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Hamon and Valls face off in final French left-wing primary debate

Bertrand Guay, AFP | French left-wing primary candidates Benoit Hamon (L) and Manuel Valls (R) participate in a televised debate near Paris on January 25, 2017

Socialist presidential hopeful Benoît Hamon’s idealist vision for France squared off against calls for pragmatism from former prime minister Manuel Valls as the two men debated on national television Wednesday night.

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Hamon and Valls discussed jobs, clean energy, and religion in the final debate of France’s left-wing primary, four days ahead of their highly anticipated run-off poll, and three months before French voters pick their next president.

Careful to strike a cordial tone, the Socialist Party rivals nevertheless highlighted their differences in a debate that, among many issues, scrutinised their knowledge of English.

Asked “Do you speak English?” by a viewer following the debate online, Hamon – a one-time education minister under Valls – confidently said “yes”, repeating his answer when one of the moderators asked “fluently?”

Valls then visibly struggled with the question, offering a longer but less convincing answer: “Very bad, but I speak well Spanish”.

Hamon defends universal income

Valls accused Hamon of peddling “dreams” to voters, especially when it came to the campaign pledge to introduce a universal basic income in France – a project that involves giving all citizens a basic wage regardless of employment or wealth, and which has been blasted as prohibitively expensive.

“There is a difference between dreams and illusions, and a credible political programme. That’s what interests me and that’s what the French are going to base their decisions on,” Valls said.

Hamon nevertheless defended his universal income proposal, insisting that its gradual introduction would cost only 45 billion euros in the first year, not the 400 billion euros per year some have estimated the cost at once it is fully implemented.

A French Corbyn? The rise of Benoît Hamon
A French Corbyn? The rise of Benoît Hamon

A man who has been compared to British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and leftist US firebrand Bernie Sanders, Hamon hit back by questioning Valls’s left-wing credentials.

“The dreams you helped finance, were for those who already owned a lot,” he said, accusing Valls of giving tax breaks to businesses when in office, while raising income taxes on middle-class workers.

Hamon also repeated promises to massively invest in environmentally-friendly agriculture and clean energy, as well as to renegotiate European budget deficit rules that restrict public spending. “We can compromise with bankers, not with nature,” Hamon declared.

Back to burkinis

There was more friction between the two on the subject of secularism.

Valls accused his in-party rival of voting against a 2010 law that banned wearing Muslim veils that fully cover the face in public. Hamon, surprised, reminded Valls he was not a member of parliament at that time and therefore did not vote on the measure.

Hamon then chastised Valls for publicly supporting right-wing mayors who banned so-called burkinis from public beaches last summer, a move that was later declared unconstitutional by French courts.

Hamon, who was kicked out of Valls's government in 2014 for differences on economic policy, won the first round of the party primary vote on Sunday with 36 percent of votes. Valls came in second with 31 percent support.

Regardless of who wins Sunday's run-off, polls suggest neither candidate stands much chance of getting past the first round of France's April-May presidential election after five years of unpopular rule by President François Hollande.

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