France’s presidential election: Quelle surprise

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In their presidential primary, France’s Socialists tack to the left and Benoît Hamon beats Manuel Valls with promises of a universal basic income  Hamon (left) & Valls (right)Hamon (left) & Valls (right)

Manuel Valls was the favourite to win the first round of the Socialist presidential primary. But last night the centrist former prime minister finished second

Paris, Jan.22.─ As France prepares for its presidential election this spring, the unexpected is becoming routine. Few predicted that the socially conservative François Fillon would emerge as the Republican party’s candidate, until he came from behind to win the primary in November. In December François Hollande decided not to seek re-election—the first incumbent president not to do so since the birth of the fifth republic.

Now comes January’s surprise. Polls suggested that Manuel Valls, a centrist who served as prime minister until last month, was the front-runner in the first round of the Socialist presidential primary on January 22nd. Instead he finished second; first place went to Benoît Hamon, a figure from the party’s left wing.

The two men will face each other in a run-off on January 29th. Mr Hamon is likely to win. He will pick up votes from the third-place candidate, Arnaud Montebourg, and others on the left of the party. His success in the first round matters because it signifies that his party, which already looked weak, is abandoning the centre of French politics. The Socialists are pleased that nearly 2m voters took part in the primary—not bad, considering that almost no one believes the party’s candidate can win the election. But the Republicans drew over 4.3m votes in each of their two primaries in November.

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 ...

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