​French Socialists choose leftwing rebel Benoît Hamon for Élysée fight

Former education minister reacts after partial results in the second round of the French left’s presidential primary election

Photo by Marion Germa

Hamon’s trouncing of centrist Manuel Valls is damning verdict on failed presidency of pro-market François Hollande​. The primary race had been a bitter and divisive fight between two warring factions of the Socialist party: the staunch left wing versus the the pro-business, Socialist party of government that aspired to New Labour-style politics.​

Benoît Hamon, the staunchly leftwing rebel outsider who wants to introduce a universal basic income, legalise cannabis and tax robots has been chosen as the French Socialist party’s presidential candidate.

Hamon secured a clear win of more than 58% over the centrist former prime minister Manuel Valls on around 42%, according to the first partial results. It was a victory for the party’s leftwing rebels against the pro-market, centre-left policies of François Hollande – a damning verdict by voters against what many on the left consider as the failed presidency of an unpopular leader.

The primary race had been a bitter and divisive fight between two warring factions of the Socialist party: the staunch left wing versus the the pro-business, Socialist party of government that aspired to New Labour-style politics.

Speaking to supporters, Hamon said the French Socialist party could “hold its head high” again, telling his supporters he represented a left that was “turned towards the future” and that “wanted to win”.

He said: “I believe that faced with a conservative right that represents privilege and a destructive extreme-right, our country needs a left that thinks of the world as it is, and not as it was, a left that can bring a future people want.”

Valls, conceding defeat, referenced the need to bring the party back together again, wishing Hamon “good luck”.

Hamon’s campaign was about moving the party firmly to the left after what many Socialist voters feel has been a muddled and disastrous term under Hollande, who was accused of zig-zagging on economic policy and betraying Socialist ideals. The least popular president since the war, with a satisfaction rating of 4%, Hollande conceded last month that he couldn’t run for re-election.

Hamon’s first challenge now is to try to stop the French Socialist party imploding between its warring leftwing and centre-left factions. He then needs to prove his candidacy can find its place in the presidential campaign in which the Socialist party is already predicted to be irrelevant, relegated to a low position with no chance of winning in the two-round election in April and May.

The French electorate has shifted firmly to the right and the Socialist party is faced with a possible humiliating fifth place in the presidential race.

The far-right Front National’s Marine Le Pen still leads the polls for the first-round of the presidential race, against the beleaguered, scandal-hit rightwing candidate François Fillon. Emmanuel Macron, who served as economy minister under Hollande, is running a maverick, independent centrist ticket and is rapidly gaining in the polls, closer to being able to make the final run-off. Key figures on the centre of the Socialist party could jump ship to Macron after Hamon’s win. The hard-left firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon is also rising in the polls and eating into the Socialist vote on the left.

Hamon, 49, who served as education minister, is the figurehead of leftwing rebel MPs who turned against Hollande for his pro-business U-turn in office. Hamon was ejected from the government in 2014 after opposing Hollande and Valls’s pro-market economic policy. He then led a rebellion of MPs against Hollande’s controversial drive to loosen France’s labour laws. A Socialist MP in Yvelines outside Paris, Hamon was the youngest and furthest left of the candidates in the open Socialist primary race, in which any voter could take part if they paid €1 and signed a form adhering to the values of the left.

Hamon wants to reduce the working week from 35 to 32 hours, levy a tax on robots and provide a monthly universal basic income for 18 to 25-year-olds that will then be extended to all French people. His claims a universal basic income would offset dwindling work opportunities in an age of automation. It would entail paying everyone, irrespective of income, a monthly stipend that would eventually reach €750 (£640). He has accused politicians on the right and left of twisting French secularism to target French Muslims.

Comparisons to Jeremy Corbyn have been bandied around throughout the French Socialist race, but Hamon, who has praised Corbyn, is nonetheless very different​ ​from the UK’s Labour leader. The pro-Europe Hamon is 20 years younger than Corbyn, he has served in government as minister, was an MEP and has been part of the party apparatus as a former party spokesman.

Hamon’s immediate task will be to try to rally as much of the party behind him as possible. After pushing a hard line in favour of environmental policies and action on climate change, he could also try to convince the Green party candidate, Yannick Jadot, to quit and join Hamon’s campaign.

The first headache for the Socialists will be whether many figures from the centrist pro-Valls wing of the party will flee in an exodus to Macron, seeing that as their only chance of a presidential win.

Valls himself has long referred to what he called two “irreconcilable” wings of the party. During the race, Valls accused Hamon of idealist, costly and pie-in-the-sky notions that could not be put into practice, warning that he would relegate the Socialist party to “certain failure” and the wilderness of decades in opposition.

Valls had told reporters last week that he could not defend Hamon’s manifesto for the presidency. Valls suggested that if Hamon won, he couldn’t get behind him, but would step back from the campaign.

This article originally appeared on TheGuardian.com.