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Parti Socialiste (PS) Socialist Party

Socialist candidate Benoît Hamon was knocked out of the race to become France's president after securing just 6.2 percent of the vote in the first round of the elections 23 April 2017. With the exception of 2002, it's the first time since 1969 that the party was not in the run-off. The French left, even though it was exercising the power of the State for the fourth time since 1981, was one of those moments of acute crisis which was customary. The Socialists had already tasted defeat in the first round, back in 2002. Bruised by five gruelling years in power and bitterly divided, they had always looked destined for defeat.

On 29 January 2017 Socialists in France chose former junior minister Benoit Hamon as their candidate for president in a victory that analysts said was not likely to boost his election chances when French voters begin first-round balloting for a new president in April 2017. The 49-year-old Breton, who wants to legalise cannabis, tax robots and give everyone in France a €750 living wage, picked up around 59 percent of votes cast in the run-off, defeating Manuel Valls, a pro-business former prime minister.

The victory capped a remarkable run by the Socialist “nothing much”, who was long seen as a side-kick for leftists with greater panache. It mirrors trends seen across the West, “where the mainstream left had been mauled by a decade of crisis, rising unemployment and surging inequality", said Bruno Cautrès, a political scientist at CEVIPOF in Paris. Pointing to parallels with Britain’s Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn, Spain’s anti-establishment Podemos, and leftist firebrand Bernie Sanders – all of whom Hamon singled out as sources of inspiration – Cautrès added, “Many Socialists dream of a return to the left’s core values.”

Five years after sweeping France's presidential and legislative elections, by 2017 the Socialists were in a sorry state. France's ruling Socialist Party is weak, deeply unpopular and ideologically divided. "The situation is absolutely desperate for the Socialists," says Paris-based analyst Bruno Cautres. "The most important thing about Francois Hollande's mandate is the Socialists have lost their identity." So low had they sunk that Hollande, his ratings at rock bottom, announced last month he would not seek re-election.

For the Socialists, the elections marked a humbling end to five years in power that saw France hit by three major terrorist attacks, unemployment that peaked at 13 percent, and a series of rolling strikes over what economists describe as mostly modest reforms. The party had failed to capitalize on its years out of power. The Socialists did not work on a new political program or project during that time, so their 2012 presidential and parliamentary win more a repudiation of unpopular, center-right leader Nicolas Sarkozy.

Hollande's presidency has been "an immense waste," lamented the leftist mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, in an interview with Le Monde newspaper, saying it had led the left "to a state of absolute confusion." The party's very foundations have crumbled, Le Monde wrote in a separate editorial - including its traditional working class support base "which has yielded to the populist sirens of the National Front."

French left-wing voters cast their ballots 22 January 2017 in the Socialist Party presidential primary to choose a candidate they hope will be strong enough to effectively confront conservative and nationalist rivals in the April-May general election. Given deep voter disenchantment, it might seem normal for a leftist politician to sit out this election season. Yet no fewer than seven were on the ballot for the primaries, which are open to all French voters for the price of two euros.

Center-leaning former Prime Minister Manuel Valls was a leading contender among seven candidates, but faced formidable challenges from harder-core leftists Arnaud Montebourg and Benoit Hamon, both former government ministers and three members of other leftist parties. Valls embodied the party's more centrist leanings, although he had since tried to adopt more leftist rhetoric as candidate. As prime minister for much of Hollande's presidency, he pushed through controversial labor and security measures, sometimes ramming them through parliament with the help of a constitutional measure he now called for repealing. While Valls is expected to win the first round of voting, analysts predicted he would lose the runoff to a more left-leaning candidate. Valls' main rivals embodied the party's left wing.

Flamboyant former economy minister Arnaud Montebourg championed anti-austerity, protectionist policies summed up by his 'Made in France' motto. "Little Benoît" lacked both Valls’s notoriety and the flourish of Arnaud Montebourg, the fiery former economy minister. Nor did he enjoy the intellectual aura associated with the fourth candidate, Vincent Peillon, who preceded him at the education ministry. Though all four were part of the same generation of former Socialist ‘Young Turks’, alternately allies and rivals, Hamon was very much the junior member – in age, fame and deed.

The dark-horse candidate was another ex-minister, Benoit Hamon. Both fans of the firebrand US senator Bernie Sanders, Hamon and Montebourg ran neck-and-neck in the polls, behind Valls. Surveys suggested one of them would win the January 29 second-round runoff against the former prime minister, scooping up backing and supporters from the other. Most of the “Frondeurs” supported Montebourg; and Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo threw her lot behind Peillon.

Hamon, a former education minister who quit Hollande’s government in protest at its right-ward lurch, had recently joined the growing ranks of the “Frondeurs” – the party’s dissident leftist faction. His was the first recognisable name in a festering rebellion that would ultimately prove fatal to Hollande. But, at the time, the French president dismissed the threat.

A Socialist “apparatchik”, Hamon enjoyed little recognition beyond the party’s confines. His first cabinet post, as junior minister for the “social economy”, was hardly a headline-grabber. The subsequent upgrade, to education minister, lasted just 147 days. He was elected to the European Parliament once, in 2004, and the French National Assembly a decade later, but suffered as many defeats.

With his working-class family background, impeccable left-wing credentials and understated coolness, Hamon was a perfect fit for the Mouvement des Jeunes Socialistes (MJS), whose leadership he took over back in 1992. Ironically, it was Valls, five years his senior, who helped the young Breton into the youth wing. To this day, Hamon is known as the man who secured the MJS’s autonomy within the party, turning a docile, obedient club into a formidable force, capable of mobilising large crowds and challenging the top brass.

Analysts said the party winner was likely to be ousted in the first round of the presidential election in April, in a country marked by anti-immigrant populism and economic stagnation. The far-right National Front party of Marine Le Pen is generally expected to dominate the first round, reflecting a wider populist backlash in Europe and the U.S., where President Donald Trump took office. President Francois Hollande declined to seek re-election, fearing his record-low popularity would hurt the Socialists' chances of keeping the presidency.

Support for the Socialist candidate would possibly also be drawn away by popular independent Emmanuel Macron, who shares some of the pro-business strategies of Valls and is seen as attracting the same kind of middle ground voters. Polls say Macron could make it into a presidential runoff, and even potentially win it, if a harder-core leftist such as Montebourg or Hamon gains the Socialist nomination.




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Page last modified: 28-04-2017 14:24:05 ZULU