The dizzying rise and fall of French Socialist presidential hopeful Benoît Hamon
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France’s ruling Socialist Party appears headed for an historic drubbing. Crowned the mainstream left’s presidential nominee in January, Benoît Hamon could fail to clear even single digit support in Sunday’s all-important first-round vote.
On the last Monday before France’s April 23 first-round presidential ballot, a crowd gathered to cheer on far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon near the iconic Place de la Bastille in eastern Paris. Sylvia Jacques, a 60-year-old hospital administrator, was among those who joined the festive event. She was once tempted to back Hamon in the election, until the Socialist’s plummeting figures persuaded her to go with Mélenchon. “I liked Hamon, it’s too bad his campaigned flopped,” she said wistfully. “The opinion polls killed his campaign.”
Indeed, according to recent surveys, Hamon – whose party currently governs the country -- is likely to finish the race in an embarrassing fifth place; behind a far-right populist, a scandal-plagued conservative, a centrist without a party, and a Chairman Mao-overcoat-wearing leftist, no less. On Wednesday evening, he rallied supporters in central Paris in a make-or-break final campaign push. Thousands of supporters packed out the famed Place de la République, much to his campaign team’s relief.
It wasn’t always the case. Hamon emerged as the commanding winner of the Socialist Party’s presidential primary earlier this year, riding a wave of momentum that many believed could carry him all the way.
However, his sharp decline in many ways mirrored his ascension.
Often derided within his own party as “Petit Benoît”, or Little Benoît, the former education minister who had a falling out with President François Hollande and former prime minister Manuel Valls was originally given little chance of winning the Socialist primary. But bold policy proposals – including a basic income for all citizens – and cool control during the televised debates propelled him to the top. Beating Valls in the primary run-off on January 29, he enjoyed around 20 percent support at the start of the race for the presidential Elysée Palace.
Hamon was never going to have it easy. As the nominee of the Socialist Party, he was now carrying the baggage of President Hollande’s unpopular tenure, even though he had quit the government in protest of its pro-market policies. Valls, his constant rival in the primary, had also spent weeks repeating that a vote for Hamon meant “certain failure” in the general election. However, for many left-wing voters, Hamon’s victory represented hope that the Socialist Party would return to its roots. Socialist voters hoped he was a long, but still legitimate, shot at the presidency in 2017.
Fast-forward 11 weeks. With only seven days left in the campaign, Hamon is forecast to claim a derisory eight percent of the vote. His campaign is hemorrhaging support and his career – and the Socialist Party itself – may not recover for decades.
So where did everything go wrong?
According to Edouard Lecerf, head of political research at French polling firm Kantar TNS, Hamon’s strengths in the primary quickly turned into liabilities.
The pledge to gradually introduce a universal basic income, regardless of employment status or wealth, was not Hamon’s only radical proposal. Stating that robots and computers will increasingly perform the tasks of workers, he vowed to tax the automated machines. While the novel ideas struck a chord with some on the left, especially young people, many others wrote them off as unrealistic or ill-conceived.
“Hamon’s appeal in the primary was due to his visionary policies. No other candidate’s platform has been so focused on the future,” Lecerf said. “The problem is that they are too farsighted for most voters. He’s not talking about tackling today’s problems, but tackling those far in the future.” The expert also noted that while Hamon spent a lot of energy coming up with unique ideas, he fell short on detail.
Observers have also faulted Hamon for wasting precious campaign time trying to seal political alliances. Tough negotiations with Green Party nominee Yannick Jadot dragged on for more than two weeks. While they eventually resulted in a coalition, it is doubtful that Jadot, a European MP who is virtually unknown in France, can deliver any significant number of votes in the end. Hamon then tried to strike a deal with Mélenchon that went nowhere.
Alexis Bachelay, a Socialist lawmaker and campaign spokesman, admitted that the “soap opera with the Greens” lasted too long, and that the campaign was “naive” to think it could ever get Mélenchon on board. “Even if we were filled with optimism after the primary we should have known that Mélenchon never had any intention of stopping his [own] campaign,” he said.
While looking for backing outside the party, Hamon suffered defections that further cast doubt about his candidacy. He himself referred to Socialist Party members who broke ranks to endorse rival centrist Emmanuel Macron as the “permanent poison” that infected his campaign. Defections included little-known lawmakers, but also party heavyweight Valls and respected Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.
Looking back, Bachelay especially regretted a relatively short 12-week calendar between the Socialist primary in January and the first round on April 23. “We had to do everything in emergency mode, and never had enough time to tend to the wounds that were left by a bitter primary battle,” he said.
'Get back up'
Whatever the reasons, Mélenchon has succeeded in taking Hamon’s place as the ‘left's candidate’ in the race.
The firebrand leftist Mélenchon was polling at around 11 percent at the start of the year, and is going into the final stretch at approximately 20 percent, forcing many to wonder if he can actually make it to the run-off.
Most are not hopeful for Sunday’s first-round vote and are preparing for the “shock”, with Lecerf saying Socialists will struggle to find whom to blame. “Many people will be tempted to say that Hamon was not really the right Socialist Party candidate. Given the defections that hampered his campaign, even Hamon might even agree with that verdict.”
Lecerf, nevertheless, says there is a silver lining. “Whether they wind up voting for Mélenchon, or Hamon, or even Macron, the grassroots left-wing voters are still out there,” he said. The task of the Socialist Party will be convincing them that they can still rally around their banner.
The lawmaker Bachelay agreed, and said he doubted Hamon would shrink away from politics or the party quietly. “We’ll have to get back up quickly, and start working again to defend the values and ideas that Hamon brought to this election. And his role will continue being an important one.”