Outsider Hamon has momentum ahead of left-wing primary vote

Bertrand Guay / AFP | Benoit Hammon during the January 15 televised debate ahead of the left-wing primaries.

A French socialist outsider who wants to legalise cannabis and introduce a universal basic income of 750 euros gained new ground in the left-wing presidential primaries Thursday, winning the final debate before Sunday’s first-round vote in one poll.


Benoît Hamon’s debate performance, despite challenges from all comers, is a new feather in his cap for the former education minister, who looks to be a serious contender to progress to the run-off vote on January 29 and win the left-wing nomination for this spring’s French presidential election.

Socialist lawmaker Hamon, an admirer of US left-wing firebrand Bernie Sanders, has long been considered the “third man” in the primaries to choose a presidential candidate from the group of left wing parties.

He’s up against former Socialist prime minister Manuel Valls, whom polls predict will come first in Sunday’s first round of the primaries, in which any French citizen can vote.

And until this week, surveys predicted leftist Arnaud Montebourg would take second place.

However, in the same way that conservative candidate François Fillon surged from a distant third place ahead of November’s right-wing primaries, Hamon has shaken-up the left-wing primaries to steal an eleventh-hour lead on Montebourg.

Hamon on the rise

A BVA poll published this week saw former education minister Hamon securing 27 percent in the first round, behind Valls’s 34 percent and ahead of Montebourg on 26 percent. Just a month ago, Hamon was polling at just 10 percent.

Things will likely get rather more interesting -- and less predictable -- in the second round (if no candidate wins more than 50% of the vote). The same poll gives both Hamon and Montebourg 52% and Valls’s 48%.

It has been a meteoric rise for Hamon, who was relatively unknown until campaigning began in earnest, who has caught the attention of French voters with his bold policies.

Universal basic income

Central to Hamon’s programme is the introduction of a universal basic income of around 750 euros a month, which would be paid to every single French citizen aged 18 and over, regardless of whether or not they are employed.

He has signalled that this should be progressively implemented, to be fully in place by 2022 and paid for with increased wealth taxes.

Hamon argues that it would boost growth and employment, while lowering poverty and cutting government red tape by replacing complex unemployment benefit schemes with a single pay-out to everyone.

Hamon’s basic income scheme came in for particular scrutiny from rivals during Thursday’s third debate.

Marked man

Valls said he didn’t want “a left-wing that makes promises on credit so that tomorrow it doesn’t lose its credibility". The former prime minister has said he would rather guarantee a “decent income” (of around 800 euros) to those who are most in need.

Montebourg, meanwhile, with the most to lose from a Hamon surge, chided that 300 billion euros [the cost of the universal basic income measure] is “the equivalent of the current state budget.” To finance it, Montebourg said, “we know how we reason in our political family; we say that we are going to take first from the rich and, in the end, when we realise that that does not suffice, it is a fiscal caning for the middle and working classes.” Bashing Hamon’s plan, Montebourg added, “You don’t have the right. It is not serious.”

Regardless, a flash poll by the Elabe firm after the debate Thursday saw 29 percent deem Hamon most convincing, compared to 28 percent for Montebourg and 21 percent for Valls. Among left-wing supporters alone, Hamon also carried the day, with 34 percent of those polled putting him on top, compared to 24 percent for Valls and 23 percent for Montebourg.

Legalise cannabis?

Another differentiator with Valls is on immigration policy. While Hamon insists that France should remain open to immigrants, Valls takes a tougher line, wanting to limit the number of migrants arriving in France.

Valls is acutely aware that this is an issue that will play strongly into the hands of far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen, whom polls predict will win the first round of the April/May presidential elections, and probably face off with conservative candidate François Fillon in the second round.

Hamon also openly supports the legalisation of cannabis, a move that has been rejected outright by Valls.

“Has total prohibition reduced cannabis consumption? No,” Hamon said in last Sunday’s second primaries debate. “It would be better to use the 535 million euros we spend inefficiently on prohibition on treating addiction.

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