Benoît Hamon beats Manuel Valls with promises of a universal basic income
Mr Hamon, who was briefly education minister in 2014, stirred up voters in recent weeks with promises of public largesse. He promotes the idea of a universal basic income of €750 ($803), to kick in by 2022. The idea is to compensate for the possibility of large-scale job losses to digital automation, though he is hazy on how the programme would be funded. He also wants to shorten the already constrained French working week from 35 to 32 hours. And he suggests levying a tax on robots. No other candidate had anything so eye-catching to offer. Mr Valls, who largely stuck by his centrist record in office, wants to loosen labour laws rather than tighten them. He is disliked by voters on the left both for his economics and for his tough stance on fighting terrorism, which some fear is undermining civil liberties.
Assuming Mr Hamon becomes the Socialist candidate, the biggest winner will be Emmanuel Macron, a centre-left figure running as an independent. (Many supporters of Mr Macron may have cast tactical votes for Mr Hamon.) He should pick up many centrist ex-Socialist voters who see Mr Hamon as unserious or unappealing. Mr Macron served as economy minister under Mr Hollande, but quit the government last summer after launching his own political party, En Marche! (“On the Move!”). He promises to modernise France. As a former investment banker, and only 39 years old, he is a relative outsider and a fresh face who has never been elected to office. Socially and economically liberal, and popular in the media, he calls for France to embrace the digital economy.
As economy minister, Mr Macron introduced modestly liberalising reforms, such as opening up coach transport to private firms and easing some labour constraints. Opinion polls now put him in third place nationally, with around 20% support. The same polls suggest that Mr Fillon has roughly 25% support, while Marine Le Pen, the leader of the populist National Front, is backed by some 26%. Most observers expect she will reach a second round of voting in May, but that she will then be defeated by a more mainstream candidate. The question is which candidate that will be.
The Socialist primary gives Mr Macron an opportunity. If Mr Hamon wins, he will draw support mainly among blue-collar voters and others on the left of the party. Mr Fillon of the Republicans, worried about the rise of Ms Le Pen, has promoted himself as a cultural conservative and a neo-Thatcherite who would cut 500,000 government posts and slash public spending. His emphasis on his Catholic faith is unconventional in France’s secular political tradition. Ms Le Pen, a far-right nationalist, propounds a statist economic policy and hostility to the European Union.
All that leaves space in the middle of the political landscape for Mr Macron. He can talk of the need to liberalise France’s economy, but without the radical tone of Mr Fillon, who risks scaring government employees. Mr Fillon, whose poll numbers are drifting down, must worry about Ms Le Pen grabbing voters from the right, just as Mr Macron appeals to centrists. The Republican is still the candidate likeliest to be France’s next president. But the Socialists’ shift to the left and the rise of Mr Macron increase the chances that the presidential election, too, will produce a surprise.