January 29, 2017
PARIS (AP) — Beating a politically weakened ex-prime minister proved easy for Benoit Hamon, who will represent France’s ruling Socialist Party in the country’s presidential election. Far harder will be convincing voters that his hard-left platform isn’t the recipe for ruin his critics claim.
Hamon’s comfortable victory Sunday in a Socialist primary runoff against Manuel Valls owed much to his radical proposal to give all French adults a regular monthly income to protect them in an automated future where machines will take their jobs.
Hamon’s winning margin — nearly 59 percent of the votes in the three-quarters of polling stations tallied — also appeared as a resounding rejection of unpopular outgoing President Francois Hollande and Valls, his prime minister for more than two years.
But the path forward for Hamon is littered with obstacles. First, he will have to unite the Socialists behind him, which could be heavy lifting. Divisions are deep between the party’s hard-left wing, which consistently criticized Hollande and Valls policies, and the advocates of more center-left views.
Another major challenge for Hamon will be negotiating with fiery far-left leader and fellow presidential candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon, who is trying to attract votes from disappointed Socialists. Hamon is proposing a coalition with Melenchon that might have a better chance of winning the general election.
Hamon will also face tough competition from outspoken centrist Emmanuel Macron, who has found increasing popularity with his pro-business views. Such are the left’s divisions that some Valls supporters may now shift to Macron’s independent run for the presidency.
The outcome of the two-round vote in April and May looks increasingly uncertain. Leading conservative candidate Francois Fillon, who also is a former prime minister, was rocked in the past week by allegations that his wife, Penelope, held a fake but handsomely paid job as a parliamentary aide. Financial prosecutors are investigating.
At a campaign rally in Paris on Sunday — where a boisterous crowd gave Penelope Fillon a standing ovation and chanted her name, Fillon said, “We have nothing to hide.” “Through Penelope they are trying to break me,” he said. “I will never forgive those who chose to throw us to the wolves.”
A priority for Hamon, a 49-year-old former junior minister and, briefly, education minister, will be to rally the Socialists, split ideologically and wounded by Hollande’s five-year tenure as president.
“Our country needs the left, but a left that is modern and innovates,” Hamon said. Early polling has suggested the Socialist candidate will struggle to advance to the presidential runoff in May, where far-right leader Marine Le Pen could be waiting, campaigning on anti-Europe, anti-immigration and anti-Islam themes.
In defeat, Valls didn’t throw his support behind Hamon, but cautioned against the risk of the country shifting to the right. “We refuse that tomorrow Marine Le Pen becomes the face of France,” he said.
In his speech Sunday, Hamon presented himself as an anti-populist candidate who can face the “unstable world” of U.S President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin and protect the French people from the terror threat posed by extremists.
The turnout on Sunday, estimated at around 2 million voters, was more robust than in the first round of voting but still suggested a lack of enthusiasm among the French electorate of 44 million. The conservative primary attracted more than 4 million voters in November.
Hamon wasn’t as tainted as Valls by Hollande’s unpopularity, because he rebelled and quit the government in 2014. Valls served as Hollande’s prime minister for more than two years until last December, when it became clear the president couldn’t win a second term. Having to defend the government’s economic policies and labor reforms against Hamon proved an uphill fight for Valls.
Hamon’s signature proposal for a 750 euros ($800) “universal income” that would be gradually granted to all adults also proved a campaign masterstroke, grabbing headlines and underpinning his surprise success in the primary’s two rounds of voting, first against six opponents and then against Valls in the runoff.
Sharply criticized by Valls as unrealistic and ruinous, Hamon says the no-strings-attached payments would cushion the French in an increasingly automated future, as machines take their jobs. He proposes a tax on robots to help finance the measure’s huge costs — by Hamon’s reckoning, at least 300 billion euros ($320 billion) if applied to more than 50 million adults.
Hamon also proposes legalizing cannabis and allowing medically assisted deaths. First-time voter Maayane Pralus said Hamon “has a lot of the youth vote with him, which is sick of the old politics.” “People call him utopian, but that’s the politics we’ve been waiting for,” the 18-year-old student said.