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Benoît Hamon’s rise as Socialist standard-bearer could forever break French left

Benoît Hamon has emerged from third place to lead the race to carry the Socialists in the French presidential election. (Facebook)

As it turns out, a center-right figure known for his tough talk on ‘law and order’ and immigration who has served for years as prime minister to the most deeply unpopular president in modern French history was probably never the best bet to lead the French left into the 2017 presidential election.

Furthermore, with few signs that they are likely to prevail in the presidential and parliamentary elections later this year, party members in France’s (barely) governing center-left Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party) seem to want to use this month’s presidential primary as an opportunity to draw a line for the party’s future — not to choose the most credible future president.

That explains how Benoît Hamon, a 49-year-old leftist firebrand, came from third place to edge both former prime minister Manuel Valls and former industry minister Arnaud Montebourg in the first round of the Socialist presidential primaries on January 22. Party voters this weekend will choose between Hamon and the 54-year-old Valls in a final runoff to decide the official Socialist standard-bearer in the spring’s presidential election.

During the primary campaign, Hamon, an avowed fan of US senator Bernie Sanders, openly called for a universal basic income of €750, making him one of the first major European politicians to do so. At a time when many French reformists argue that the country must abandon the 35-hour workweek it adopted in the year 2000, Hamon wants to lower it to 32 hours (and for his efforts, has won the support of the author of the 35-hour week, Martin Aubry). Hamon would scrap the current French constitution and inaugurate a ‘sixth republic’ that would transfer power away from the president and to the parliament, the Assemblée nationale. To pay for all of this, moreover, Hamon would introduce higher wealth taxes and a novel tax on robotics that approximates an ‘income’ attributable to the work done by such robots.

His slogan?

Faire battre le coeur de la France. Make France’s heart beat.

Though Hamon has often been reluctant to discuss the role of France’s growing Muslim population, he has nevertheless pushed back stridently against Valls for stigmatizing French Muslims (including the ill-fated ‘burkini’ ban introduced after the Nice attacks). Valls, for example, was one of the few members of his party to support the burqa ban in 2010, and as prime minister he attempted (and failed) to strip dual-national terrorists of French citizenship.

While Hamon’s ideas are creative and imaginative, representing the cutting edge among left-leaning economists, for now they seem unlikely to win a majority of the French electorate. Nevertheless, Hamon’s victory signals that the Socialists — much like the British Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn — will be veering far to the left in the future. Depending on the circumstances, Hamon’s rise could soon formalize an increasingly severe rupture between France’s hard left and France’s center-left.

Emmanuel Macron left his party behind to run as an independent candidate in 2017. (Facebook)

No matter who wins the Socialist primary runoff on January 29, however, the Socialist candidate will be competing against two other figures of the broad left. The first is Emmanuel Macron, a charismatic figure who served as economy and industry minister from 2014 to 2016, when he left the government to form an independent progressive and reform movement, En marche (Forward). In bypassing the Socialist primaries altogether, it’s Macron who may have ‘won’ the most last weekend. The second is Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the candidate of France’s communist coalition, the Front de gauche (Left Front).

Polls consistently show that Macron is in third place and rising, floating just behind the center-right candidate of Les Républicains, former prime minister François Fillon and the far-right, anti-immigrant candidate of the Front national, Marine Le Pen. Both Hamon and Valls languish in fifth place in those same polls, often in single digits, behind Mélenchon. Leading figures in within the Socialist Party (including 2007 presidential candidate and environmental and energy minister Ségolène Royal) have already all but announced their support for Macron.

If Valls wins the runoff, he risks losing votes in April from the Socialists’ leftists supporters to Mélenchon.

If Hamon wins the runoff, he risks losing votes in April from the Socialists’ centrists supporters to Macron and, indeed, it’s even possible that Macron’s supporters voted in the primary for Hamon to engineer this precise outcome.

Still other long-time Socialist voters, frustrated by income stagnation and joblessness, like what they hear in Le Pen’s economic nationalism and antipathy to both the European Union and immigrants from further afield.

