The Socialist nominee’s bold platform for the presidency “is not unrealistic, it’s unthinkable”. The question is, can he get enough French voters to change the way they think?
“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 has supplanted Hollande as the Socialist nominee for the presidency, trouncing his rivals in a two-round primary contest – with the incumbent too unpopular to even take part. On Sunday, the 49-year-old Breton, who wants to legalise cannabis, tax robots and give everyone in France a €750 living wage, picked up around 59 percent of votes cast in the run-off, defeating Manuel Valls, a pro-business former prime minister and the primary's nominal favourite. In the process, he breathed new life into a battered ruling party that is struggling to stay alive in the shifting sands of French politics.
The victory caps a remarkable run by the Socialist “nothing much”, who was long seen as a side-kick for leftists with greater panache. It mirrors trends seen across the West, “where the mainstream left has been mauled by a decade of crisis, rising unemployment and surging inequality", said Bruno Cautrès, a political scientist at CEVIPOF in Paris. 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 – Cautrès added, “Many Socialists dream of a return to the left’s core values.”
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.
Video: Benoît Hamon, France's 'Bernie Sanders'
Hamon’s “lightweight” team reflected his junior status. When it came to picking a candidate, cabinet ministers rallied behind their former boss Valls, a boxer in his spare time; 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, who waited until the second round to back him. 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.”
Not a man of providence
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
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.
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.
During the four primary 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 victory, 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, whose candidate for the presidency, Yannick Jadot, is struggling to build momentum around his campaign. Ahead of Sunday’s run-off, some in Jadot’s camp were rumoured to be mulling an alliance with the Socialists in the event of a Hamon win. Prominent green activist Nicolas Hulot, a man whose endorsement presidential candidates have been coveting for the past decade, expressed his admiration for the Socialists’ rising star in a widely quoted interview.
“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 Hamon’s rise was voters’ hostility towards his main rival in the primary. A divisive figure on the left, Valls was 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 endured a wretched campaign, marked by spectacular policy U-turns as well as a flour-bombing and a face-slapping in broad daylight. His crushing defeat capped the great overhaul of French politics that has seen virtually every old-timer, from Hollande to Nicolas Sarkozy, swatted aside.
In between the primary’s two rounds, Valls stepped up his attacks on Hamon in an increasingly desperate bid to close the gap, targeting his opponent’s supposed “ambiguity” and “appeasement” in dealing with radical Islam. But many on the left were uncomfortable with the former premier’s hardline stance on French secularism, including his support for a notorious ban on full-body “burkini” swimsuits. Critics warned that his rigid interpretation of secular rules threatened to antagonise the country’s large Muslim population, parts of which already feel discriminated against.
“Valls’s attempts to appear authoritative bordered on the authoritarian,” said political analyst Thomas Guénolé, opposing the former prime minister’s martial rhetoric to the “natural authority” projected by his rival during the debates. In contrast to Valls, he added, “Hamon turned out to be remarkably confident, calm and gentle, developing the charisma of a man with quiet strength”. The nerve with which he embraced the derogatory sobriquet “Bilal Hamon” – coined by Islamophobes to discredit him – is evidence of this aplomb.
A new paradigm
Hamon’s praise for the current leader of the UK's Labour Party gave Valls – an admirer of the New Labour-style politics abhorred by Corbyn – a stronger line of attack. 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”.
The Socialists’ new nominee has been astonishingly unmoved by claims his universal basic income will double France’s already sizeable debt burden. When challenged on the subject during the last debate, he pointedly ignored the question, arguing instead that the planet’s “ecological debt” is a far greater threat to society.
Guénolé described Hamon’s flagship welfare reform as “the logical consequence of a new paradigm”, one already espoused by climate scientists. “The premise is that we are in an age of mass extinction and therefore have to change our social model,” said the writer and analyst. “If we stop pursuing unsustainable growth and the mirage of full employment, then a new form of redistribution of wealth is necessary,” he added. “Hence the universal income, financed through an overhaul of the tax system.”
In the short term, Hamon’s priority will be to avert the Socialist Party’s extinction. Bruised and fractured by five gruelling years in power, France’s ruling party now enters the 2017 race in earnest, well aware that opinion polls have condemned it to a humiliating defeat. In picking the boldest programme, Socialist voters have certainly made a big gamble at a delicate time, with far-right leader Marine Le Pen poised to feature in the May 7 presidential run-off. “Hamon’s platform is not unrealistic, it’s unthinkable,” said Guénolé. The challenge, now, is to get enough voters to change their way of thinking. Judging by the primary, some already have.
An earlier version of this article was published on January 25, 2017.
Date created : 2017-01-30