France’s presidential election is tearing its left apart
Today, ahead of the first round of this year’s presidential election on April 23rd, the Socialists are bracing themselves not just for elimination from the run-off, but for a far greater humiliation, one which could call into question the party’s very survival.
Current polls put Benoît Hamon, the Socialist candidate, in a dismal fifth place. He trails not only the nationalist Marine Le Pen, the liberal Emmanuel Macron, and the traditional right’s François Fillon. In the past fortnight, Mr Hamon has also been overtaken by a far-left firebrand, Jean-Luc Mélenchon (pictured), who promises a “citizens’ revolution”. A one-time Socialist now backed by the Communist Party, the fist-clenching 65-year-old has surged to 15%, against just 10% for Mr Hamon.
This puts him only a couple of points behind Mr Fillon, and in a position—just possibly—to overtake the Gaullist candidate too.
In some ways, Mr Hamon’s disastrous campaign is surprising. An outsider, he seized the party’s primary in January with a handsome 59% of the vote, easing out a moderate former prime minister, Manuel Valls. His recent rally in Paris was packed. Backed by Thomas Piketty, an economist who worries about inequality, he has a programme which—though its finances do not add up—is based on creative thinking about the future of work and society in an era of automation. Mr Hamon promises, for instance, to bring in a universal basic income, which in time would pay out €750 ($800) a month to everyone, partly financed by a tax on robots. He promises a “desirable future”, in which consumerism, production and working hours are curbed, greenery flourishes and happiness, long scarce in France, breaks out everywhere.
Mr Hamon has lost the loyalty not just of Socialist voters, but of Socialist politicians. His protracted (and failed) efforts to do a deal with Mr Mélenchon exasperated the moderates. A former backbench rebel, he has refused to say anything nice about the past five years of Socialist government, dismaying ministers. Mr Valls and Jean-Yves Le Drian, the Socialist defence minister, have both thrown their support to Mr Macron. The upshot is a bitterly divided party. The Hamon camp called Mr Valls’s defection “pathetic” and “shameful”. It is a “very strange campaign”, says a Socialist parliamentarian loyal to Mr Hamon; party activists “don’t feel connected”.
Mr Valls’s defection, says Guillaume Balas, a member of the Hamon team, implies “the death of the Socialist Party as conceived by (François) Mitterrand”. The party, which has supplied French presidents for half of the past 36 years, has long tried to bridge the differences between its moderates and its left wing. In the 1970s, Mitterrand managed to unify the left; he went on to serve as president for 14 years. Now, under the joint pressure of Mr Macron and Mr Mélenchon, old fractures are pulling it back apart.