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No, Benoît Hamon isn’t the French Jeremy Corbyn

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

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.

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.

Pauline Bock writes about France, the Macron presidency, Brexit and EU citizens in the UK. She also happens to be French.

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Can Britain’s new powers to investigate unexplained wealth prevent real-life McMafias?

The government is waking up to the fact that global criminals are fond of London. 

The BBC’s McMafia, a story of high-flying Russian mobsters and international money launderers woven into the fabric of London, ended this month. Despite the dramatic TV twists, the subject matter has its basis in reality. As a barrister dealing with cases that involve Russia and former Soviet states, my experience is that politicians and business people use the apparatus of the state to put rivals out of business by any means possible.

In McMafia, previously straight-laced fund manager Alex Godman (played by James Norton) begins transferring money under the cover of a new investment fund. With a click of a button, he can transfer a shady partner’s money around the world. As the Paradise Papers underlined, money can indeed be hidden through the use of complex company structures registered in different countries, many of which do not easily disclose the names of owners and beneficiaries. One company can be owned by another, so the owner of Company A (in Panama) might be Company B (in the Cayman Islands) which is owned by Company C (in the Seychelles) which owns property in London. To find out who owns the property, at least three separate jurisdictions must be contacted and international co-operation arranged – and that’s a simple structure. Many companies will have multiple owners, making it even more difficult to work out who the actual beneficiary is.

I represent individuals before the UK extradition and immigration courts. They are bankers, business people and politicians who have fled persecution in Russia and Ukraine or face fabricated charges in their home country and face extradition or deportation and will often be tortured or put on show trial if we lose. Their opponents will deploy spies, who may pay visits to co-defendants in Russia for “psychological work” (aka torture). Sometimes the threat of torture or ruin against a person’s family is enough to make them confess to crimes they didn’t commit. I have seen family members of my clients issued with threats of explicit violence and the implicit destruction of their life. Outside their close relatives’ homes in Russia, cars have been set on fire. Violence and intimidation are part of the creed that permeates the country’s business and political rivalries.

As in McMafia, London has long played a bit part in these rivalries, but the UK government has been slow to act. In 2006, Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian security agent turned defector, was killed in London using Polonium 210 – a radioactive substance put into a cup of tea. Although Russian state involvement was suspected from the beginning, the UK government tried to block certain material being released into the public domain, leading his family to complain that the UK’s relations with Russia were being put before the truth. In 2016, a decade after his death, the inquiry finally delivered its verdict: there was a “strong probability” Litvinenko was murdered on the personal orders of Vladimir Putin. Yet in the same breath as condemning the act, David Cameron’s spokeswoman said the UK would have to “weigh carefully” the incident against “the broader need to work with Russia on certain issues”.

The government of Cameron’s successor has however been quick to use McMafia as a spring-board to publicise its new Unexplained Wealth Orders (UWO). These new investigatory powers are purportedly to be used to stop the likes of Alex from hiding money from the authorities. Anyone with over £50,000 of property who is politically exposed or suspected of a serious crime, will be forced to disclose the source of their wealth on request. While most British homeowners would own more than £50,000, the individuals are likely to be high profile politicians or under investigation already by the authorities. If they fail to respond punctually, they risk forfeiting their property.

The anti-corruption organisation Transparency International has long campaigned for such measures, highlighting cases such as the first family of Azerbaijan owning property in Hampstead or senior Russian politicians believed to own flats in Whitehall. Previously, confiscating hidden assets has been a lengthy and complex process: when the High Court confiscated an £11m London house belonging to a Kazakh dissident, the legal process took seven years.

The new Unexplained Wealth Orders mean that the onus is shifted to the owner of the property to prove legitimacy and the origin of the wealth. The authorities will have much greater power to investigate where finance and investment originated. But in order for them to work effectively, they will have to be backed up by expert prosecutors. The government still has a long way to go before it makes London a less attractive place to hide money.

Ben Keith is a barrister at 5 St Andrew’s Hill specialising in extradition, immigration, serious fraud, human rights and public law.