How did it come to this?

Blame François Hollande.  Continue reading Benoît Hamon’s rise as Socialist standard-bearer could forever break French left

Sapin, Royal, Montebourg headline new French cabinet

Michel Sapin

Though French president François Hollande on Monday promised a gouvernement de combat in his cabinet reshuffle, it looks like the government he’s chosen might wind up spending more time combatting one another that the myriad economic challenges that France faces.
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Just 48 hours after naming interior minister Manuel Valls, the hard-charging, Roma-busting strongman of the Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party) as France’s new prime minister, Hollande announced the rest of his cabinet reshuffle today.

Though the return of Ségolène Royal, Hollande’s partner of three decades and the 2007 Socialist Party’s presidential candidate, is sure to top most headlines, the heart of the cabinet reshuffle are Hollande’s schizophrenic choices for finance minister, Michel Sapin (pictured above), and economy minister, Arnaud Montebourg.

At first glance, Hollande’s new slimmed-down cabinet (16 ministers instead of 20) seems like a kind of ‘team of rivals,’ given that Valls, Montebourg and Royal all campaigned for the Socialist Party’s 2012 presidential nomination — the only major rival not to hold a post in the new government is Martine Aubry, a longtime champion of the party’s left wing and the former minister who introduced France’s 35-hour workweek (a policy that Valls stridently opposes).

But it’s hardly Lincolnesque.

Sapin and Royal are assuming roles they first held 22 years ago, while Montebourg is a leftist whose views are at extreme odds with the economic policy that Hollande and Valls are expected to pursue over the next three years.  Continue reading Sapin, Royal, Montebourg headline new French cabinet

Who is Manuel Valls? Meet France’s new prime minister


In choosing Manuel Valls, the popular interior minister, as France’s new prime minister, French president François Hollande is taking a risk that elevating the most popular minister in his government will attract support from among the wider French electorate without alienating the leftist core of the Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party).France Flag Icon

Pivoting off the poor Socialist showing in last weekend’s nationwide municipal elections, Hollande’s cabinet reshuffle is a sign that he understands he has largely lost the trust of the French electorate in less than two years. Other ministers, including finance minister Pierre Moscovici, could also lose their jobs in a reshuffle to be announced later this week.

Prime minister Jean-Marc Ayrault resigned today after just 22 months on the job. LIke Hollande, Ayrault has become increasingly unpopular as the government has pursued aggressive measures to stabilize France’s budget, including tax increases and adjustments and cuts to France’s pension system — all in the face of a sluggish economy, a 10.8% unemployment rate and a greater crisis in confidence over France’s role within the European Union and the world. 

In a short statement announcing Valls, Hollande pledged to continue pursing a payroll tax cut and additional pension and labor law reforms as part of a recent attempt to win support from the French business community, a series of reforms that Valls has enthusiastically promoted throughout his career. He also promised that Valls would lead a ‘combative government,’ which sounds like somewhat of an understatement in translation from a gouvernement de combat.

In light of Ayrault’s highly collaborative style, and Valls’s much more aggressive style, even the original French seems like an understatement.

But while the latest IFOP poll from mid-March gave Hollande a 23% approval rating (his highest, in fact, since last October) and Ayrault a 26% approval rating, Valls has an approval rating of 63%. That goes a long way in explaining why Hollande is replacing Ayrault with Valls today.

It’s not a choice without risks. Valls, a centrist with controversial views about the Roma and immigration, could divide the French left. If Hollande’s unpopularity continues, he could taint one of the few remaining popular figures within the Socialist Party. If Valls succeeds, he could supplant Hollande as the more attractive presidential candidate in 2017.

