By Rhys Thomas
French primary voters delivered another political upset as they gave Benoît Hamon, a former education minister, the nomination of the Socialist Party over heavyweight former Prime Minister Manuel Valls. Like Les Républicains candidate François Fillon, Hamon surged from polling in third place and took the lead in both rounds of voting to snatch a shock victory.
These are not good times for French Socialists. François Hollande is a deeply unpopular President with one poll late last year putting his approval rating at four percent. None of their candidates for President regularly polled above fifteen-percent and there is a realistic prospect of Hamon finishing behind far-left firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon. In short, the nomination is a poisoned chalice.
The two candidates that made it to the run-off represent two very different strands of the party and their fundamental differences are replicated in centre-left parties all over the globe. In essence it was a left-wing idealist in Hamon versus a hard-nosed pragmatist in Valls. Hamon the victor is an unapologetic leftist. He was promoted to the Cabinet in 2014 as Education Minister but quit after less than five months in the job in protest at the perceived abandonment of socialism by his bosses Valls and Hollande. He is also in favour of a reduced thirty-two hour work week and the legalisation of cannabis, but his most eye-catching policy is the phasing in of a universal basic income where everyone will receive seven hundred and fifty euros a month. How to pay for it? A tax on industrial robots.
Valls was promoted to the post of Prime Minister by Hollande after a disappointing set of local election results for the Socialist Party in 2014 and resigned last December in order to run for the party nomination where he was the favourite to win. He is from the right of the party and has a reputation as a tough, uncompromising figure.
He is a strong believer in laïcité – the uniquely French concept of secularism (separation of the state from religion) and used his time as Interior Minister to cultivate his steely image, notably clashing with anti-semitic comedian Dieudonné and banning his shows. In economic terms he is of the ‘Third Way’ and during his Premiership he reduced regulation on business and attempted to make the thirty-five hour work week less rigid for employers. He is a moderate social democrat not tied down by old socialist ideology. That is what helped him rise to the heady heights of the French premiership, but it is also why his presidential campaign went down in flames.
Where does this leave the race? There is a triumvirate of frontrunners – conservative Francois Fillon, far-right Marine Le Pen and independent centrist Emmanuel Macron. All are within a few percentage points of each other in the polls, and Hamon’s victory will surely help Macron who will look to siphon off the votes of disillusioned moderate socialists who may well have voted for Valls had he been the nominee.