Letter From … Paris

Leftwinger Benoît Hamon surprises pundits to win French Socialist candidacy, writes Felicity Slater

In another surprise to the commentariat, but confirmation disloyalty is more valued than solutions on the left, Benoît Hamon has beaten outgoing prime minister Manuel Valls in the race to become the Socialist party’s candidate for the French presidency.

Hamon sits on the party’s left flank, climbing the ranks from student politics in the nineties to education secretary during Francois Hollande’s presidency. He resigned from the cabinet on the same day as Arnaud Montebourg in August 2014, in protest at the economic policy led by Hollande and Valls. At a Socialist party event, toasting special guest Hamon, Montebourg joked he would be sending the president a bottle of Chateau Economic Recovery. As a result, Hollande called on then-PM Valls to dissolve the government and purge it of its disloyal leftwing outriders.

The resignation was pivotal to a future Hamon candidacy, giving him the space to re-establish his credentials as the standard bearer of the French Socialists’ left. It also guaranteed that he would secure the endorsement of Montebourg – who was defeated earlier in the primary – against Valls in the second round. Hamon’s key pledges include the legalisation of assisted dying, a universal basic income and a tax on robots.

The candidate set to gain the most, from Hamon’s victory is Emmanuel Macron, former economy minister under Hollande, who declared his candidacy as a progressive independent, avoiding joining the fray of the left’s primary.

With the Socialist brand so weak after Hollande’s five years in the Elysee palace, the independent Macron might be the last chance that France will not swing back to the right – be it the Thatcherism of Republican party candidate Francois Fillon, or the National Front’s Marine Le Pen.

As a radical left defeats moderates and the populist right surges, it is tempting to draw false comparisons between the French and British left.

Certainly, the economic debate of profligacy versus austerity broadly reflects that between left and right in the United Kingdom. But France’s debate on social issues tells a different story. Just as much of the anglophone press was as wrong in its conclusion that Valls was the likely Socialist candidate, it is wrong to say that he is the third way’s French torchbearer. His economic centrist tendencies are married with a social conservatism that would win little hearing in the British Labour party. As a hopeful candidate, he would not pledge to legalise IVF for female couples. And he was not alone: only one of the candidates in the left’s primary – the Green party’s François de Rugy – pledged to legalise surrogacy.

All nations have founding myths. Ours is the second world war and our sense of ourselves as ‘plucky little Britain’ – a country that can stand on its own two feet. France’s inheritance from its revolutionary past is not just a republican, secular state but its idea of itself as a radical country.

That means that if people are angry about something, they are more likely to take to the streets to make their voice heard. It means that if you are the state, you will not collect data on the religion of school children. But if you are a top university, you are less likely to question the monoethnicity of your student body.

The central question of this election is Islam and its integration into the west. The problem facing the French establishment is that it lacks the political vocabulary to understand why. Marine Le Pen rides a populist wave that has gained momentum over many years as the mainstream left and right refuse to address the issue head on.

15 years on, the republican front of left and right that defeated Jean-Marie Le Pen in 2002 can still see off his daughter. While the roots of hard right populism – indeed, fascism in France – are different on either side of the channel, it is the defining issue of this generation’s progressives to overcome it.

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Felicity Slater works in development and has a masters in European politics from Sciences Po Bordeaux. She tweets at @FelicitySlater

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Comments: 2...

  1. On February 7, 2017 at 12:00 pm Ged responded with... #

    Hollande was far too Tory-lite. I hope this new guy is a proper socialist.

  2. On February 7, 2017 at 7:00 pm David Lindsay responded with... #

    The French are a classy lot. Truly, the takedown of François Fillon is a thing of beauty. Might there be a deal between Benoît Hamon and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, in the former’s favour? Only if Hamon gave up his Thatcherite anti-industrialism. And only if he agreed with Mélenchon that it is, “impossible to achieve the democratic change needed in the EU, all power belonging to technocrats with no popular legitimacy.” Whoever is the second round candidate against Marine Le Pen will be guaranteed to beat her. Therefore, it is possible, and thus morally obligatory, to insist on the right candidate.

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