Arnaud Montebourg sends tough message in French Socialist race
Former minister emerges as strongest opponent to Valls in presidential primaries

by: Anne-Sylvaine Chassany in Paris

Arnaud Montebourg, far left, with the other leftwing candidates last week © EPA

The clinking of the cutlery was gentle. Arnaud Montebourg’s judgment on the crisis facing France was not.

Addressing his country’s business elite over lunch at a Paris club, the French presidential hopeful said the EU faced collapse within seven years if it failed to rid itself of austerity-obsessed “Talibans” — ample time for Marine Le Pen of the National Front to reach the Elysée Palace. “I have come here to warn you,” Mr Montebourg said.

Eloquent and smooth though he is, Mr Montebourg is delivering a tough anti-establishment message that has turned him into a strong contender for the Socialist presidential nomination, with a radical plan for France that he defines as “economic patriotism”.

His proposals, which he admits others might label as “protectionist”, carry a hint of the policies that helped Donald Trump become US president-elect. Mr Montebourg would upend the EU’s postwar consensus by favouring French companies in public tenders, restoring border controls and threatening to wage a trading war with China.

On Sunday during a televised debate, he vowed to renege on France’s commitment to meeting EU deficit rules and “restart the hostilities against European conservatives”, which would put at risk the Franco-German relationship, a pillar of the EU.

With the Socialists facing annihilation in presidential elections in April after five years of François Hollande’s deeply unpopular presidency, Mr Montebourg has emerged as the strongest opponent in this month’s primary contest to former prime minister Manuel Valls, embodying the party rebellion that has impeded Mr Hollande’s efforts to reform the country.

Increasing support for Mr Montebourg’s ideas on the left of his party shows that the EU has remained one of the biggest bones of contention among French Socialists, more than a decade after the party tore itself apart over the EU constitution.

In 2005, French voters unexpectedly rejected the constitution in a referendum, dealing a blow to the establishment and European integration.

Among all the divisions, the fracture over Europe has become the big one within the party because it’s now also central to the economy — with those like Montebourg, who are in favour of fiscal stimulus, and others like Valls who defend France’s commitment to budget rules,” says Bruno Cautrès, a Sciences Po professor. “[Former president] François Mitterrand had managed to convince the left that being a leftwinger equated to being a Europhile. Since 2005, this assumption is no longer consensual.”

Mr Valls is predicted to attract the most votes in the first round of the primary on Sunday. But recent surveys have suggested Mr Montebourg — ousted from government by Mr Valls in 2014 after publicly mocking Mr Hollande’s economic reforms — could win in the second round by a small margin.

In the second round on January 29 Mr Montebourg would get the backing of Benoît Hamon, a former education minister who also stepped down from Mr Valls’ government in 2014 and spurred the rebellion against the government’s business-friendly bills in parliament. Mr Hamon blames German economic policies for crippling the eurozone’s growth.

The outcome of the Socialist primary is unlikely to have a significant impact on the party’s slim chances in the presidential election. But it will determine whether the party shifts further left. Mr Montebourg or Mr Hamon would seek an alliance with far-left politician Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who is predicted to top the Socialist nominee in the presidential elections.

Whoever becomes the Socialist nominee also matters for the presidential chances of Emmanuel Macron, who succeeded Mr Montebourg as economy minister. Mr Macron is campaigning as an independent on a pro-EU platform and lies third in the race behind Ms Le Pen and centre-right candidate François Fillon. Pollsters say Mr Macron would attract more centre-left voters and could even qualify for the second-round run-off if he has Mr Montebourg as an opponent, not Mr Valls.

With Mr Hamon and Vincent Peillon, another primary contender, Mr Montebourg founded the New Socialist party in 2002 after prime minister Lionel Jospin’s failure in presidential elections. The three of them, and Mr Valls, campaigned against the EU constitution in 2005.

As economy minister, Mr Montebourg was colourful and unconventional. He used his Hollywood actor looks to spur consumers’ patriotic feelings towards French-made products, being featured on magazine covers wearing the typical Breton-striped top. After leaving office, he took a course at Insead, the business school, to become an “entrepreneur” and sat on the board of Habitat, the furniture maker.

He now wants to repeal Mr Valls’ jobs bill intended to make the labour market more flexible, advocates a new tax on banks’ profits, and wants to defend small companies against multinationals. Taking his inspiration from Charles de Gaulle, Mr Montebourg said he would embrace the former leader’s “empty chair policy” of not attending EU meetings and back a €30bn infrastructure plan to stimulate growth.

In the Parisian club last month, Mr Montebourg’s proposals were met coolly. Asked to clarify his political positioning, the 54-year-old said he was “made up of different elements”. He said: “I am a Socialist, I seek modernity in Gaullism. I am mysterious, unclassifiable.”

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