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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

What Hollande’s decision not to stand for reelection means

French President François Hollande will not stand for election, he announced earlier today.
French President François Hollande will not stand for election, he announced earlier today.

François Hollande’s decision not to seek reelection should have been a no-brainer. He’s obviously a drag on his party, the Parti socialiste, and he should have cleared the path for potential successors months ago, given his massive unpopularity. France Flag Icon

Before taking a look at what this means for the 2017 presidential contest, it’s worth noting how spectacular the last two weeks of French politics have been — two of the seven presidents of the Fifth Republic have now been vanquished altogether, their careers ended. Au revoir, Hollande. Au revoir, Nicolas Sarkozy.

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RELATED: The nightmare French election scenario
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Looking to the future, Hollande’s decision now clears the way for his prime minister, the once very popular (now less so) Manuel Valls, a 54-year old, Spanish-born official who previously served as interior minister with a reputation as a tough-guy reformer on the center-right of the Socialists. Hollande’s decision gives Valls the green light to proceed without adding to the considerable bad blood between France’s president and prime minister. Continue reading What Hollande’s decision not to stand for reelection means

Macron, France’s new economy minister, angers French left

Emmanuel Macron

One day after French prime minister Manuel Valls resigned, forcing French president François Hollande to invite Valls to form a new government, it’s not clear that the new cabinet is going to quell a growing revolt on Hollande’s left flank.France Flag Icon

Valls, less than five months into his tenure, took the dramatic step Monday after weekend comments from former economy minister Arnaud Montebourg criticizing his own government’s austerity measures that have aimed to reduced French debt and cut payroll taxes, in part, through spending cuts.

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

RELATED: Valls-Montebourg fissure could bring early French elections

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Montebourg, along with allies like education minister Benôit Hamon, a rising star of the French left, and culture minister Aurélie Filippetti, were banished from the second Valls government, replaced by relatively minor figures deemed more loyal to Valls and Hollande.

Though everyone else in the government remained in government, from foreign minister Laurent Fabius to finance minister Michael Sapin to ecology and energy minister Ségolène Royal, Montebourg was replaced by the Hollande loyalist Emmanuel Macron, a 36-year-old ex-banker and graduate of France’s elite-producing school, the École nationale d’administration.

Macron’s appointment sends a message about the orthodox program of the next government, and it wasn’t particularly subtle. Le Monde called him the ‘liberal sauce’ of the government, and Le Figaro called him the ‘anti-Montebourg.’

After his graduation from ENA, Macron (pictured above) worked as a finance official in the French government for four years, then worked for four years for Rothschild in the private sector. When Hollande was elected, he became one of the new president’s top Elysée aides as deputy secretary general of the presidency, where he once exclaimed that Hollande’s push to institute a 75% income tax rate for millionaires made France equivalent to ‘Cuba, but without the sun.’

The Valls-Sapin-Macron axis in the new French government will assure the French business and investor class that Hollande is serious about a proposed €40 billion payroll tax cut and continued devotion to budget discipline, to the growing outrage of the French left.  

The best thing the left wing of Hollande’s Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party) can say about the new cabinet is that Valls, at least, retained Christiane Taubira, a legislator from French Guiana who has served as minister of justice from the outset of the Hollande presidency, who pushed through perhaps the Hollande administration’s crowning social policy achievement in legalizing same-sex marriage last year, and who has often clashed brutally, if privately, with Valls, both as prime minister and when he previously served as interior minister, on economic policy as well as on her proposed prison reforms that would relax criminal penalties and eliminate mandatory sentencing for convicts.

There were other choices. Hollande and Valls might have convinced Martine Aubry, the runner-up to Hollande in the 2011 presidential contest and the author, as minister of social affairs in 2000, of the 35-hour workweek. After Montebourg, who routinely lambasted German chancellor Angela Merkel’s fiscal policy, told Indian steelmaker Lakshmi Mittal he wasn’t welcome to invest in France and who picked a fight with American tire producer Morry Taylor, Aubry’s presence in the cabinet might have been a win-win situation — replacing the mercurial Montebourg with a pillar of the French left.

