As the divided French Socialist party this week chooses between a radical leftwing outsider and a centre-left former prime minister trying to defend the status quo, it hasn’t taken long for a C-word to be bandied around both as praise and insult: Corbyn.
Benoît Hamon, the dark horse leftist who wants to introduce a universal wage, tax robots and legalise cannabis, is seen as having a chance of winning the final round of the primary race to become the Socialist party’s presidential candidate on Sunday. When he topped the first round with 36%, he was quick to namecheck the UK Labour party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, as an example of how voters, particularly young ones, want a return to a new form of solidarity politics and the spiritual fundamentals of the left.
Hamon’s campaign is about moving the party firmly to the left after what many Socialist voters feel has been a muddled and disastrous five-year term under François Hollande.
Manuel Valls, who took 31% in the first round and who represents the pro-business Socialist party of government, aspiring to New Labour-style politics, has angrily warned that pursuing what he considers to be idealist, costly and pie-in-the-sky notions that cannot be put into practise risks relegating the party to decades in opposition and “certain failure”.
This is the painful showdown that the warring French Socialists have been postponing for decades: whether to decisively commit to a neoliberal stance in order to be in government, or whether to create a new, firmly leftwing identity.
The high stakes of the presidential election in May have added to the sense of panic. The French electorate as a whole has shifted firmly to the right. Currently, the favourites to make it to the final round of the presidential race are the far-right Front National’s Marine Le Pen and the staunchly rightwing, socially conservative François Fillon of the Republicans.
Breathing down their neck in third place in polls is Hollande’s rebellious former economy minister Emmanuel Macron, running a maverick “neither left nor right” campaign. Then comes the hard-left firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon. The Socialists seem set to be relegated to a demoralising fifth place, no matter who they choose as their candidate.
Valls was outraged by Hamon’s reference to Corbyn, who he felt had “made the choice to stay in opposition” when the left should aspire to be in government. Hamon, on a radio show, argued that the left needed new “imaginative and powerful policy” if it was to counter the right.
The Corbyn comparisons do not totally fit the French race: the Socialists are choosing a presidential candidate in an open primary race, not a party leader (although the party’s long-term future is in question). The pro-Europe Hamon is 20 years younger than Corbyn, he has served in government as minister, was an MEP and part of the party apparatus as a former party spokesman. But Hamon is a rebel MP who was kicked out of government as education minister in 2014 after opposing Hollande and Valls’s pro-business economic policy.
Florence Faucher, a professor of political science at Sciences Po University in Paris, said that as individuals Hamon and Corbyn did not compare, but “there are similarities in the circumstances – in which a leftwing party in government ends up trapped by its own contradictions.”
She said the backing for staunchly leftwing candidates in the first round of the primary race – another leftist, Arnaud Montebourg, placed third – showed voters’ anger at the rightward shift of the Socialists in government.
Hamon has a strong slant on environmental policy and fighting climate change, and he argues that a universal basic income paid by the government to all adults and a tax on robots are ways of facing up to a changing world with a radically different labour market. He says he is driven only by his young daughters’ future and does not seek to “denigrate” anyone.
But Valls is relishing a fight, calling Hamon’s ideas “ruinous”, “unachievable promises” and electoral suicide. A TV debate between the two on Wednesday is likely to be a bruising match, as a divided party acknowledges it can no longer sweep its differences under the mat.