Field Surgery

Jeremy Harding · Benoît Hamon

After the second round of voting this weekend, Benoît Hamon has won the Socialist Party candidature for the French presidential elections. He already had the edge over his rival, the former prime minister Manuel Valls, in round one of the primaries. With Valls you always knew what you were going to get come the vote in March: total defeat. Hamon is not tipped to make it past round one either, but it would be wrong for the Vallsistes to tell themselves that their man was the realistic option. Valls's association with Hollande's disappointing term – Hollande had a popularity rating of 4 per cent last year – would have been a killer. Besides, in the unlikely event of the French electorate wanting another socialist president, it would vote for the genuine article. Valls is a New Labour lookalike.

Hamon, a former education minister, is an intelligent socialist with a field-surgery programme for a post-socialist era, where the injured are much in evidence: unemployment hovering at 10 per cent for most of Hollande's term; 14 per cent of the population below the poverty line (about €1000 per month), more than 140,000 homeless. His big idea is for all adult citizens to receive an annual income from the state, whether they work or not. It has met with a mixed response. In France, despite Anglo-Saxon perplexity about the 35-hour week (stretched by Valls and Hollande), there is a strong work ethic and GDP for hours worked – productivity – is higher than in the UK. But more strident objections have been technical. Hamon's problem, his adversaries say, is that he hasn’t explained how he’ll pay for his universal wage of €750 per month, which they reckon would cost around €300 to 400 billion a year.

That, and Hamon's other proposals, including beefing up renewable energy, sets his project at odds with the EU's stability and growth pact, which restricts member-state budget deficits to 3 per cent of GDP. Hamon says that austerity is no longer workable, and a Europe of the disaffected will persuade Brussels to think again. On the possibility of large tax increases, already a source of unpopularity for the current administration, he argues that some of the revenue will come from a tax on robots, as they replace human beings in the workplace: we should take that to be a tax on businesses who use them.

Hamon might have been wiser to ease in the policy, maybe by proposing a pilot scheme, as in Finland or Ontario. He’s already had to dial back his original plan. His most recent announcement limits the universal wage, in the first instance, to 18 to 25 year-olds already receiving benefits, which would rise to €600 a month. From this selective platform the programme would be extended and, at some point, the earlier target of €750 a month per person would be met. There is disagreement, in the acres of commentary, about how a universal wage would stand in relation to existing benefits, but hostile costings appear to assume that it will exist alongside them.

Either way, it's hard to see how France will hang onto a model of social provision and resist a tide of inequality without a thorough overhaul – and rationalisation – of its redistributive systems. Hamon refers to the work at Oxford of Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne on the replacement of human labour by computers, and sees nil prospects for a society that fails to anticipate the consequences. Hamon wants to scrap the labour laws that Valls passed by decree; he also proposes a 32-hour week. In the run-up to yesterday's vote, Valls proclaimed himself the candidate for the wage slip and Hamon the candidate for the tax and contributions bill. It doesn't seem to have played well with primary voters.

On environmental issues, Hamon was the more persuasive figure, and stressed that there had to be limits to economic growth, which sets his ambitions apart from those of Brussels and the established parties in Europe. The candidates’ disagreement on secularism was far deeper. Valls is obsessed with Islamic covering and the politics of the wardrobe. Hamon has stood out against French secular values – la laïcité – going into overkill. He invokes the lead architect of the 1905 law separating church and state: 'La laïcité is a pact, as Aristide Briand said. It makes it possible to live together.' (Valls invoked Briand too.) But unlike Valls, Hamon regards French Muslims as allies rather than enemies, especially in his own constituency, Yvelines, a Paris suburb, and within that constituency, in the commune of Trappes (pop. 32,000), where he served until recently as a local councillor. He and his supporters argue that if the council can't offer Muslims a sense of inclusion, they'll look for it elsewhere. Trappes has seen several young people heading for Syria over the past few years. Hamon's rivals accuse him of 'islamo-gauchisme'. His position is travestied in far-right internet haunts.

