The triumph of the relatively unknown Benoît Hamon in the French Socialist presidential primary last weekend has inspired comparisons with fellow leftists Jeremy Corbyn in the United Kingdom and Bernie Sanders in the United States.
The comparison is imprecise. Hamon’s vanquished primary opponent, Arnaud Montebourg, had more in common with Corbyn. Both are nostalgic for the times when blue-collar jobs paid well, trade unions were powerful and the welfare state was at its most generous.
Hamon is more forward-looking. His signature policies are a universal basic income funded by a tax on robots. Neither would be implemented overnight — if ever — but he is thinking about novel ways to preserve France’s high living standards at a time when many jobs may be automated or outsourced.
Low-skilled workers are already struggling to make a living under globalization. What if high-skilled, white-collar professionals are next? The solution is surely not a return to the 1970s.
All of which is not to say Hamon is more electable than Corbyn or Sanders. If anything, it’s their inability to win elections that really unites the three.
Many Democrats who supported Bernie Sanders in the primaries last year probably calculated that Hillary Clinton would win the nomination anyway. They saw a little risk in voting for Sanders.
Likewise, many Labour voters in the United Kingdom and many Socialists in France know that their party is not going to win the next election, so why not support a candidate they can get excited about?
These aren’t all radical leftists. There is a hardcore fringe around Corbyn, just as there are far-left idealists (or naïfs, depending on your point of view) around Hamon. But it’s the “soft” left that has the numbers. Their unwillingness to compromise and support a moderate — Manuel Valls, the reformist former prime minister — is what has created space in the French political center for Emmanuel Macron, a liberal.
The result could be a bidding war between Macron and the center-right candidate, François Fillon, for the support of reform-minded French voters, giving the next president a mandate for exactly the sort of liberalizations Hamon and the far left abhor.