Benoit Hamon wins French Socialist primary election

Winner Benoit Hamon, right, with defeated candidate Manuel Valls after the French Socialist Party primary run-off. Picture: AFP/Getty Images
Winner Benoit Hamon, right, with defeated candidate Manuel Valls after the French Socialist Party primary run-off. Picture: AFP/Getty Images
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Benoit Hamon, riding to victory from left-wing obscurity on a radical proposal to a pay all adults a monthly basic income, will be the Socialist Party candidate in France’s presidential election after handily beating ex-prime minister Manuel Valls in a primary run-off vote yesterday.

Hamon’s win sends the divided Socialists, weakened by the chronic unpopularity of outgoing President Francois Hollande, into a tough presidential battle behind a candidate with limited government experience and hard-left politics that could alienate some centre-left Socialist voters.

With ballots counted at 60 per cent of polling stations, Hamon had almost 59 per cent of the vote to Valls’ 41 per cent. Valls immediately conceded defeat in the face of the result that appeared like a clear sanction of both his and Hollande’s polices.

With the ruling party having settled on its candidate, the race for the presidential Elysee Palace begins in earnest, although the outcome of the two-round general election vote in April and May looks increasingly uncertain.

Leading conservative candidate Francois Fillon, who also previously served as prime minister, was rocked during the past week by allegations that his wife, Penelope, held a fake but handsomely paid job as a parliamentary aide. Financial prosecutors are investigating.

At a campaign rally in Paris yesterday – where a boisterous crowd gave Penelope Fillon a standing ovation and chanted her name – Fillon said, “We have nothing to hide.”

“Through Penelope they are trying to break me,” he said. “I will never forgive those who chose to throw us to the wolves.”

A priority for Hamon, a 49-year-old former junior minister and, briefly, education minister, will be to rally the Socialists, split ideologically and wounded by Hollande’s five-year tenure as president.

The party is also squeezed by rivals on both flanks. Fiery far-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon and centrist Emmanuel Macron, Hollande’s former economics minister, are both making hay by appealing to disappointed Socialist voters.

Early polling has suggested the Socialist candidate will struggle to advance to the presidential runoff in May, where far-right leader Marine Le Pen could be waiting, campaigning on anti-Europe, anti-immigration and anti-Islam themes.

The turnout, at around two million voters, was more robust than in the primary’s first round of voting a week ago, but still suggested a lack of enthusiasm among the 44-million French electorate. The primary was open to all voters who paid €1.

Hamon wasn’t as tainted as Valls by Hollande’s unpopularity because he rebelled and quit the government in 2014. Valls served as Hollande’s prime minister for more than two years until last December, when it became clear the president couldn’t win a second term. But having to defend the government’s economic policies and labour reforms against Hamon proved an uphill fight.

Hamon’s signature proposal for a €750 “universal income” that would be gradually granted to all adults also proved a campaign masterstroke. It grabbed headlines and underpinned his surprise success in the primary’s two rounds of voting, first against six opponents and then against Valls in the runoff. Sharply criticised by Valls as unrealistic and ruinous, the no-strings-attached payments would cushion the French in an increasingly automated future, as machines take their jobs, according to Hamon. He proposes a tax on robots to help finance the huge costs – by Hamon’s reckoning, at least €300 billion if applied to more than 50 million adults.

Hamon also proposes legalising cannabis.