Hamon is the candidate of the future, but the future is further away than round one of the presidentials. This could be a formidable campaign. No sooner had the centre-right voted for François Fillon, a neo-liberal without neo-louche, than his wife turned out to have earned €7900 a month in tax-payers money for brushing up on Shakespeare and looking after the children and pets at the family home. The first dog in the street can tell you that Mme Fillon's earnings have the drop on Hamon's universal wage.

If Fillon is finished, and he may be, Les Républicains will have to find another candidate, but who? Alain Juppé has said 'clearly and definitively' that he will not stand if Fillon goes. Really? He would be sure to win back many centre-right supporters who didn't want Fillon in the first place and now find themselves tempted by the maverick candidate, Emmanuel Macron, and his new movement, En Marche! Macron is already rubbing his hands at the thought of the many disaffected PS voters who find Hamon too far to the left.

Marine le Pen will be hoping that Fillon can hang onto his candidacy and contaminate the centre-right with a lingering corruption scandal. She will also be asking why a tax on robots matters when Penelope Fillon can ride high on her partner's disbursements. If she ever gets the presidency, there will be no more tax-paid salaries for Shakespeare bots who work for politician spouses. And a lot less foreign literature in general.


  • 30 January 2017 at 4:50pm
    Dominic Rice says:
    Good piece. Encouraging to see another high-profile pol (Hamon) engaging with the issue of likely mass worklessness in the near future.

  • 31 January 2017 at 12:24pm
    UncleShoutingSmut says:
    The likelihood of Le Pen reaching the second round in May is simply a product of the split in the left vote, and the consolidation of the center-right and extreme-right candidacies. The extreme right remain united around Marine Le Pen, and the center-right primary produced Fillon and ejected Sarkozy and others. On the left, both Mélenchon (Parti de Gauche) and Macron refused to join a wider primary covering all the left, rather than just the Parti socialiste. This means the left vote is likely to be split three ways, between Macron, Hamon and Mélenchon (not to mention smaller fry like the NPA, Nouvelle Donne, and Lutte ouvrière). Mélenchon's distaste for the PS is understandable and logical given his political background - he left the party in 2008 to form the further-left Parti de Gauche. Macron is simply an opportunist, who gained ministerial experience under Valls, though he was not a member of the PS, and then bailed out. However they both clearly consider their individual ambition more important than the risk of a presidency under Le Pen or Fillon (or any replacement of his).

    Yvelines is actually a département, and thus much bigger than Hamon's "own constituency" - he is the deputy for the 11th (of 12) Yvelines constituencies.

  • 1 February 2017 at 6:29pm
    Stu Bry says:
    "In France, despite Anglo-Saxon perplexity about the 35-hour week (stretched by Valls and Hollande), there is a strong work ethic and GDP for hours worked – productivity – is higher than in the UK."

    I've suspected for a while that the UK's low productivity is down to the increase in the amount of jobs which are themselves essentially unproductive rather than being related to work ethic. People are busy doing nothing.

    Certain professions have multiplied - legal, managerial,compliance, human resources - in a manner which seems completely divorced from actual economic output.

  • 2 February 2017 at 8:04pm
    XopherO says:
    Looks like Macron is leading, and Fillon is probably out

    Studies of the 35 hour week have shown no adverse effect on the French economy. The average working week is actually more than 35 hours, but a lot less than the average UK working week. As the French work fewer hours, productivity is only 16% higher per capita than in the UK! French higher productivity and innovation has led to higher unemployment as higher productivity displaces workers, and the recession makes it much harder for them to be absorbed by new businesses. In general, the French economy is probably healthier than the UK, despite the xenophobic/francophobic negativity about it which has gone on for years now.

    France spends more than 11% of GDP on its Health Service, while the UK spends a bit more than 8%. If we take into account productivity, then France spends 16% more per capita on top of this differential! No wonder the NHS is falling apart in comparison to countries like France. And there is no real solution to this in a country that despises taxation, with May the latest to talk about cutting taxes to businesses, and planning for tax-haven Britain.