France: political left-wing outsider is the Socialists‘ favourite

The French primary election campaign delivered another big surprise yesterday. Benoit Hamon, previously an outsider in the race for the Socialist Party’s front-runner presidential candidate, was able to overtake all the other candidates to take about 36% of the votes in the primary first round. He therefore not only relegated the previous Socialist favourite, Manuel Valls, to second place (31%) but also put his chief left-wing rival, Arnaud Montebourg (18%) out of the race at the same time. Hamon only managed to catch up on the latter in the final spurt.

Hamon appears to have succeeded with his strategy of setting himself apart from the socialist mainstream with his radical and idealistic views. He advocates, for example, lowering the statutory working week from 35 to 32 hours. He also wants to tax industrial robots and use the revenues to finance a basic income of EUR 750 a month for all French people. The resounding victory of a „socialist fundamentalist“ reflects the yearning many party supporters have for traditional left-wing values, values that were largely overlooked during Hollande’s legislative period.

Against this background, next Sunday’s run-off can be seen as a power struggle within the Socialist Party, with an irreconcilable stand-off between the economically-pragmatic right wing and the idealistic left. As the obvious loser Montebourg has already called for his supporters to back Hamon, the former education minister now stands a good chance of becoming the Socialist Party’s candidate.

While ultimately, neither Valls nor Hamon have good chance of becoming France’s next president, the winner of the in-party race will impact significantly on the chances of the other parties‘ candidates. If Hamon runs for the Socialist Party, he will unlikely appeal to mainstream French voters. However, his concept of a basic income could ally numerous unemployed and low-paid workers to his side and not leave them without a fight to the voter group addressed by Le Pen’s FN party. While Le Pen would therefore favour the Social Democrat Valls as the Socialist Party’s candidate, independent and social-liberal former economy minister Macon of all people could have the last laugh. He currently ranks only third in the opinion polls in the first round of the primary and would no longer have to face competition from former prime minister Valls if Hamon was elected as the Socialist Party’s candidate.

The race for the presidency therefore remains wide open, as does France’s future economic policy orientation. While Le Pen stands for protectionism and re-nationalism, Macron is likely to support social consensus and moderate reforms. Republican Fillon supports the most economy-friendly course – abolishing the 35-hour week and fiscal austerity of EUR 100bn. Although Le Pen and Fillon differ in their political leanings and goals, they are united in their desire to radically change French (economic) policy. The very country that found it so difficult up to now to push through fundamental change, despite the lasting effects of the sovereign debt crisis, is now facing a landmark decision this year on its future economic and political course.

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