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30 January 2017

No, Benoît Hamon isn’t the French Jeremy Corbyn

Why comparisons of the Socialist presidential candidate to the Labour leader don’t work.

By Pauline Bock

When the French Socialist party started organising its primary a few months ago, no one in France would have thought Benoît Hamon could wipe out the government’s candidate – President Hollande if he ran, or then Prime Minister Manuel Valls – and win with 58.71 per cent of the vote. Yesterday night, though, it happened. Commentators quickly compared Hamon’s surprise victory to the rise of the British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in 2015. And yet they couldn’t be more wrong.

Yes, just like Corbyn, no one would have bet on Hamon’s victory. Yes, Hamon is a man of “la gauche de la gauche” (the left of the left) and his win represents a break from Hollande’s centrist government, like Corbyn’s rise symbolised the end of the New Labour era. And yes, the chances of either winning a general election are forecasted to be pretty thin: last night, a poll put Hamon fourth with 15 per cent of the vote in next spring’s first round of the presidential election, behind far-right leader Marine Le Pen, Conservative François Fillon and centrist Emmanuel Macron, though the Socialist may end up grabbing some of the 10 per cent of votes currently estimated to go to far-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

It’s easy, especially from a British point of view, to compare the two men – and the French media has actually started doing so, too. But that doesn’t make it true. Take it from a Frenchwoman: Hamon is not Corbyn.

First and foremost, unlike the famously eurosceptic British Labour leader, Hamon, 49, is strongly pro-Europe. He has even worked at the European Parliament: he was an MEP for the Socialist Party from 2004 to 2009. After he failed to be re-elected in 2009, he became a university professor and taught at the Sorbonne, where his course focused on international organisations and decisional process within the European Union. In his presidential programme, Hamon pledges a “vast plan of investment” for the EU to create a “new political contract for Europe” based on common defence and environment policies – an idealist concept of European federalism which would probably horrify Corbyn.

Hamon’s candidacy has also been backed by several MEPs, including British MEPs Judith Kirton-Darling and Lucy Anderson.

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Unlike Corbyn, who went directly from unknown backbencher to Labour leader, Hamon has held several senior positions within the Socialist party and the French government. He was the party’s Spokesperson from 2008 to 2012, and considered running in the 2011 Socialist primary – he decided against it when it became clear that his old boss, Martine Aubry, would be running, and backed her instead.

After François Hollande’s election in 2012, he joined the government, first as the deputy minister for social economy until 2014, then as the education minister, though he remained in this position for just four months before resigning, following the right turn taken by Hollande. (His rival in the primary, Arnaud Montebourg, and many other left-wingers in the government, resigned at the same time.) Hamon was then elected as an MP in the Yvelines, a constituency just west of Paris, in September 2014.

A native of Britanny, Hamon joined the Socialist party in 1993 and has worked in his youth as a consultant to Lionel Jospin (who became prime minister in 1997), and to the then employment minister Martine Aubry from 1997 to 2000. Here he is, left, in 1993, with Michel Rocard, centre, who then went to become President Mitterrand’s prime minister. (Also in this photo are Hamon’s primary rival Manuel Valls, current Socialist party leader Jean-Christophe Cambadélis, current National Assembly president Claude Bartolone and Front de gauche leader Mélenchon – so much for France’s political replenishment.)

Hardly a Corbyn-style outsider. Photo: Facebook

Sure, Hamon is left-wing – but not that left-wing. If you really want to compare Corbyn to a French politician, look at Mélenchon, the leader of the far-left party Front de gauche. Mélenchon’s 2017 programme includes immediate nuclear disarmament and withdrawing France from Nato, as well as being starkly critical of the European Union: “The EU, we either change it or we leave it.” Remind you of anyone?

As my colleague Stephen rightly remarked in today’s Morning Call:

“In terms of his background, his rise up the party and his own place in the Socialist family, [Hamon’s win] is closer to the victory of Ed Miliband over David Miliband than that of Corbyn.”

Indeed, both Valls and Montebourg are long-term political partners of Hamon, and have held more senior positions than him, just like David Miliband and Ed Balls with regards to Ed Miliband. Both Valls and Montebourg had to concede to Hamon’s victory in the first and second round of the primary, in a similar fashion to the 2010 Labour leadership election. Just like David, Montebourg, slightly more to the right, always assumed that Hamon would back him and was furious when he chose to run instead. (However, after he came third in the first round, Montebourg called for his voters to back Hamon, allowing him to beat Valls in the second – something I doubt David would have done for his brother.)

Most importantly: if Corbyn symbolised change, Hamon is actually offering an alternative. He has attracted attention for proposing universal basic income, a monthly payment of 600 euros, funded by a tax on robots, for low-income families as soon as 2018 and to be expanded to all citizens by 2022. In the looming age of automation, if the European left doesn’t want to go extinct, its best hope lies in such genuinely innovative, modern policies. It has made the difference in the French primary; and though it probably won’t win the Socialists the election, it is a step towards a “desirable” left. Yes, “desirable” is Hamon’s own word – this is France, after all.