Sunday 8 December 2019

Benoit Hamon chosen as Socialist candidate for French presidential poll

Benoit Hamon casts his ballot as part of the second round of the primaries in Trappes (AP)
Benoit Hamon casts his ballot as part of the second round of the primaries in Trappes (AP)

Benoit Hamon will be the Socialist Party candidate in France's presidential election after beating ex-prime minister Manuel Valls in a primary run-off vote.

Mr Hamon's win sends the divided Socialists, weakened by the unpopularity of outgoing President Francois Hollande, into a tough presidential battle behind a candidate with limited government experience and hard-left politics that could alienate some centre-left Socialist voters.

With ballots counted at 60% of polling stations, Mr Hamon had almost 59% of the vote to Mr Valls's 41%.

Mr Valls immediately conceded defeat in the face of the result that appeared like a clear condemnation of both his and Mr Hollande's polices.

With the ruling party having settled on its candidate, the race for the presidential Elysee Palace begins in earnest, although the outcome of the two-round general election vote in April and May looks increasingly uncertain.

Leading conservative candidate Francois Fillon, who also previously served as prime minister, was rocked during the past week by allegations that his wife, Penelope, held a fake but handsomely paid job as a parliamentary aide. Financial prosecutors are investigating.

At a campaign rally in Paris on Sunday - where a boisterous crowd gave Penelope Fillon a standing ovation and chanted her name, Mr Fillon said, "We have nothing to hide."

"Through Penelope they are trying to break me," he said. "I will never forgive those who chose to throw us to the wolves."

A priority for Mr Hamon, a 49-year-old former junior minister and, briefly, education minister, will be to rally the Socialists, split ideologically and wounded by Mr Hollande's five-year tenure as president.

The party is also squeezed by rivals on both flanks. Fiery far-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon and centrist Emmanuel Macron, Mr Hollande's former economics minister, are both making hay by appealing to disappointed Socialist voters.

Early polling has suggested the Socialist candidate will struggle to advance to the presidential run-off in May, where far-right leader Marine Le Pen could be waiting, campaigning on anti-Europe, anti-immigration and anti-Islam themes.

The turnout on Sunday, at around 2 million voters, was more robust than in the primary's first round of voting a week ago, but still suggested a lack of enthusiasm among the 44-million French electorate.

Mr Hamon was not as tainted as Mr Valls by Mr Hollande's unpopularity because he rebelled and quit the government in 2014.

Mr Valls served as Mr Hollande's prime minister for more than two years until last December, when it became clear the president could not win a second term. But having to defend the government's economic policies and labour reforms against Mr Hamon proved an uphill fight.

Mr Hamon's signature proposal for a 750 euro "universal income" that would be gradually granted to all adults also proved a campaign masterstroke.

It grabbed headlines and underpinned his surprise success in the primary's two rounds of voting, first against six opponents and then against Mr Valls in the run-off.

Sharply criticised by Mr Valls as unrealistic and ruinous, the no-strings-attached payments would cushion the French in an increasingly automated future, as machines take their jobs, according to Mr Hamon.


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