French Socialists tilt left, pick Hamon as election candidate
The victory is another upset in an election seen as highly unpredictable, with the former education minister viewed as an outsider only three weeks ago
Paris — French left-winger Benoit Hamon clinched the Socialist nomination to run for president, partial results showed Sunday, as a fresh scandal engulfed conservative election frontrunner Francois Fillon.
Results from a Socialist primary runoff vote showed Hamon beating his centrist rival Manuel Valls with 58.65% of the vote in a clear victory for the traditional left-wing of the party.
"Benoit Hamon won decisively," Valls said in a concession speech.
"Benoit Hamon is henceforth the candidate of our political family," added the former prime minister.
The victory is another upset in an election seen as highly unpredictable, with the 49-year-old former education minister viewed as an outsider only three weeks ago.
His nomination completes the line-up of the main candidates in the two-round election in April and May which pollsters forecast will confirm France’s shift to the right after five years of unpopular Socialist rule.
The candidates include rightwing Republicans party frontrunner Francois Fillon, far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, as well as centrist Emmanuel Macron who some analysts see as likely to benefit from the Socialists’ tilt left.
Fillon, who was also a long-shot until he clinched the Republicans nomination in November, has consistently been tipped to become France’s next leader.
But his campaign has been in turmoil since last Wednesday when a newspaper reported his wife had been paid around €500,000 over eight years for a suspected fake job as a parliamentary aide.
Those allegations have sparked a preliminary judicial enquiry, but there was more bad news for Fillon on Sunday.
Investigative website Mediapart and the Journal du Dimanche newspaper reported Fillon had used his parliamentary allowance to pocket up to €25,000 while working as a senator.
In a defiant speech on Sunday in front of thousands of supporters in Paris, Fillon said he would not let himself be "intimidated".
"It’s more than me as a person that is in the crosshairs, it’s a higher idea of France that they want to take down mid-flight," he said.
Earlier, in an interview with the Journal du Dimanche, he denounced a "plot" against him and French democracy.
It remains unclear how the allegations will affect him or the outcome of the vote, which is being closely watched after the Brexit referendum in Britain and Donald Trump’s triumph in the United States.
After five years of rule by Socialist President Francois Hollande, France is pessimistic about its economic prospects and fearful about terrorism and immigration.
Far-right leader Le Pen believes the nationalist sentiment that influenced British and American voters in 2016 will also carry her to the French presidency in what would be a profound shock for the continent.
"The French are rightfully asking themselves: Who is the real Fillon? Is this not a man who likes money and who manoeuvred to enrich himself?" she told TF1 television on Saturday.
But her National Front party is also embroiled in its own expenses scandal over money from the European parliament.
Hamon’s victory and Fillon’s woes could benefit Macron, the youngest candidate in the race at 39 who quit Hollande’s government last year to start his own political movement, En Marche (On the Move).
The former economy minister and investment banker has been drawing crowds of thousands to rallies around the country and polls show him creeping up on Fillon and Le Pen.
A Hamon victory would "open up opportunities", said Cedric Lecomte-Swetchine, a Macron supporter handing out flyers in north-west Paris on Sunday morning. "It would create space for people to rally behind Macron," he said.
Hamon has pitched himself as a man of fresh ideas for the left, promising to bring in universal basic income — a state handout to all adults, irrespective of income — and new environmental protections.
He also wants to levy taxes on robots, legalise cannabis, introduce stricter rules on chemical products, and introduce a new corps of state inspectors to combat discrimination.
"Hamon represents principles of citizenship, solidarity and the sharing of wealth that are more the principles of the left," 60-year-old architect Annick Descamps said as she voted in northwest Paris.
He won a first round of the primary last Sunday and picked up important endorsements from rivals this week.
Valls, prime minister under Hollande until December, lampooned his programme as unworkable and labelled him him a dreamer.
The bill for his universal income programme, envisaged for sometime after 2020, was estimated at a staggering 480 billion euros annually by an economic research unit at Sciences Po university in Paris.