Former French Economy Minister Arnaud Montebourg gestures as he delivers a speech during the 44th annual meeting of the French socialist party (PS)
Arnaud Montebourg, former French economy minister © AFP

On the left, so many candidates are entering France’s presidential election race that it risks becoming a self-defeating exercise. In principle, political competition is healthy. But the danger is that the rival leftists will simply trip each other up and ruin the slim re-election chances of François Hollande, the Socialist president.

The latest to throw his hat in the ring is Arnaud Montebourg, a prominent leftwinger who served as Mr Hollande’s economy minister from 2012 to 2014. A persistent thorn in the president’s side when he was in government, Mr Montebourg will woo anti-capitalist segments of the Socialist party and French society that abhor Mr Hollande’s embrace of pro-business policies over the past two years.

Among other declared candidates on the left are Cécile Duflot, a former leader of the Greens; Benoît Hamon, a former education minister; Marie-Noëlle Lienemann, a European Parliament legislator; and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a diehard ultra-leftist.

This gallery of hopefuls will probably expand in coming weeks to include Emmanuel Macron, Mr Montebourg’s replacement as economy minister, who appeals to centrist and centre-right voters as well as to voters on the left, and Mr Hollande.

A fall in French unemployment to less than 10 per cent of the workforce has occurred in time for Mr Hollande, who promised after coming to power in 2012 that he would not run for re-election unless he had achieved a significant reduction in the jobless rate.

The important point to grasp is that not all the leftist candidates plan to compete against Mr Hollande in the Socialist party’s primaries in January. Mr Mélenchon, who won 11 per cent of the first-round vote in France’s 2012 presidential election, has made clear he will skip the primaries. So will Ms Duflot.

Mr Montebourg, who has apparently not yet made up his mind, is nevertheless suspicious that the Socialist party establishment will engage in some procedural sharp practices to rig the primaries in favour of Mr Hollande. As for Mr Macron, he is not a Socialist party member so it seems improbable that he will enter the primaries.

The prospect is therefore emerging that three or four candidates will ignore the Socialist primaries in order to compete directly in April in the presidential election’s first round. In all likelihood, this would pit them against Mr Hollande, as the winner of the primaries, a centre-right candidate (either Nicolas Sarkozy, a former president, or Alain Juppé, an ex-premier) and Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front.

In such a contest, the left’s vote might be so fragmented that Ms Le Pen would sail through to the run-off round against the centre-right candidate. This happened in 2002, when Lionel Jospin, the Socialist party’s candidate, failed to make it into the second round because support for the left in the first round was distributed among too many contenders.

Given that Mr Hollande is the Fifth Republic’s most unpopular president, he would surely find it hard to win re-election under most circumstances. However, by entering the race in such numbers, leftist French politicians are setting things up nicely for the election of a centre-right president, not to mention burnishing the political profile of Ms Le Pen on the national stage. Can this really be what the French left wants?

tony.barber@ft.com

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