22nd Mar 2018

French Socialists pick left-winger for presidential candidate

  • Manuel Valls (l) and Benoit Hamon (r), with first secretary of the Socialist party, Jean-Christophe Cambadelis (c). (Photo: Les Primaires Socialistes)

Benoit Hamon, a hard-left backbencher who wants to give more power to the people and introduce a universal basic income, has been chosen the presidential candidate of the Socialist party, in a symbolic break with the policies of French president Francois Hollande.

According to a partial count, Hamon, a former minister of social economy and education, gathered more than 59 percent of the vote in the primary run-off on Sunday (29 January) against his ex-boss, former prime minister Manuel Valls.

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It will be the first time that a representative of the party's left wing will bear the standard in the country's presidential election, showing that disappointment with Hollande runs deep in his own party.

Hollande, whose efforts to reform the French labour market, one of the most rigid in Europe, encountered massive opposition, also made history when he became the first president-incumbent not to seek re-election, as polls suggested he could only count on a humiliating 7 percent of the vote.

Hamon, a career politician, has positioned himself as a man of fresh ideas.

He has vowed to revitalise French democracy by introducing a citizen's initiative, under which 1 percent of the electorate - roughly 450,000 people - could introduce bills to the parliament, propose referendums or block laws.

He wants to ban diesel cars, curb the power of industrial lobbies and force employers to do more to prevent staff from getting burnt out.

His most famous - and criticised - proposal, however, is the one to introduce a universal basic income of up to €750 to offset the loss of jobs to robots and automation in the workplace. The stipend would first be given to the unemployed and young people, but would eventually extend to the entire population.

"The left is raising her head, she's turning towards the future, she can win," Hamon told supporters on Sunday.

Valls, in his defeat speech, stressed the need for unity and wished Hamon "good luck".

But Hamon, who spent the last two years as a rebel MP rallying opposition against some of the Valls government's key reforms, is facing a serious challenge of bridging the gap in the socialist party. Analysts say the centre-left could rather back Emmanuel Macron, a former Valls minister running as an independent, or that the socialist party could even break up over the tensions.

The latest poll by Kantar Sofres-One Point put Hamon at 15 percent of the vote, well above previous predictions for the socialist party candidates. But he still polled fourth, behind far-right leader Marine Le Pen, leading the race with 25 percent of voting intentions, with right-wing Francois Fillon and Macron at 22 and 21 percent each, and radical-left firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon trailing behind at 10 percent.

Whoever makes it to the second round of voting in May will win over Le Pen, the poll suggested.

Fillon long looked like a favourite, but his share has been falling after the Canard enchaine, a satirical and investigative newspaper, accused his wife Penelope of receiving €500,000 over eight years for a fake job as a parliamentary assistant. More accusations emerged over the weekend, where French investigative website Mediapart and the Journal du Dimanche claimed that Fillon had “siphoned off” about €25,000 from assistant funds during his time as a senator, from 2005 to 2007.

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