last six weeks, since the real campaign began, the candidates have engaged one another as competitors, not adversaries. The French have witnessed a debate characterized by a noblesse often lacking on the left. As a consequence, Le Parti Socialiste has not only dominated political debate since the summer, but the movement has been reinvigorated and energized.

The second big winner yesterday evening was Arnaud Montebourg. Montebourg, one of the main protagonists in favor of a presidential primary for the Party's presidential candidate, had faced stiff opposition to the proposal from many senior figures. The media and public interest generated by the competition has vindicated his view that the process would strengthen the party's chances in next year's election. Beyond this vindication, however, Montebourg has emerged as a decisive figure in the race. Beating Ségolène Royal -- the Party's presidential nominee in 2007 -- Montebourg finished third with an unprecedented 17 percent of the vote. Montebourg is now in the position of potential king or queen maker within the party.

As a result, two questions dominated discussions in Paris last night. The first was whether Montebourg would endorse either of the second round candidates. The second; whether his vote was loyal enough to follow any endorsement he made. Montebourg's electorate is drawn to him because of the tough "de-mondialisation" (anti-globalization) stance he has taken. The solutions he proposes -- reciprocity in trade, a more level economic playing field, etc. -- are less extreme than his rhetoric would suggest, and indeed could easily be embraced by François Hollande. His supporters, though, would seem to align more naturally and comfortably with the traditional leftist positions of Martine Aubry. Yet it could well be a mistake to assume that Aubry would be the immediate recipient of Montebourg's endorsement. Yesterday evening, many in the Hollande camp were arguing in favor of a grand coalition of progressives, with talk of a Hollande-Montebourg coalition uniting opposing wings of the party as many had once hoped a Strauss-Kahn and Aubry ticket may have done.

The stage is set for a national debate as to whether a "hard" left position, championed by Aubry, or broader coalition of the center-left, as envisioned by Hollande, is most likely to bring electoral success in 2012. It's a debate that will be closely watched by progressives across Europe, many of whom are struggling with similar strategic dilemmas.

For the moment, Montebourg is playing his cards close to his chest. But, if the atmosphere of the second round candidates' post-vote parties on Sunday evening are anything to go by, François Hollande needs to do something to change the tone of the race. At the Maison de l'Amerique Latine, his supporters were very subdued. They had expected or at least hoped for a more convincing result in the first round. On the banks of the Rive Gauche, where Aubry's supporters met on a bateau-mouche, the chants of "Martine, Presidente" rang out with conviction. One senses the political momentum is with her.

It will be an interesting six days in French politics.

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