The center-right party and its socialists opponents have controlled both legislative and executive power without interruption since 1981 in France. However, in a matter of months in 2016, this political status quo exploded with the rise of populist and other anti-establishment candidates. To maintain its position, the socialist party chose Benoît Hamon for the presidential election.
Hamon started his political career at the age of 26, when he became the first leader of the Movement of Young Socialists (MJS), the Socialist party’s youth wing. Hamon tried to push the Socialists to the left with this youth group’s efforts, after the party lost in the 2002 presidential election.
The Socialist Party united around the new president, François Hollande, in 2012, who gave guarantees to both wings of the party. Hamon became deputy minister of Social and Solidarity Economy and Consumption. However, the inefficiency of the government and his lack of power within it disappointed Hamon. In 2014, he conspired with fellow ministers Arnaud Montebourg and Manuel Valls to force Hollande to nominate Valls as prime minister. Consequently, Valls promoted Hamon to lead the Ministry of Education.
Ironically, Hamon and Valls had profound political disagreements. Valls always fought for a more centrist party, while Hamon opposed this change. After only five short months, Hamon left the government in August 2014 and became one of the main opponents of Valls in parliament.
The deep unpopularity of the government prompted Hollande to finally decide not to run last November. Valls decided to replace Hollande to defend the efforts of the leftist party. Consequently, Montebourg, who also left the government and became a loud opponent to Hollande, and Hamon both ran against Valls.
While pollsters expected Valls and Montebourg to easily win against their opponents, Hamon slowly managed to impose on the debate his ideas, such as the legalization of cannabis or the revolutionary concept of a universal basic income (UBI). His proposed that all citizens over 18, regardless of wealth or employment status, should receive €750 ($810) per month.
The hotly-debated UBI proposal overshadowed issues such as security, immigration, the EU, and protectionism, which Valls and Montebourg were more comfortable debating. Hamon swept the favorite, Montebourg, in the first round and won against Valls in the runoff with 59 percent of the vote.
At a time of anti-establishment sentiment, he wants French citizens to be able to force the legislative branch to vote on issues if one percent of the electorate desires a vote. His proposal to tax automated robots and the UBI, whilst criticized for their extraordinary economic costs, demonstrated real philosophical reflection of France’s future in an increasingly automated world.
Despite Hamon’s enthusiasm, the situation remains bleak for the Socialists. Hamon spent the last weeks negotiating with the other leftist parties after placing fourth with roughly 13 percent in recent polls. After registering the support of the Green Party candidate, Hamon hit a brick wall in the negotiations with the far-left eurosceptic, Jean-Luc Mélenchon. In addition, Valls and the centrist wing of the party have refused to help Hamon’s campaign, and some have joined the rising centrist Emmanuel Macron.
Perhaps Hamon’s objectives lie elsewhere. Both Valls and Hamon expect a tense socialist congress where both wings will fight for control over the party for the next five years. Hamon needs a good score, ideally a few points ahead of Mélenchon, to prove that the future of the Socialists lies on the left and not the center of political spectrum. But squeezed between a resurgent far-left Mélenchon and a newly-powerful, centrist Macron, Hamon and Valls need to be careful that their fight does not condemn the party to electoral catastrophe.