Instead, Macron’s elevation is sure to accentuate the growing rift between the centrist and leftist wings of the Socialist Party, which could cause the government to fall later this year over the 2015 budget. That, in turn, could cause snap elections that the Socialists might lose altogether, ushering in another era of cohabitation, or divided government, with Hollande’s approval rating hovering between 17% and 20%. 

At the very least, the events of the last 48 hours potentially places Hollande in a difficult position — if Montebourg and the leftist rebels are strong enough, they can force Hollande and Valls either to accept their demands for a more growth-oriented budget this autumn or face a no-confidence vote. 

Amid high unemployment and a growth rate of just 0.1% in the last quarter, Hollande has struggled to implement policies to jumpstart GDP growth and economic activity. That’s left him open to criticism on the right and the left, including Montebourg, who on Saturday castigated Hollande’s administration for being held captive to Berlin — the last straw among the increasingly strident critiques from within his own government. 

Valls-Montebourg fissure could bring early French elections


It was always a stretch to believe that there was enough room in France’s government for both Arnaud Montebourg and Manuel Valls.France Flag Icon

Montebourg, who represents the unapologetically socialist wing of France’s Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party), received a promotion in April as economy minister when French president François Hollande reshuffled his cabinet and replaced former prime minister Jean-Marc Ayrault with Valls. At the time, it was hardly clear that Montebourg deserved it after picking fights with prominent foreign businessmen in both the United States and India and waging an avowedly protectionist ‘Made in France’ campaign while serving as minister for industrial renewal. Montebourg (pictured above), with a charming grin, trim figure and a wavy swath of dark hair, who last weekend shared a photo of Loire Valley red wine on his Facebook feed, fits neatly into the American stereotype of the preening, tiresome, French socialist.

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

RELATEDSapin, Royal, Montebourg headline new French cabinet

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Valls, meanwhile, is leading Hollande’s government at a time when the Socialist administration is turning even more to the center, with a much-heraled (if hokey) ‘Responsibility Pact’ that aims to cajole French businesses into hiring a half-million new workers with the promise of a €40 billion payroll tax cut, financed by an even greater €50 billion in spending cuts. Though he’s regularly touted as a reformer, it’s more accurate to say that the Spanish-born Valls is a tough-minded ‘third way’ centrist who wants to rename the Socialist Party, which he considers too leftist. As interior minister, he showed he could be just as tough on immigration and crime as former conservative president Nicolas Sarkozy. When he became as prime minister in late March, Valls had the highest approval rating by far of any cabinet member. Today, his approval is sinking fast — an IFOP poll last weekend gave Hollande a 17% approval rating and Valls just 36% approval.

But Valls always had the support of Hollande and allies like finance minister Michael Sapin, and it was clear even in the spring that  Montebourg was destined to become more isolated than ever in the Valls era.

It took less than five months for the cabinet to rupture.  Montebourg publicly challenged Hollande over the weekend to rethink his economic policy in light of new data that show France’s economy remains stagnant — growing by just 0.1% in the last quarter, far below Hollande’s already-anemic target of 1%. Montebourg has also criticized Germany for encouraging austerity policies throughout the eurozone that he and other left-wing European politicians and economists blame for weakening the continent’s economic growth since the 2008-09 financial crisis.

In response, Valls orchestrating a dramatic resignation on Monday morning, though Hollande has given him a mandate to form a new government that won’t include Montebourg or allies like education minister Benoît Hamon and culture minister Aurelie Filippetti.

The drama surrounding this week’s reshuffle is hardly welcome so soon after Valls’s initial appointment, and Hollande risks a wider revolt on the French left that could endanger his agenda in the Assemblée nationale (National Assembly), where Socialist rebels could join legislators from the center-right Union pour un mouvement populaire (UMP, Union for a popular movement) in opposition to his agenda. Valls will introduce the 2015 budget in the autumn, and if he fails to pass it later this year, his government could fall and Hollande might be forced to call snap elections that the Socialists would almost certainly lose. Continue reading Valls-Montebourg fissure could bring early French elections

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.
France Flag Icon

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