Continue reading Who is Manuel Valls? Meet France’s new prime minister

Final Paris mayoral election results


Anne Hidalgo won a strong victory to become Paris’s first female mayor, extending the electoral hold of the Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party) in the French capital.France Flag Iconparis

Hidalgo, who has served as France’s first deputy mayor under the administration of Bertrand Delanoë since 2001, won the election by  a larger-than-expected margin, besting   Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, a moderate former environmental minister and a rising star of the French right, by a margin of around 54.5% to 45.5%. Kosciusko-Morizet narrowly won the first round of the election on March 23, but polls showed that Hidalgo always had a clearer path to victory in the runoff, thanks to a large reservoir of green and other leftist voters.

Despite the margin, Kosciusko-Morizet ran a strong race in a city that has veered further to the left over the past 15 years — a wild swing from the two decades that Jacques Chirac served as mayor (before winning the French presidency in 2005). Though Kosciusko-Morizet lost Sunday’s election, the center-right Union pour un mouvement populaire (UMP, Union for a popular movement) made marginal gains on the Paris city council, and Kosciusko-Morizet  strengthened her profile by taking on the challenge of a campaign that was always going to be a stretch for the UMP.

If it was a sweet victory for the Socialists, it was one of the only bright spots of a very brutal round of municipal elections nationwide for the party and for its unpopular president François Hollande. The Socialists lost Toulouse, Angers, Quimper, Reims and Saint-Étienne — and the left lost power in Limoges for the first time since 1912.  Continue reading Final Paris mayoral election results

Hollande fills out his cabinet: Moscovici, Fabius, Valls and Taubira take top jobs


After announcing Jean-Marc Ayrault as his prime minister yesterday, newly inaugurated president François Hollande announced the rest of his cabinet today.

Laurent Fabius’s appointment as foreign minister was expected, even though he campaigned against the European Union constitution in 2005.  Fabius (above, center) is a grandee of the Parti socialiste, having served as prime minister from 1984 to 1986 during the Mitterand administration, and later as finance minister from 2000 to 2002 under former prime minister Lionel Jospin.

Martine Aubry, a leftist firebrand who had been seen as a contender for prime minister and the runner-up to Hollande in the presidential nomination race, will not take part at all in the cabinet, which is mildly surprising.  She had been allegedly offered and rejected a “super ministry” role from Hollande.

Nor will Ségolène Royal, Hollande’s one-time partner of four decades and former presidential candidate, which is not surprising, as it is rumored that she will be appointed president of the Assemblée nationale if the Parti socialiste wins June parliamentary elections.

The biggest surprise, perhaps, is the appointment of Pierre Moscovici as finance minister.  Hollande’s campaign manager and former minister for European Affairs from 1997 to 2002, Moscovici (above, top) was close to former IMF managing director Dominique Strauss-Kahn.  His European experience will guide him well, as the ongoing eurozone sovereign debt crisis stands to be the French economy’s largest immediate challenge for Hollande’s government.

Michel Sapin, another chief economic adviser to Hollande, had been tipped for finance minister, but will instead serve as labor minister.  The fiscally conservative Sapin served as finance minister from 1992 to 1993 during the Mitterand administration and as the minister of Civil Servants and Sate Reforms from 2000 to 2002.

As expected, Manuel Valls, an up-and-coming MP, who served as the Hollande campaign’s communications chief and who comes from the more pro-market wing of the PS, was named interior minister.  Nicolas Sarkozy used the interior ministry as a stepping stone in the mid 2000s to launch his successful 2007 campaign.

Former 2002 presidential candidate and the South America-born Christiane Taubira (above, bottom), who is currently an MP for French Guiana, will serve as minister of justice as the highest-ranking woman in a cabinet that will achieve gender parity.  Taubira is not a member of the PS, but rather the founder of the French Guiana-based Walwari party and a bit of a “free electron” in French politics.

Nicole Bricq, a member of France’s Senate and another ally of Strauss-Kahn, will serve as minister of the environment.

Le Monde has a full infographic of the new cabinet here and full bios here.

Who is Jean-Marc Ayrault?

On a day that François Hollande was inaugurated and held his first meeting with German chancellor Angela Merkel, his appointment of a new prime minister in Jean-Marc Ayrault may be the third-most important news of day in French politics.

