Leftists in todays presidential primaries hope to end far rights appeal
In the centre of Trappes, in Pariss western suburbs, a group of young men are handing out flyers urging locals to vote for Benot Hamon. Neither the name nor the face is familiar in Britain, but that could well be about to change today.
Vote for this man and you will see the real France, says one, thrusting a leaflet into my hand. It sounds more like a threat than a promise, but this rather gritty Parisian banlieue the subject of several billion euros worth of regeneration investment is Hamons home ground.
One of seven candidates in the first round of the Socialist partys (PS) primary election to choose a presidential candidateon Sunday, Hamon, 49, was considered an outsider only a fortnight ago, but is fast gaining ground. To some, he is the French Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn albeit a considerably younger version.
Hamons anti-capitalist programme includes a universal wage (a form of basic income), work sharing, the use of referendums to decide policy and the legalisation of cannabis. It has been dismissed as utopian by centrist critics, but that will not worry Hamon overly.
This is about the socialist movement showing that it can do populism and protectionism better than the far right.
Frances Front National leader, Marine Le Pen, is profiting from dissatisfaction among working-class voters who feel abandoned by both the left and the right. Hamon, his Socialist primary rival Arnaud Montebourg, 54, and the hard left presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mlenchon, 65, who is standing outside the frame of political parties, all argue that the Socialist party has abandoned the working class by shifting to the centre ground. This is embodied by Manuel Valls, the former prime minister and another primary contestant who once reportedly suggested dropping the word Socialist from the partys name.
Welcome to the French equivalent of the British battle for the heart and soul of the Labour party. The others on the left are like Tony Blair but 20 years later, said Ali Rabeh, Hamons chief adviser and a Trappes councillor. But there is an international popular movement, with Jeremy Corbyn in the UK and Bernie Sanders in the US. People are looking for a popular left that is not centrist but offers something radically different.
We feared that this election would be hijacked by the right and by issues like national identity and ridiculous arguments over things like the burkini. We felt it was absolutely important not to let that happen.
Bruno Cautrs of Cevipof, the political research unit at Pariss elite Sciences Po university, told the Observer: Franois Hollande has disappointed many leftwing voters. Today, the left is divided between those who want to continue the same line as Franois Hollande and Manuel Valls, and those who say these are the very people who have created the economic situation we are in and we have to move to the left.
The question arises of where is the line that marks the left these days. For many people who are asked, its the relationship with the working class, the poor and those with precarious jobs. But for a number of years now we have seen that it is Marine Le Pen who appeals to the working class.
And in the PS primaries we are not seeing a lot of working-class issues being raised. Arnaud Montebourg and Benot Hamon represent a left that is not just against austerity and deficits, but wants to reinvent the idea of the left by transforming society. It is different, but I dont think this is particularly seductive to the working classes.
Hamons team argue that as long as political parties on the centre-right and left keep throwing out the same ideas, which have done nothing to reduce unemployment and poverty in France, voters will continue to turn to the Front National. Hamons programme, they argue, is about thinking out of the box.
After the champagne left and the caviar left, Hamon is the realistic left, said Rabeh. What is utopian is people believing that ideas that have been shown not to work will somehow start to work. Benot Hamon doesnt have a miracle solution. Hes saying its not simple, but what the left and right have been doing hasnt worked so lets try something different, very different. What we are proposing is radical change. And Im convinced that if this kind of left takes [control] of the PS we can halve the FNs score.
Laurent Bouvet, a professor at Versailles University, said that, although the new left surge was different, it was unlikely to be enough to lure the working class away from Le Pen.
We are not seeing any significant working-class vote for the left, not even for Mlenchon, who is the furthest left. This category of voters will either abstain or will vote mostly for Marine Le Pen. There is no popular vote for the Socialist party.
Bouvet described Hamons programme as an almost but not quite utopian, post-work, 19th-century idea of socialism. That said, he added, its possible Hamon will have a good score. He may even head the first-round vote because his voters will mobilise. It will come down to participation. If we have two million-plus, Manuel Valls has a chance. If we have less than 1.5 million, Hamon could win.
In Trappes, shopkeeper Karim Chrifi, 50, who has lived all his life in the town, said Hamon was popular because he was seen as one of us. He isnt like other politicians. He drives here in his small car, parks, has a coffee and talks to us. He touches on the real issues that concern us: poverty, work, wages, crime If it werent for Benot Hamon and Arnaud Montebourg, who else would we vote for? Marine Le Pen.
Whatever the outcome of the vote, and the attempts by Hamon, Montebourg and Mlenchon to drag French socialism out of the centre ground, most believe the Socialist party candidate will be defeated in the spring presidential election. The current money is on a second-round run-off between Le Pen and the right-wing Les Rpublicains candidate Franois Fillon.
The situation is very comparable to that in the UK, Cautrs said. The Labour party could have chosen a mainstream, some would say more realistic, candidate and instead it chose Corbyn. It could be that the PS will do the same. The left wing of the left could win the primaries, but it wont win the presidential. That seems impossible.
At his last rally last week, Hamon, a small figure in suit and tie, was greeted like a rock star by almost 4,000 mostly young people. They were chanting: Benot prsident.