Does Benoît Hamon represent a ‘New Left’ in French socialist politics?

Analysing the policy differences between Manuel Valls and Benoît Hamon show how the new Socialist presidential candidate is mapping a new direction for the French left

Renee BuhrIn a previous blog for SPERI published in December, I argued that the right-wing candidates competing for the French Presidency represented a break from business as usual in French economic policy.  Francois Fillon’s apparent liberalism and Marine Le Pen’s populist appeals both represent a departure from traditional ‘statist’ notions, with Fillon challenging the role of the state in the economy and Le Pen challenging the liberal democratic political and economic order promoted by the EU and dominant within mainstream French politics since the 1990s.

In a similar vein, the Parti Socialiste primary election that took place in January 2017 demonstrated a division between a 1990s version of democratic socialism – represented by former Prime Minister Manuel Valls – and a potentially new (to French presidential politics, at least) approach embraced by Benoît Hamon. This division has received a fair amount of media attention, with The Guardian referring to Hamon as a ‘rebel’ countering the ‘New Labour-style politics’ of Valls and Francois Hollande.  Hamon won the primary with 58.7% of the vote in the second round, to Valls’ 41.3%, thus ushering out, at least for the duration of this presidential election, the market-oriented approach used by the Parti Socialiste since the 1990s.

On what grounds does The Guardian link the Parti Socialiste with New Labour?  The story goes back to a transnational phenomenon made most apparent in the 1990s, as democratic socialist parties in many European states moved their policy preferences significantly on not just one, but two dimensions.  On the left-right socioeconomic/politics dimension, many democratic socialist parties shifted toward the centre in favour of market economics (provided the disruptions caused by the market were sufficiently countered by a deep and protective welfare state).  Many of these parties also moved to embrace European integration, accepting the free trade and market practices of the EU in exchange for what they hoped would be better convergence among member state economies and social welfare policies.  Scholars such as Hix and Lord, Hooghe, Marks and Wilson, as well as my own work, have provided discussions of this trend.

This led to a pro-integration consensus among the mainstream European right and left that may have made policymaking more coherent from one administration to the next, but also failed to meet the demand for anti-integration and anti-free market policies that remained, and later grew, within European electorates. That demand has been increasingly met by extremist parties, particularly on the right, who are happy to supply an anti-globalisation alternative in exchange for gaining enough votes to break into established electoral systems.

On each of these axes, Valls’ electoral programme proposals resemble the version of democratic socialism seen since the 1990s.  In terms of market sensibilities, he emphasizes the importance of government support for and guidance of businesses.  This includes the state’s role in anticipating major economic changes, making regulations and taxes more predictable, ensuring fair treatment of workers, and protecting the environment and French social model from ‘ultra-liberalism.’  Valls calls for greater accessibility to capital for enterprises of all sizes, but particularly for small, privately owned start-ups.  He emphasizes the importance of work (for society and the individual) and aims his policy proposals at making work more equitable through further development of the social safety net.  A key element here is ensuring that those who are self-employed (travailleurs indépendants) get equal access to the social safety net provisions accessible to salaried employees.

The former Prime Minister does take a swipe at globalization, which he criticizes on the grounds of both national security (e.g. terrorism, migration crises, and geopolitical instability) and national cohesion (e.g. the increasing distance between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ engendered by liberalism). However, his main tool for addressing these problems is the EU.  He calls for a stronger and more political EU, based on a ‘refoundation’ that will ensure free trade and adherence to environmental and social welfare standards.  The implication is that trade partners outside of the EU will take advantage of the EU to the detriment of European states’.  As President he has stated that he would aim to use the EU to protect France from ‘fiscal and social dumping,’ unfair competition, and terrorism.  To avoid inequalities between EU states, he suggests a European minimum wage, harmonization of taxes in member states, and an EU-wide solution to dealing with the e-commerce companies (such as Uber or Amazon) who may try to shirk their responsibilities to their employees and to paying taxes.

There is some apparent overlap between Benoît Hamon’s and Valls’ approaches – they appear to agree on a right to lifelong learning, ensuring that employment status does not result in unequal access to benefits, and preventing ‘unbridled Uberisation’ (Hamon’s term) by e-commerce firms and their ‘gig economy’ flexible forms of working.

On the other hand, Hamon’s approach is more geared toward forwarding workers’ rights, while embracing a more sceptical view of free trade.  Hamon’s proposals include not only support for a universal basic income  – a proposal that has received considerable media attention, but also the establishment of a right to disconnect from work, recognition of burnout as a professional ailment, a tax on companies that replace employees with robots, collective bargaining rights for independent workers, and introducing veto power for workers over major company decisions that directly effect them, such as automation, relocation, or factory closures (for companies that employ more than 2000 workers).

Trade policy is a further area of policy difference between Valls and Hamon. Where Valls calls for trade agreements that ensure adherence to EU environmental and workers standards but falls short of calling out any trade deals that should be abrogated, Hamon claims that free trade with Canada under the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) arrangement should be halted, and that agreements such as the US-EU Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP or ‘TAFTA’) and the wider-ranging Trade in Services Agreement (TISA) should ‘never see the light of day.’  Overall, he argues that the French government needs to reconceptualize an approach to free trade that takes seriously ‘democratic sovereignty, social and environmental progress.’  However, Hamon and Valls appear to agree on measures that should be taken by the EU – establish a European minimum wage, harmonize member states’ fiscal policies, establish policies that promote ecological and social progress, and both are critical of the Stability Pact and its bias toward austerity.  Hamon adds to this list, however, with a call for the EU to promote debt forgiveness for the most indebted European states.

Is Hamon’s approach a common one among European democratic socialist parties? And does this mean that we will see another transnational shift of democratic socialist parties to a new position vis-à-vis market forces and the EU?  Apparent shifts leftwards by democratic socialist parties elsewhere, such as Labour under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, may signal such a shift.  Though Corbyn’s policy suggestions differ from those of Hamon (with more focus on council housing, a ‘maximum wage cap’ and public ownership in certain industries), both of their agendas signal a shift leftwards, whether towards a more traditional notion of socialism (Corbyn) or a modern, post-industrial notion (Hamon).  One possibility is that this approach could allow the mainstream left to meet the electoral demand for an approach that is at least sceptical, if not outright opposed, to globalization and trade.  It is perhaps too early to tell if Hamon and Corbyn’s approaches will ‘win’ in the internal debates taking place in their respective parties, but for the moment, they appear to have the leadership positions to make their alternative socialist programmes heard.