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Part-Sanders, part-Corbyn: how French socialist Hamon stepped out of the dark

© Thomas Samson, AFP | Benoît Hamon, 49, is tipped to win the Socialist Party's presidential nomination.

Text by Benjamin DODMAN

Latest update : 2017-01-25

A leftist dissident, Benoît Hamon has emerged as an unlikely frontrunner for the Socialist presidential nomination as the battered and fractured ruling party scrambles to stay alive in the shifting sands of French politics.

“What would Benoît Hamon be without the Socialist Party?” pondered President François Hollande in March 2015, during one of his notoriously candid exchanges at the Élysée Palace with Le Monde journalists Gérard Davet and Fabrice Lhomme. Hamon, a former education minister who quit Hollande’s government in protest at its right-ward lurch, had recently joined the growing ranks of the “Frondeurs” – the party’s dissident leftist faction. His was the first recognisable name in a festering rebellion that would ultimately prove fatal to Hollande. But, at the time, the French president dismissed the threat, answering his own rhetorical question with a laconic: “Nothing much."

Two years on, Hamon is on the verge of supplanting Hollande as the Socialist nominee for the presidency. On Sunday, the 49-year-old Breton picked up 36% of votes cast in the first round of an open primary – with the incumbent president too unpopular to even take part. Hamon, who wants to legalise cannabis, tax robots and give everyone in France a €750 living wage, is now widely tipped to beat Manuel Valls, a pro-business former prime minister and the primary's nominal favourite, in a January 29 run-off.

Victory next Sunday would cap a remarkable run by the Socialist “nothing much”, who was long seen as a side-kick for leftists with greater panache. It would mirror trends seen across the West, “where the mainstream left has been mauled by a decade of crisis, rising unemployment and surging inequality", says Bruno Cautrès, a political scientist at CEVIPOF in Paris. “Many Socialists dream of a return to the left’s core values,” he added, pointing to parallels with Britain’s Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn, Spain’s anti-establishment Podemos, and leftist firebrand Bernie Sanders – all of whom Hamon has singled out as sources of inspiration.

Out of the ‘fringe’

When Hamon announced his candidacy for the presidency last summer, few took his bid seriously. A Socialist “apparatchik”, Hamon enjoyed little recognition beyond the party’s confines. His first cabinet post, as junior minister for the “social economy”, was hardly a headline-grabber. The subsequent upgrade, to education minister, lasted just 147 days. He was elected to the European Parliament once, in 2004, and the French National Assembly a decade later, but suffered as many defeats.

Of the four Socialists vying for the party’s nomination, Hamon was – on paper – the least formidable. "Little Benoît" lacked both Valls’s notoriety and the flourish of Arnaud Montebourg, the fiery former economy minister. Nor did he enjoy the intellectual aura associated with the fourth candidate, Vincent Peillon, who preceded him at the education ministry. Though all four were part of the same generation of former Socialist ‘Young Turks’, alternately allies and rivals, Hamon was very much the junior member – in age, fame and deed.

Hamon’s “lightweight” team reflected his junior status. When it came to picking a candidate, cabinet ministers rallied behind their former boss Valls; most of the “Frondeurs” supported Montebourg; and Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo threw her lot behind Peillon. None of the Socialist heavyweights backed Hamon – not even his friend Christiane Taubira, a former justice minister, nor his patron and one-time party chief, Martine Aubry. The dearth of prominent endorsements comforted the notion that Hamon was a radical outsider lost on the party’s hard-left fringe – in the manner of Labour’s Corbyn.

“In fact Hamon is far less of a radical within the party than is commonly assumed,” argued Michel Wieviorka, a prominent sociologist who is close to the Socialists. He added: “Hamon has strong ties with Aubry and others social democrats on the centre-left, and continues to cultivate a loyal following among members of the party’s youth wing, which he once led.”


With his working-class family background, impeccable left-wing credentials, and understated coolness, Hamon was a perfect fit for the Mouvement des Jeunes Socialistes (MJS), whose leadership he took over back in 1992. Ironically, it was Valls, five years his senior, who helped the young Breton into the youth wing. To this day, Hamon is known as the man who secured the MJS’s autonomy within the party, turning a docile, obedient club into a formidable force, capable of mobilising large crowds and challenging the top brass.

'Cold wave' Hamon, back in 1992
© Institut national de l'audiovisuel

Like Valls, Hamon spent the following 25 years working the party apparatus, securing jobs and patronage, and nurturing ties with a broad network of associations, including feminist and anti-racist groups, that gravitate around the Socialists. Crucially, he never drifted away from the party, even at the height of the “Fronde” – when others, like Montebourg and Peillon, opted for a brief exile in the hope of later reemerging as the Socialists’ saviour.

“I don’t believe in Heaven-sent men,” Hamon repeated throughout the primary campaign, opposing his platform of direct democracy and “collective intelligence” to the personality cult he associates with his rivals. The strategy appears to have paid off, turning his lack of notoriety and experience into an asset, and placing his ideas – rather than his person – at the heart of the debate.

