Hamon emerges as surprise contender for French leftwing presidential runoff

Benoît Hamon at the national council of the French Socialist Party, 18 June 2016. [Parti socialiste/ Flickr]

Leftwing outsider Benoît Hamon will fight former prime minister Manuel Valls for the French Socialist presidential nomination next Sunday (29 January) after winning the first round of the party’s primary.

Hamon was not considered a serious contender when the campaign began in December but the 49-year-old former education minister put himself in the driving seat with what he called a “message of hope and renewal”.

With Europe shifting to the right and deeply unpopular President François Hollande ruling himself out, the Socialist primary has been billed as a fight for the party’s soul with a left-leaning faction represented by Hamon battling Valls’ centrist camp.

Hamon scored over 36% with Valls trailing on 31%, according to results from around 80% of polling stations.

Maverick former economy minister Arnaud Montebourg was eliminated with 17% and immediately threw his support behind Hamon.

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Long odds

Whoever wins the Socialist nomination faces long odds as polls currently show the presidential election coming down to a contest between conservative ex-premier François Fillon, far-right leader Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron, the 39-year-old former economy minister.

A defiant Valls, 54, told his supporters the Socialist primary runoff would be “a clear choice between unachievable promises and a credible left”.

Hamon said he offered hope to a party ailing after five years under Hollande beset by economic sluggishness and mass protests.

His supporters had voted “through conviction and not out of resignation”, he said.

Hamon performed strongly in three TV debates crammed into a short campaign, attracting attention with a proposal to give the unemployed and low-paid a “universal income” rising from €600 euros to €750 a month. Valls has poured scorn on the idea.

The two men will face off in a head-to-head TV debate on Wednesday (25 January).

The photogenic Macron has stolen the limelight from his former Socialist government colleagues in recent weeks, with his campaign speeches packed to overflowing.

But with rightwing ideas taking root across Europe, most opinion polls currently show a Fillon-Le Pen presidential showdown as the most likely scenario in May.

Macron is projected to score better than the Socialist candidate in the first round but both would be knocked out.

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Valls paying price?

Valls, who was slapped by a protester during campaigning, appears to have paid the price for his association with Hollande and has at times struggled in a contest he had been expected to dominate.

Following his elimination, Montebourg backed his former cabinet colleague Hamon, both of whom represent the Socialists’ left flank.

“We left the government together, we fought together. Next Sunday I’ll be voting Hamon,” he said.

Some Socialist supporters said Hamon was a breath of fresh air.

“To me he is the one best placed to revive the party,” said Jean-Claude, who cast his ballot in Millau, southwestern France.

Spanish-born Valls set out to modernise his party but has struggled to unite his camp, with his rivals accusing him of betraying leftist ideals by forcing through labour market reforms.

Between 1.7 million and 1.9 million voted, according to an estimate by the Elabe polling group, compared to the four million who took part in the first round of the rightwing primary.

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Tactical moves?

Some Socialist heavyweights have hinted they could abandon their party’s nominee and back Macron instead if he looks to have a better chance of reaching the second round of the presidential election against Le Pen.

Macron himself has ruled out a pact with the Socialists, promising that his En Marche (On the Move) party will field hundreds of candidates in parliamentary elections in June.

Communist-backed firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon, who like Macron is standing as an independent, also threatens to split the leftwing vote.

The influence of Le Pen, who leads the anti-immigration National Front (FN), has overshadowed the entire presidential campaign so far.

She told a meeting of rightwing populist parties in Germany on Saturday that Europe was about to “wake up” following the victory of Donald Trump in the US election and the British vote to leave the European Union.

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