‘Little Ben’ looks set to pull French Socialists to the left
Likely presidential candidate Benoît Hamon wants a universal basic income
Benoît Hamon wants to legalise cannabis and euthanasia, recruit 40,000 more teachers and make France more welcoming to refugees. Photograph: Jeremy Lempin/EPA
With Benoît Hamon’s unexpected victory in the first round of the Socialist presidential primary, the left of the party has punished President François Hollande and former prime minister Manuel Valls for their conversion to social democracy and liberal economics.
Hamon’s performance in Sunday’s election further polarises French politics, at a time of unprecedented strength for the extreme right-wing Front National (FN).
Old-time socialist “elephants” still refer to Hamon, who looks younger than his 49 years, as “Little Ben”. Like Valls – his challenger in next Sunday’s run-off – Hamon holds a degree in history. He headed the Movement of Young Socialists from 1993 until 1995, then built on the network he started there.
Hamon served in Martine Aubry’s cabinet when she was labour minister, and later became her spokesman when she headed the Socialist Party. Aubry issued a communique on Monday, signed by 20 socialist parliamentarians and former cabinet ministers, endorsing him over Valls.
Combining his own score with that of third-runner up Arnaud Montebourg, who endorsed him on Sunday night, Hamon had already cornered nearly 55 per cent of the vote before Aubry’s declaration of support. Valls is unlikely to overcome the odds.
Hamon served as junior minister for social economy and solidarity from 2012-14, and then briefly as education minister. He was forced out of office, along with Montebourg and Aurélie Filippetti, for opposing the administration’s liberal economic policies.
Quiet, affable rebel
Unlike the boisterous Montebourg, Hamon was a quiet, affable rebel. Hollande was shocked when he joined 56 deputies in calling for a vote of no confidence against the Valls government last May.
The former conservative prime minister François Fillon came out of nowhere to seize Les Républicains’ (LR) presidential nomination last November. Similarly, no one noticed when Hamon, a nice, left-wing Catholic from Brittany, the son of a dockyard work turned engineer and a secretary, declared his candidacy last summer.
Hamon filled a meeting hall for the first time last December 1st, the night Hollande “abdicated” by announcing he would not seek a second term. A week later, Hamon performed well in a primetime television interview and his candidacy took off. Thereafter, attention focused on themes chosen by “Little Ben”.
Hamon visited Bernie Sanders in the US last September, and believes the “real” left is resurgent. “From Athens to London, by way of Madrid, in the name of democracy, social justice and ecology, citizens are turning the page,” Hamon wrote when Jeremy Corbyn became leader of the British Labour party in 2015.
While other presidential candidates fantasise about a return to full employment, Hamon believes automation spells the end of work, and that society must instead guarantee a universal basic income.
He wants to end poverty in France by giving everyone €750 per month, at a cost of some €350 billion. Though his rivals attacked him, Hamon told his last pre-election rally: “I’m proud that people have stopped talking about the burkini around the Sunday dinner table and are talking about the universal basic income instead.”
The proposal for a universal basic income led Montebourg’s campaign to label Hamon “the Carambar left” (as opposed to “caviar left”), after a chewy caramel sweet.
Valls is staunchly pro-Israel. Hamon demands recognition of Palestine. Valls is a fervent advocate of laicité (state-enforced secularism) and has criticised what he sees as Hamon’s complacency towards radical Islam.
Hamon says it is impossible to be a socialist without being a convinced ecologist. He has made hormone disrupters and other environmental hazards a campaign issue. He wants to legalise cannabis and euthanasia, abrogate the El Khomri labour reform law – which Valls passed by decree – recruit 40,000 more teachers and make France more welcoming to refugees.
Editorialists on Monday contrasted Hamon’s utopian left with Valls’s more practical party of government. In the few days left to him, Valls will argue that it’s him or chaos. “A very clear choice is before us, the choice between assured defeat or a possible victory,” Valls said on Sunday night. “Between unattainable, unfinanceable promises and a credible left which assumes responsibilities.”
Unfortunately for Valls, socialist voters seem to want dreams, not common sense.
The battle between Hamon and Valls feels all the more futile because they are, in the words of Libération’s editor Laurent Joffrin, fighting over a sinking ship. Neither stands a realistic chance of making it to the presidential run-off.
The Socialists’ inability to organise their own primary was further evidence of the party’s dereliction. On Sunday night leaders claimed turnout was close to two million, which they revised downward to 1,603,518 on Monday morning, before admitting that figure too was wrong.
In any case, it was only a fraction of the 4.3 million voters who turned out for the first round of the LR primary in November, and one million fewer than those who voted than in the Socialists’ 2011 primary.