A new social model

The first to throw his hat in the ring last summer, Hamon cast himself as a moderniser firmly rooted in the left, with a more inventive edge than Labour's Corbyn. He dominated the primary campaign and televised debates with a slew of bold proposals that include a costly universal basic income – a fashionable idea that involves giving all citizens a basic wage, regardless of personal wealth.

Hamon has argued that the digital age calls for a new social model in which wealth and the shrinking workload are spread out more evenly across society, people get more leisure time, and robots pay taxes on the wealth they create. He says work-related "burnout" should be recognised as an illness. And while critics say France’s 35-hour work week is too short, he wants to cut it further.

In all three debates, Hamon’s rivals lampooned his proposals as ruinous and unrealistic. Montebourg – whose more traditional leftist pitch was undercut by Hamon – claimed the latter’s costly flagship reform would lead to “fiscal caning” for French taxpayers, and “confine the Socialist Party to the dustbin of history”. But even as they blasted the former education minister, Hamon’s opponents gave him and his policies unprecedented publicity, helping to shape the national profile that had so far eluded him.


Analysing the factors that propelled Hamon to first place on Sunday, Wieviorka highlighted “his vision, his platform, or, one might say, his utopia”. He pointed to “traces of [Greek Prime Minister Alexis] Tsipras, Podemos, Corbyn and Sanders", though hinting at a form of pragmatism not typically associated with the radical left. Hamon, he cautioned, “has the capacity not to corner himself in a form of radicalism that leads to a dead-end".

Another of Hamon’s assets is his broad appeal among Green Party voters, who already have a candidate for the presidency but may be tempted to weigh on the Socialist contest as well. Yannick Jadot, the Green nominee, is struggling to build momentum around his campaign, and some in his camp are rumoured to be mulling an alliance with the Socialists should Hamon win the second round on Sunday.

“Hamon’s ecological convictions are seen as genuine, and not merely dictated by political convenience,” said Florence Faucher, an expert in environmental politics at Sciences-Po Paris. “He is at ease discussing important but technical issues that are rarely part of the mainstream political discourse, such as banning endocrine disruptors,” she added, referring to chemicals that have been proven to interfere with hormone systems – an issue that the Socialist candidate routinely addresses, alongside more traditional topics such as welfare and taxation.


A third factor in the rise of Hamon is voters’ hostility towards his main rival in the primary. A divisive figure on the left, Valls is burdened with the legacy of his deeply unpopular government, which he led until December. Wary of carrying the favourite's tag in a time of electoral upsets, the Spanish-born former premier has endured a wretched campaign, marked by spectacular policy U-turns as well as a flour-bombing and a face-slapping in broad daylight.

A centrist who is seen as tough on law and order, Valls has been at pains to burnish his left-wing credentials, promising to boost public spending, hike teachers’ pay and pump money into France’s cash-strapped universities. But many of his pledges contradict his record in office, none more so than his vow to scrap the so-called 49-3, a notorious clause in the French constitution that allows governments to force through legislation without a vote – and which he repeatedly used while in office.

Valls trailed Hamon by five points in the first round, and third-placed Montebourg has since endorsed the latter, leaving the former prime minister with a mountain to climb ahead of Sunday’s run-off. Valls has stepped up his attacks in an increasingly desperate bid to close the gap, targeting his opponent’s supposed “ambiguity” and “appeasement” in dealing with radical Islam. The move may yet backfire. Many on the left are uncomfortable with the former premier’s hardline stance on French secularism, including his support for a notorious ban on full-body “burkini” swimsuits. Critics warn that his rigid interpretation of secular rules threatens to antagonise the country’s large Muslim population, parts of which already feel discriminated against.


Hamon’s praise for the current leader of the UK's Labour Party has given Valls – an admirer of the New Labour-style politics abhorred by Corbyn – a stronger line of attack. On Sunday, when Hamon reiterated his support for the veteran British leftist, as well as Sanders and Podemos, an angry Valls was quick to hit back. Corbyn “has chosen to remain in the opposition” rather than aim for government, Valls fumed, opposing his own “credible, responsible” brand of left-wing politics to Hamon's “unworkable and unfundable promises”.

Both candidates are well aware of the deadly menace weighing on France’s ruling party, bruised and fractured by five gruelling years in power. Polls suggest its candidate will fail to qualify for the second round of France’s presidential election on May 7, slipping behind far-right leader Marine Le Pen and conservative François Fillon. Humiliatingly, the Socialist nominee is also tipped to fall behind hard-left firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon and centrist former economy minister Emmanuel Macron, both of whom have shunned the primary.

Hamon says only “imaginative policies” can recapture the left's disillusioned voters and combat the far right. He has suggested his real aim is to rebuild the left in time for the 2022 presidential election. “This is about looking into the future,” he told France Inter radio on Monday. “That is what I am here for. [The primary's result] shows that there is a real desire to turn the page.”

Valls’s supporters counter that their “realist” champion is the only one with a chance of averting total defeat. A boxer in his spare time, the combative former PM is expected to go bare-knuckle in Wednesday’s final televised debate, his last chance to floor his opponent. “I would expect Valls to pummel Hamon on his universal income and its mammoth cost,” said CEVIPOF’s Cautrès. “If he doesn’t, then right-wing candidates will take care of Hamon later on.”

Date created : 2017-01-25


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