News analysis

French Socialists make risky bet in picking left-wing outsider

Benoit Hamon's promises may consolidate the party's base, but might do little to boost its electoral prospects

Jonathan Eyal Trailing badly in opinion polls, France's ruling Socialists are seeking to revive their fortunes by picking a left-wing outsider as their candidate for presidential elections scheduled for April and May.

Although the selection of Mr Benoit Hamon, a fiery orator who promises to expand the country's welfare system and legalise cannabis, may consolidate the Socialists' traditional working-class base, it might actually do little to boost the party's electoral prospects.

Instead, what Mr Hamon might succeed in doing is to split France's centre-left electorate and render the current French presidential campaign even more unpredictable. He will also increase the popularity of another candidate who belongs to neither the established left, nor the right in French politics.

Under France's traditional rules, which left the selection of candidates to party bosses, Mr Benoit Hamon, 49, would have stood little chance of becoming the Socialists' presidential standard-bearer; but since Mr Francois Hollande, the current president who is also a Socialist, is not seeking another term, the candidature mantle seemed guaranteed to fall on the shoulders of Mr Manuel Valls, France's prime minister until the end of last year.

But the Socialists decided to hold US-style presidential primaries, and that ensured that the selection fell to the party's rank and file, who are attracted to more populist leftist causes. Mr Hamon's pledge that, if elected as president, he would establish a "universal basic income" scheme, under which all French adults would be given €750 (S$1,150) a month, regardless of their financial or employment circumstances, appealed to party stalwarts' vision of a socialist "paradise".

Mr Hamon's proposal to impose a tax on robots also proved popular with workers fearing job losses from mechanisation, while his arguments for the legalisation of drugs played well with the young.

French Socialist party secretary Jean-Christophe Cambadelis (centre) flanked by Mr Benoit Hamon (far right), the winner of the second round of the party's primaries for the 2017 presidential election, and his opponent Manuel Valls on Sunday.
French Socialist party secretary Jean-Christophe Cambadelis (centre) flanked by Mr Benoit Hamon (far right), the winner of the second round of the party's primaries for the 2017 presidential election, and his opponent Manuel Valls on Sunday. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Mr Hamon's victory was convincing: although only two million Socialist supporters took part in the party ballots - compared to the rival centre-right Republicans who attracted four million supporters to their primaries - 58 per cent of Socialists opted for Mr Hamon, according to the final tallies released yesterday.

However, Mr Hamon's vision of a France where everything is heavily taxed while people do little work but roll plenty of cannabis joints has no chance of being realised: Opinion polls indicate that, if national ballots were held now, the Socialist candidate would be lucky to get 15 per cent.

French Socialist party secretary Jean-Christophe Cambadelis (centre) flanked by Mr Benoit Hamon (far right), the winner of the second round of the party's primaries for the 2017 presidential election, and his opponent Manuel Valls on Sunday.
Mr Emmanuel Macron

Still, Mr Hamon, who yesterday claimed that France's left has "turned towards the future" and should "hold its head high", believes he can win. He has appealed to two fringe presidential candidates, who between them have the support of a further 10 per cent of the electorate, to join hands with the Socialists to defeat what he termed as the "destructive right".

Besides, under France's two-round electoral system, in which anyone can take part in the first round but only the two best-placed candidates go into the second and decisive ballot, all that Mr Hamon needs to do at this stage is to get into the second round. And that is at least theoretically feasible, since Mr Francois Fillon, the leader of the main opposition Republicans and until now the pollsters' favourite mainstream politician, is embroiled in a damaging scandal about allegations that he arranged fictitious payments to his wife.

If the Socialists' Mr Hamon were to overtake Mr Fillon, he would most likely face Mrs Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Front in the second round, a contest the Socialist is almost guaranteed to win, since whoever opposes Mrs Le Pen in the second round can expect broad support from across the political spectrum.

But the snag is that the Socialists' lurch to the left has galvanised the campaign of Mr Emmanuel Macron, an ambitious centrist candidate who split from the Socialists and is currently running third in opinion polls.

A photogenic and articulate former banker, Mr Macron, 38, is touted as France's answer to America's Donald Trump. Like the United States President, he is an establishment candidate running on an anti-establishment ticket.

But the snag is that the Socialists' lurch to the left has galvanised the campaign of Mr Emmanuel Macron, an ambitious centrist candidate who split from the Socialists and is currently running third in opinion polls.   A photogenic and articulate former banker, Mr Macron, 38, is touted as France's answer to America's Donald Trump.

However, unlike Mr Trump, he sees himself as a national healer. "My aim isn't to bring together the right or the left but to bring together the French people," he said.

There are rumours in Paris that Mr Hamon's election as the Socialists' candidate will prompt leading moderate Socialists to defect to Mr Macron, giving the independent centrist even more credibility and propelling him into the second round, at the expense of the established candidates of both the left and right.

And that might mean not only humiliation for the Socialists' freshly chosen candidate, but also perhaps the meltdown of a party that has played a central role in French politics for almost 150 years.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 31, 2017, with the headline 'French Socialists make risky bet in picking left-wing outsider'. Print Edition | Subscribe