During a TV debate yesterday evening (25 January), both contenders for the Socialist ticket in the French Presidential election said they would loosen the country’s purse strings, with Benoît Hamon going a step further by promising to end the EU’s “3% deficit dogma”. EURACTIV France reports.
It was a tense Manuel Valls that faced up to his former minister Benoît Hamon for the final debate of France’s left-wing presidential primary on Wednesday.
After finishing second in the first round of voting, which mobilised some 1.6 million left-wing sympathisers, the ex-prime minister defended an austere vision of the left against a more optimistic Hamon, who was eager to assert himself as a credible challenger for the presidency.
French voters will choose between Manuel Valls and Benoît Hamon in the second round of the Socialist primary this Sunday (29 January). The first round of the Presidential election will take place on 23 April, with a run-off expected on 7 May.
Throughout most of the debate, the discussion focussed on Hamon’s proposals, from the universal basic income (UBI) to secularism or the environment.
Valls found himself largely on the defensive.
The two candidates clashed over their views on labour policy. Valls doggedly defended the value of working while Hamon, who owed his victory largely to his UBI proposal, promised radical reform.
“I am the candidate of the payslip, I would not like Hamon to end up as the candidate of the tax form,” the ex-prime minister said.
But for Hamon, the dwindling supply of jobs and the revenues they generate should be shared out. He believes growing automation spurred by robotics calls for society to rethink the working week, reducing it from 35 to 32 hours.
Valls, who wants to cut tax on overtime earnings, proposed a 39-hour standard working week.
Probed as to how much his UBI plans would cost the taxpayer, Hamon mentioned a figure of €45 billion. He said this could be financed by a tax on net assets and a tax on machines that take over human jobs.
Hamon also emerged as the leader of Wednesday’s debate, announcing tough measures against health and environmental risks, such as hormone disruptors and the excessive use of agricultural chemicals.
“We negotiate with bankers, not nature,” he told journalists that criticised him for apparently caring more about the environment than the economy.
Ending the 3% deficit dogma
Neither candidate seemed particularly worried by the burden of France’s national debt, a subject of enormous concern for Brussels.
“We have to end this 3% deficit dogma,” Hamon said confidently. François Hollande campaigned on a similar platform in 2012 before bending the knee to the eurozone’s Stability and Growth pact during his mandate.
Despite his central role in Hollande’s government, Valls too suggested a certain amount of budgetary leniency would be good for the French economy.
“We should not only be concerned about respecting the European rules, we also have to guarantee our future. But we have to be credible, we cannot just be dreamers,” Valls said, estimating his tabled spending increases on security, defence and justice at €16bn per year.
Building a European defence union
Valls stressed the importance of European cooperation on surveillance and border control, but insisted any such proposal should stop short of a European investigation body like the American FBI.
Taking the subject further, Hamon called for spending on these operations to be excluded from the country’s deficit calculations, “just like with spending on the ecological transition”, he said.
After the election of Donald Trump in the US, Valls highlighted the importance of a strong and united Europe. In response to the existential risk the Trump Presidency poses to NATO, “we should call together all of Europe’s willing participants to build a European defence union”, the former prime minister said.
Beyond their individual differences, the two candidates will also have to overcome the splits in their political family if either is to become the next French president.
Experts tip Hamon to confirm his lead in the final round of voting on Sunday.
Both candidates have trouble appealing to the Socialist Party faithful beyond their own inner circles. And whoever emerges as the presidential candidate on Sunday will have to at least bear partial responsibility for the current government’s less than shining record on issues like unemployment.
The winner will also have to contend with the wild-card centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron, whose En Marche! movement has caused the biggest upset to France’s political landscape in years, leaving the traditional parties looking nervously over their shoulders.