Hamon to lead Socialists into French presidential election

PARIS (AP) — Benoit Hamon, rising from left-wing obscurity on a radical proposal to a pay all adults a monthly basic income, will be the Socialist Party candidate in France’s presidential election this spring, after he handily beat ex-Prime Minister Manuel Valls in a primary runoff vote Sunday.

Hamon’s win sends the divided Socialists, weakened by the unpopularity of outgoing President Francois Hollande, into a tough presidential battle behind a candidate with limited government experience and hard-left politics that could alienate some center-left Socialist voters.

With votes counted at three-quarters of polling stations, Hamon had almost 59 percent and Valls around 41 percent. Valls immediately conceded defeat in the face of the result that appeared to sanction both Hollande’s polices and his former prime minister.

With the beleaguered ruling party now having its candidate, the race for the presidential Elysee Palace begins in earnest, although the outcome of the two-round vote in April and May looks increasingly uncertain.

Leading conservative candidate Francois Fillon, who also is a former prime minister, was rocked in the past week by allegations that his wife, Penelope, held a fake but handsomely paid job as a parliamentary aide. Financial prosecutors are investigating.

At a campaign rally in Paris on Sunday — where a boisterous crowd gave Penelope Fillon a standing ovation and chanted her name, Fillon said, “We have nothing to hide.”

“Through Penelope they are trying to break me,” he said. “I will never forgive those who chose to throw us to the wolves.”

A priority for Hamon, a 49-year-old former junior minister and, briefly, education minister, will be to rally the Socialists, split ideologically and wounded by Hollande’s five-year tenure as president.

“Our country needs the left, but a left that is modern and innovates,” Hamon said.

The party is squeezed by rivals on both flanks. Fiery far-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon and centrist Emmanuel Macron, Hollande’s former economics minister, are both making hay by appealing to disappointed Socialist voters.

Early polling has suggested the Socialist candidate will struggle to advance to the presidential runoff in May, where far-right leader Marine Le Pen could be waiting, campaigning on anti-Europe, anti-immigration and anti-Islam themes.

In defeat, Valls didn’t throw his support behind Hamon, but cautioned against the risk of the country shifting to the right.

“We refuse that tomorrow Marine Le Pen becomes the face of France,” he said.

The turnout on Sunday, estimated at around 2 million voters, was more robust than in the first round of voting but still suggested a lack of enthusiasm among the French electorate of 44 million. The primary was open to all voters who paid 1 euro ($1.04).

Hamon wasn’t as tainted as Valls by Hollande’s unpopularity, because he rebelled and quit the government in 2014.

Valls served as Hollande’s prime minister for more than two years until last December, when it became clear the president couldn’t win a second term. Having to defend the government’s economic policies and labor reforms against Hamon proved an uphill fight for Valls.

Hamon’s signature proposal for a 750 euros ($800) “universal income” that would be gradually granted to all adults also proved a campaign masterstroke, grabbing headlines and underpinning his surprise success in the primary’s two rounds of voting, first against six opponents and then against Valls in the runoff.

Sharply criticized by Valls as unrealistic and ruinous, Hamon says the no-strings-attached payments would cushion the French in an increasingly automated future, as machines take their jobs.

He proposes a tax on robots to help finance the measure’s huge costs — by Hamon’s reckoning, at least 300 billion euros ($320 billion) if applied to more than 50 million adults.

Hamon also proposes legalizing cannabis and allowing medically assisted deaths.

First-time voter Maayane Pralus said Hamon “has a lot of the youth vote with him, which is sick of the old politics.”

“People call him utopian, but that’s the politics we’ve been waiting for,” the 18-year-old student said.

Valls, 54, emphasized his government experience. He was prime minister when gun and suicide-bomb attacks killed 147 people in Paris in January and November 2015, and still in office in July 2016 when a man drove a truck into crowds in Nice, killing 86 people.

Such are the left’s divisions that some Valls supporters may now shift to Macron’s independent run for the presidency.

In such a complex political landscape, some voters cast ballots strategically.

Bernard Biassette, 74, a retired bank worker, voted for Hamon only to eliminate Valls, whom he saw as a greater threat to his hoped-for president — Macron.

Hamon “is throwing money out of the window,” Biassette said. “He’s not a serious candidate.”