By Jimmy Quinn
In a Parisian venue packed to the brim with ecstatic supporters, Socialist Party candidate Benoît Hamon gave the tour de force performance of his political career on a recent Sunday afternoon.
The crowd of 25,000 assembled at the AccorHotels arena in Bercy on March 19th and radiated an electrifying energy in the presence of a star-studded entourage of left-wing legends. From famed economist Thomas Piketty to former minister of justice Christiane Taubira to several other old and new household names, the group sent a clear message: The French left is united around Benoît Hamon.
It was political theater of the highest quality, an event executed more-or-less perfectly, but unfortunately for the former minister of education, this might not mean much come April.
The unexpected victor of the primary of the left entered the race at the helm of a party tarnished by an incumbent president with abysmal approval ratings. To boot, the hard left voters Hamon would otherwise win gravitate towards the considerably more radical Jean-Luc Mélenchon, while the centrist voters who supported former Manuel Valls in the primary generally support Emmanuel Macron.
The ironic thing is that Hamon, a staunch left-winger, is perhaps for the first time in his life caught in the middle, condemned to electoral purgatory between the extreme left and what he calls the “groiche,” a creative epithet that pokes fun at Macron’s ambiguous centrism.
In a different year, his prospects would be far more promising. He proved on that afternoon that he is capable of amassing energetic support behind his brand of politics: positive, explosive, unequivocally of the left. While running on promises to remove the influence of money in politics (he says, “the party of money has too many candidates in this election”), champion ecology (former Ecology party candidate Yannick Jadot was present on Sunday to emphasize this point), and fight all forms of discrimination – all traditionally central components of left-wing campaigns – his calls for a tax on automation and a universal basic income have attracted poignant opposition, even within the Socialist Party. For this reason it becomes even clearer that Hamon is taking his party into new territory, at least for the duration of the campaign.
Where the extreme right and left pontificate against globalization, Hamon comes from the perspective that it’s wiser to manage modernity’s challenges instead of resorting to blunt promises that please the masses (he likes to tout his education policy as a solution for globalization). Sometimes, though, he might seem to sell his universal income like one of these promises. But, in any case, he is opening an important dimension in the debate over dealing with the dramatic changes in the labor market of the post-industrial era, intentional or not.
However, he justified his basic income proposal in the vein of continuing a left-wing heritage that can be traced back to France’s left-wing World War II-era National Council of Resistance, more than as a way of coping with automation at Bercy. An important question to ask, then, is whether Hamon has appeal in the periphery of France, where the National Front is campaigning for union votes that used to go to the country’s communists.
The Hamon agenda can in a certain respect be viewed as populist, but maybe not in the way that it needs to be to win in those areas. It plays better with urban youth, and the National Front already possesses a commanding lead over the youth vote. Moreover, the Socialist candidate’s commitment to Europe, despite his promises to amend the treaties of the European Union, places him in the mainstream of French political discourse and at odds with France’s anti-globalists.
Some pro-Valls PS figures have already indicated that they cannot support Hamon’s candidacy, and a few members of the Hollande cabinet have even drifted into Macron’s orbit. Despite this, though, he is the dream candidate many on the left have been waiting for. Defiant and probably less likely than Hollande to hide his political ideology if he reaches the Élysée, he could very well be the enduring face of the post-2017 Socialist Party. But is this such a desirable prize in the long term?
This year’s breakdown of the old party system might culminate in a second round globalist-nationalist clash, if the current polling holds. The left-right political divide has taken a backseat this year, and Hamon has planted his campaign squarely in its context—something not easily lost on any of the enthusiastic supporters present at Bercy. We can look at his political future as an indicator of whether this shift is just a fad or instead the emergence of a new political reality in the west.
After May, Benoît Hamon will either lead a resurgent left-wing movement that remains competitive in future national elections or a politically obsolete vestige of the 20th century.