Published daily by the Lowy Institute

French socialists reject centrism, want to dream again

Many in the Socialist party feel bitter about Hamon's victory in the presidential primaries.

Socialist party candidate for the 2017 French presidential election Benoit Hamon (Photo by Vincent Isore/IP3/Getty Images)
Socialist party candidate for the 2017 French presidential election Benoit Hamon (Photo by Vincent Isore/IP3/Getty Images)
Published 2 Feb 2017 

The outcome of the French left's presidential primary vote this week marks an about face for the country's Socialist party. By electing Benoît Hamon as the presidential candidate, French socialists have shown that they want the party to return to core left-wing values and away from the business-friendly agenda of President François Hollande's government. However, Hamon will struggle to hold the party together and without a broad base of support he won't have chance in this year's presidential election.

The result is a slap in the face for the current socialist President Hollande and a clear rejection of his policies. Hamon won by a wide margin of 59% to 41%. By saying 'yes' to Hamon, the voters also vehemently said 'no' to his rival, former Prime Minister Manuel Valls who stood on the government's track record. Valls was responsible for pushing through a controversial labour law, which triggered months of protests, and he epitomised the government's hard line against terrorism.

The primary result showed voters preferred Hamon's 'desirable future' - they want a left that lets them dream again.

Philippe Marlière, Professor for French and European Politics at University College London, calls the outcome of the vote an 'act of self-defence': 'The Socialist party is in pretty bad shape – it has lost a lot of ground in all the regional and local elections over the past five years. The only way to save the party was to choose a candidate that would bring it back to traditional left-wing territory, away from the government's unpopular centrist line'.

The policy shift is part of wider trend across Europe. In the UK, the Labour opposition is becoming increasingly radical under Jeremy Corbyn. In Greece, the government is led by Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, head of far-left party Syriza, and in Spain, the anti-corruption party Podemos is now the third largest party in Parliament.

Gérard Grunberg from the Centre for European Studies at Science Po University in Paris describes the growing popularity and visibility of far left ideology as a 'crisis of social democracy'. 'It's a rejection of a compromise that had been found between the Left and the Right with market-orientated politics,' he stated. 'Radical left-wing ideas are gaining ground, as more and more people reject austerity politics in these times of economic hardship.'

Hamon represents that anti-austerity line in France, where growth has been sluggish and unemployment high: one in four young people don't have a job. Hamon's proposed remedy includes further reducing working hours (from 35 to 32 hours per week) and introducing a universal monthly income of €750. He also emphasises protection of the environment, equality and the integration of refugees.

Opposing Hollande's policies has become almost second nature for the 49-year-old Hamon during the past five years. After a short stint as an education minister, he quit Hollande's government and became one of the President's fiercest opponents in Parliament. He is part of the so-called 'frondeurs', a group of rebel parliamentarians. They have been systematically voting against government policy which they see as too centrist.

But it's precisely this stance that is repelling many of his centrist socialist comrades now. Of the roughly 270 MP who identify as Socialist, only 70 are frondeurs. Many of the others feel bitter about Hamon's victory. 'How can we support a presidential project that is the antithesis of a government action we have been endorsing and the results of which we have been championing?', two asked in an opinion column in the daily newspaper Le Monde this week. They are among the 'reformist' socialists, several of which are now expected to defect to the independent and centrist presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron.  

Marcon, who resigned as economics minister and broke away from his one-time mentor Hollande last year, has been running on a market-orientated platform and stealing the limelight from the socialist candidates over the past few months. His campaign meetings have attracted thousands of people while the socialists struggled to fill their conference rooms. One recent poll put him to neck-and-neck with Republican candidate François Fillon and right after front runner Marine le Pen from the extreme right National Front. This week the Fillon campaign was rocked by revelations the candidate has had his wife on the payroll for years yet media investigations suggest she had no discernible job.

Hamon will obviously try to prevent his Socialist colleagues from leaving, probably by modifying some of his most radical proposals such as the universal income. But he will be treading a fine line, warns Marlière: 'He can't move too far to the centre, because that would break the positive momentum he has created with his modern, pluralist project'.

A shift to the centre would also scare away those voters that now see him as a credible alternative to far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon. The same recent poll showed Hamon ahead of Mélenchon with 15% of the vote. But that's nowhere near good enough. He's still ranked fourth. Even if he moves up a peg thanks to Fillon's fall from grace, to reach the second round and have a shot at becoming president, Hamon will need to be amongst the top two. That seems out of reach, at least for now.

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