In France Benoit Hamon, 'dreamer' of the Socialist left

Neither man is considered to have a real shot at the ultimate prize, which will be determined in a two-round election due in April and May.

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Benoit Hamon, the surprise frontrunner in the French Socialists' presidential nominating contest play

Benoit Hamon, the surprise frontrunner in the French Socialists' presidential nominating contest

(AFP/File)
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Benoit Hamon, the surprise frontrunner in the French Socialists' presidential nominating contest, is on a mission to reclaim the party's leftist roots.

Hamon, 49, whose signature proposal is the introduction of a universal basic income, is ahead of reformist ex-prime minister Manuel Valls as Sunday's leftwing primary showdown looms.

Neither man is considered to have a real shot at the ultimate prize, which will be determined in a two-round election due in April and May.

Instead, their duel has been cast as a fight for the future of the deeply split Socialist party, with Hamon embodying its traditionalist left flank.

"A vote for Benoit Hamon will be a vote of conviction," political scientist Philippe Braud told AFP.

"You want to go down with the sinking ship rather than lower the flag."

Polls show the Socialist candidate failing to get past the first round of the presidential poll, with the run-off seen as a battle between the front-running rightwing Republicans party candidate Francois Fillon and far-right leader Marine Le Pen.

Hamon's key proposal is of a universal basic income, a state handout to all adults irrespective of income.

It would entail a costly and radical reform of state spending -- some 300 billion euros ($321 billion) a year, by Hamon's own estimates.

Even Hamon's ally on the Socialists' left flank, protectionist former economy minister Arnaud Montebourg, has questioned its cost. The usually left-leaning satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo knocked the plan in this week's cover cartoon, titled "The layabouts have their candidate".

The former education minister argues that growing automation is squeezing jobs, making it critical to find ways of supplementing or replacing wages.

Valls, 54, has dismissed Hamon as a "dreamer" sorely lacking in the credibility that the older man enjoys thanks to his experience at the helm of government.

"What I propose is not peddling dreams, it's not peddling anything," he said in a final debate with Valls on Wednesday. "I'm proposing justice."

Hamon, an admirer of US Senator Bernie Sanders, tweeted after meeting the losing Democratic presidential candidate last year that he "succeeded in bringing social issues back to the centre" of US politics, adding: "Now it's our turn."

Like Sanders defending his idea of free tuition at public universities, Hamon defends his proposals as investments in the future.

"People always take a strict accountant's view," he has said. "Let's not look just at what it costs but at what it delivers. Otherwise, there's no point in investing."

He also wants to tax robots to raise income, legalise cannabis, introduce stricter rules on chemical products, and introduce a new corps of state inspectors to combat discrimination.

Hamon, who resigned as education minister in 2014 in protest at what he saw as the deeply unpopular Socialist government's rightward drift, had kept a low profile for two years before throwing his hat in the ring.

Student leader

Hailing from western Brittany, the blue-eyed, fast-talking Hamon is the son of a secretary mother and a dockworker father who moved the family to Senegal for several years while Hamon was a child.

The father of two children with his partner Gabrielle Guallar, Hamon is a history graduate.

In 1986, aged 18, he joined massive student protests against proposed reforms that would have raised tuition fees, allowed universities to admit students selectively and abolished state diplomas, which give graduates equal qualifications regardless of where they study.

Jacques Chirac, the then rightwing president, had to withdraw the proposal in the face of the protests in which one person was killed and some 200 injured.

Hamon's role in the student movement led to his becoming president of the Movement of Young Socialists from 1993 to 1995.

He went on to work in the cabinet of Martine Aubry, the left-leaning social affairs minister from 1997 to 2000, becoming her spokesman when she was named first secretary of the Socialist Party in 2008.

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