Speculation has been rampant these last few days that François Hollande will not be a candidate to succeed himself in 2017. A TNS/Sofres poll released 2 days ago shows him running just ahead of Jean-Luc Mélenchon and losing badly to Marine Le Pen. With such numbers, as humiliating as they are disastrous, it is hard to see how he could decide to run again, either as a candidate in a primary or a presidential contender.
Everyone agrees that Hollande is no fool and, if nothing else, an authentic political professional. Hence if nothing happens between now and some date in the future (probably no later than September) when a decision becomes inevitable, he will read the handwriting on the wall and step aside. I agree with this conventional wisdom. But what then?
The poll cited above suggests that Juppé is by far the most likely candidate to succeed the current president. I also agree with this analysis. He is the safe choice for people on the right and acceptable to many on the left. But there will be a real scramble to redefine the left in general and the Socialist Party in particular.
The "social-democratic" Socialist Party has never really managed to coalesce. The post-Epinay party that Mitterrand created was not really social-democratic: it was rather an equivocal war machine that combined venerable Marxist rhetoric with Florentine suppleness in order to devour the Communist Party with its amoebic embrace. After destroying the Communists, Mitterrand went on to destroy the Rocardians, who might have defined social democracy with a French accent if they hadn't been displaced into the European arena, where, under the influence of the social Catholic Jacques Delors, they became something else. Hollande himself is an unstable amalgam of Delorian and Mitterrandian elements.
Valls and Macron would both like to jettison the last vestiges of social democracy à la française and become full-throated social liberals, with a more authoritarian tinge in the case of Valls and a kinder, gentler face in the case of Macron: the scowl versus the smile. It's hard to predict how either one would fare electorally if finally cut loose from the legacy of the old PS. Both men represent a giant step away from the French tradition of the ideological party and toward the politics of personality, American-style, where the fading Sarkozy has also pitched his tent. At the moment, Macron's popularity is rising while Valls's is sinking with Hollande's, though not quite to the same depth. In a multiway contest, however, neither man enjoys a secure electoral base, and la nébuleuse gauchiste of greens, Mélenchoniens, communists, Trotskyists, etc., still has life in it. The nascent but rudderless Nuit debout! movement might yet find its Bernie Sanders, Pablo Iglesias, or Yanis Varoufakis despite its avowed distaste for leaders or direction. Thomas Piketty anyone? (The suggestion has been made and batted aside by l'intéressé, but in such matters one never knows where history will turn next.)
In short, a Hollande withdrawal will precipitate a free-for-all and a likely victory for the staid but tested center-rightist Alain Juppé--in a best-case scenario. The worst is too horrible to contemplate.