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6 February 2017

Who is Benoît Hamon?

The pundits rate his chances at winning the French presidency as even smaller than his stature, but Little Ben may have a big role to play yet. 

By Stephen Bush

When Benoît Hamon started in politics, he was dubbed “Little Ben”, because he is just 5ft 4in tall. But Little Ben has hit the big time with a surprise victory in the Socialist primary for the French presidency. He beat the former prime minister Manuel Valls by 58 per cent of the vote to 42 per cent.

His rivals compare the Brittany-born Hamon to Jeremy Corbyn because of his unexpected victory and his left-wing position within the Parti Socialiste (PS). In reality, he is closer to Ed Miliband.

Hamon’s father was an engineer and his mother a secretary. He began in student politics, becoming head of the Young Socialist Movement, and then entered professional politics as a special adviser.

After graduating with a degree in history from the University of Western Brittany, Hamon worked for Lionel Jospin, then the first secretary of the Socialists. After the left’s triumph in the parliamentary elections of 1997, in which Jospin became prime minister, Hamon did not join his boss at Hôtel Matignon. Instead, he advised the then employment minister, Martine Aubry, from 1997 to 2000. It was around this time that he acquired the “Little Ben” nickname.

Hamon did not run for the presidential nomination in 2011, instead backing Aubry against François Hollande. After her loss, Hamon secured a minor ministerial post, which he held until 2014.

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Following the 2014 municipal elections, in which voters punished the Socialists for Hollande’s perceived failings, the embattled president promoted his then interior minister, Manuel Valls, to prime minister. Hamon became education minister, but the promotion was short-lived. He resigned in August 2014 over the right-wing turn of Hollande’s government under Valls.

Hamon’s resignation was overshadowed by the departure of a much bigger beast, Arnaud Montebourg, the economy minister. Hollande remarked after Hamon left his post: “Who is he? Not much.”

Montebourg’s resignation opened the way for the political rebirth of Emmanuel Macron, who was at the time an economic adviser to Hollande. Yet while Macron owed his career to Hollande, he also helped to deliver the last rites to his old boss. Macron, too, quit the government late last year to run as an independent centre-left or centrist candidate.

That betrayal, as well as a series of polls suggesting that Hollande would fail to win his party’s nomination again, contributed to his decision to stand down. A full-blooded fight over the Socialists’ future direction ensued.

Hamon was the unfancied third man in a contest that was expected to be dominated by old rivalries. Montebourg ran from the party’s left against Valls, who styled himself as
the continuity candidate.

The PS primary result was as much a reflection of Valls’s unpopularity as it was an endorsement of Hamon. “A pleasure to pay €1 to put the name of Manuel Valls in the bin,” tweeted an activist on the day of the second round.

Hamon’s achievement was to defeat Montebourg in the battle to be the candidate of the left. He achieved this in part because of his richer policy platform, but also because of Montebourg’s unimpressive showings in the televised debates.

The universal basic income – a payment made to every citizen, regardless of need – became Hamon’s signature issue. He also supports euthanasia and the decriminalisation of cannabis.

Staff at En Marche! – the grass-roots movement that Macron founded to support his campaign – could have been forgiven for partaking of a celebratory smoke. As far as they are concerned, Hamon is the ideal opponent. He will not seek to challenge Macron for the centre ground as Valls would have, but will instead hope to win the votes of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, whose independent Front de Gauche has moved into the space to the left of Hollande in recent years.

With the Republican nominee, François Fillon, mired in the “Penelopegate” scandal over his wife’s employment, the path to the presidency seems to be opening up for Macron. Yet he could still stumble: his popularity stems from his success in detaching himself from Hollande’s unpopular government. As he attracts the support of more grandees from that government, voters may begin to recall his close association with the outgoing president.

Hamon should not be written off. Much hinges on how many of Mélenchon’s voters can be persuaded to unite behind him. He is currently a distant fourth in the polls, with Macron, Fillon and Marine Le Pen tightly bunched together at the top.

Under the rules of France’s two-round voting system, unless one candidate secures more than half of the vote in the first round on 23 April, the top two go forward to a run-off on 7 May.

Whether Benoît Hamon keeps the left together or accelerates the decline of the PS to Macron’s benefit, his unlikely victory in the primary increases the chances that the French presidency will not swing to the right or far right.

This article appears in the 01 Feb 2017 issue of the New Statesman, American carnage