Nonetheless, Ayrault’s appointment to lead Hollande’s government is the first clear sign we have of how Hollande might govern over the next five years, long after the bloom of his (short) inaugural honeymoon is over and with many, many more meetings between the two leaders of the Franco-German axis that has traditionally moulded the European Union’s direction.  It’s not quite a surprise, given that Hollande seemed to hint at the appointment last week when he said his prime minister “must know the Socialist Party well, its left-wing members of parliament and be on the best of terms with me.”

Ayrault, also the mayor of Nantes, has served as the president of the Parti socialiste parliamentary group in the Assemblée national since 1997, when Hollande was chairman of the Parti socialiste. The two worked hand-in-hand during the ‘cohabitation‘ government of prime minister Lionel Jospin, who served simultaneously with President Jacques Chirac from 1997 until the 2002 election when Jospin, in a shock result, was edged into third place by the Front national‘s Jean-Marie Le Pen.

As Le Monde put it:

Ce sont deux sociaux démocrates, deux adeptes du compromis, deux européens convaincus qui se sont donnés pour mission d’apaiser la France et de la redresser. (“The pair are both Social Democrats, both supporters of compromise, both Europeans who believe their task will be to soothe France and also to reform it.”)

Known as a quiet pragmatist, a “normal” prime minister for a “normal” president (in a presidency that may come to be more reminiscent of Pompidou rather than Mitterand), Ayrault is notably moderate, notably uncharismatic and notably Germanophile — he is a former German teacher.

So what does Ayrault’s appointment indicate about Hollande’s thinking?  Continue reading Who is Jean-Marc Ayrault?

From Aubry to Ayrault: who will Hollande choose as France’s next prime minister?

With François Hollande’s election on Sunday as the next president of France, the next big decision point will be the president-elect’s appointment of a candidate for prime minister.

The designee will take a primary role in the upcoming June 10 and June 17 parliamentary elections and if, as is traditional, the winning presidential candidate’s party wins those elections with a majority in the Assemblée nationale, Hollande’s designee will become the head of government.

Outgoing president Nicolas Sarkozy’s center-right Gaullist Union pour un mouvement populaire, together with affiliated groups, together hold 345 seats in the current legislature, to just 227 for the left, including just 186 seats for Hollande’s Parti socialiste.  While it is typical in France for the winning presidential candidate’s party to win the election, which comes less than a month after Hollande’s decisive victory in the presidential election, Marine Le Pen’s Front national — which won almost 19% of the vote in the first round of the presidential election — will be running very hard to win seats as well, especially given the aimless state of the now-decapitated UMP, which will be somewhat driftless without Sarkozy’s leadership.

Under France’s two-round parliamentary election system, a candidate wins over 50% of the vote in the first round (and at least 25% support of all registered voters in a precinct), he or she is elected.  If not, each candidate with over 12.5% support of all registered voters (or, alternatively, the top two vote-winners if no two candidates have received 12.5%) advances to the second round, where the candidate with the most votes is elected to parliament.

As such, Hollande’s choice will be the first important signal that he provides to France, to Germany, to the rest of Europe and to the debt market as to the direction he hopes to take the French government over the next five years.

With 2002 presidential candidate Ségolène Royal — Hollande’s former partner and the mother of his children — tipped to become the president of the Assemblée nationale if the PS wins the June election, and with one-time presidential frontrunner and former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn battling legal accusations on both sides of the Atlantic, two main candidates have emerged in the media since Hollande’s election — Martine Aubry, Hollande’s rival for the PS presidential nomination and first secretary of the PS, and Jean-Marc Ayrault, president of the PS parliamentary group in the Assemblée nationale.  In addition, former prime minister Laurent Fabius, Hollande campaign manager Pierre Moscovici, former Civil Service minister Michel Sapin and campaign communications chief Manuel Valls have also been mentioned as potential prime ministers.

So who are these potential prime ministers, how would they be received and how likely are their appointments? Continue reading From Aubry to Ayrault: who will Hollande choose as France’s next prime minister?