I spent a chunk of Saturday morning pounding the pavement for Benoit Hamon, the Presidential Candidate supported by the Socialists and the Greens. The reaction of passers-by was interesting, and not like any other campaigning experience I’ve had. Between those who looked with slight bemusement at the leaflet handed to them (advertising Hamon’s big Paris rally on Sunday) and those who politely declined to take the leaflet, both reactions pretty standard, there was a surprisingly large number of people who laughed out loud when they read what I put before them.
The Accorhotels Arena in central Paris is the city’s largest indoor stadium. It normally hosts big pop concerts and sporting events. It is not usually a venue for political rallies. It is expensive to hire and it’s layout makes empty seats hard to hide. However, Hamon chose it as the venue for his first large public rally – effectively making yesterday his campaign’s official public launch. The media focused their attention before the rally on whether he would fill all of the seats inside (making attendance a “test” of his campaign’s engagement). The Socialist Party corralled members into attending – I’ve never been cold called by the party before about an event – and our weekend’s leafletting exclusively talked about the rally. A prior engagement prevented me from being there in person (the event was only announced several weeks ago), but even so I can’t say if I would definitely have gone. To judge from the exclamations of the members of the public I saw on Saturday, apparently I wasn’t the only one who was surprised at Hamon’s choice of timing and venue.
Even so, the rally was visually a big success. A relatively packed stadium (there were empty patches but the crowd was spread enough to give the impression of filling the little under 20,000 seats) loudly applauded Hamon. And yet, seeing the attendees after the rally on public transport, they looked rather drained. Perhaps it was the long wait (the rally started two hours late) or the thought of early Monday mornings that awaited them. But there was no sense of euphoria.
I find myself aghast at Hamon’s decision to hold the rally yesterday. Yes, it was superficially a success, but what an extraordinary risk to take at the beginning of the official campaign period. The nearest mainline train station, Gare de Lyon, was closed for engineering works. His campaign felt (and still feels) as though it is barely begun. He only announced his manifesto this past week and had spent the previous two days before the rally fending off accusations that its multiple spending promises were unpaid for in cuts or new revenue. The “warm up acts” of Paris Mayor, Anne Hidalgo, and former Justice Minister, Christiane Taubira, went down well with the faithful, but lacked the ability to appeal to floating voters on television.
Media coverage of the rally has been scarce. Saturday’s shooting at Orly Airport (which could never have been foreseen by the campaign) crowded out much positive coverage from the rally. His media cycle was further shortened by buzz around tonight’s historic debate: the first time that the “main” candidates have debated with each other prior to the First Round.
Hamon performed rather well in the primary election debates (or at least, outperformed the rather low expectations that many had of him). His downbeat style and calm, methodical nature (he is very good at staying on course despite barrages from opponents) may well contrast favourably with Marine Le Pen’s strident rhetoric, Emmanuel Macron’s sometimes empty lyricism, Jean-Luc Melenchon’s permanent state of outrage and Francois Fillon’s brow-beaten dourness. Having the rally before the debate (right before) seems therefore an odd choice – instead of riding a possible wave after the debate, this rally now seems rather inchoate.
Hamon’s primary programme was a curious beast. It read more like a manifesto for the next twenty years, than the next five. This innovation was welcome, and his victory in the primary can largely been ascribed to the fact that the other candidates’ programmes looked so tired. Progressives like to dream and Hamon promised a dreamy future. Based on the theory of the declining availability of work (an economic theory that is controversial and frustratingly provable and disprovable depending on where you look) his most eye catching measures were a “tax on robots” (actually shifting taxes on employment to taxing the added value from technological innovation in businesses) and an unconditional “universal income” for all citizens.
Both of these key pledges remain in some form in his revised Presidential Programme, announced this week. However, the robot tax, which would be phenomenally complicated to implement, remains largely unexplained. The universal income, derided by the right as cripplingly expensive (which is true), has been watered down to an increase in the existing RMI support payments to the unemployed who don’t qualify for unemployment insurance and making income support payments for low paid workers automatic (many who qualify do not currently take up the benefit).
Having apparently admitted that his dreams of a better future won’t be realised during his Presidency (here is a worrying first sign – with ambition waning in the candidate, he can hardly stir the masses), Hamon has also thrown in the tired 1970s style industrial policy of his primary competitor, Arnaud Montebourg. The programme thus looks like an awkward mishmash, and loses its central narrative, that so helped Hamon in the primary. This was apparently the price to pay to keep the “Productivist Wing” of the Socialists on board.
Few others are however on board. Whilst some figures such as Vincent Peillon (crushed in the Primary, where he stood largely in opposition to former Prime Minister, Manuel Valls) and Najat Vallaud-Belkacem (current Education Minister and a darling of progressives) are gamely going into battle for Hamon, they focus their fire on the opposition. Lip service is paid to the programme itself.
The Liberal wing of the Socialists finds nothing in the programme that would stop them from drifting away to Emmanuel Macron. Hamon calls for a total change in the economic policies of the past three years, during which President Hollande executed a transformation of traditional soft left socialism into a vehemently social democratic economic policy, which Macron’s programme embraces and amplifies. Ministers such as Jean-Yves Le Drian at Defence and Stephane Le Foll at Agriculture are expected to rally to Macron.
Squeezed on his right, Hamon and his surrogates at yesterday’s rally targeted much of their ire at Macron. It is not clear if they have enough time to wear down Macron’s support, which polls show is hardening. They risk however reinforcing the right flank at the expense of the left. Jean-Luc Mélenchon is a formidable speechifier. He tends to get lost in philosophy, and mostly speaks unscripted, but has been showing more message discipline recently, with clear and concise proposals that are clearly designed to peel off Hamon’s leftist base.
Hamon’s success in tonight’s debate will probably only reinforce his current support, which has him stuck at 14% in the first round. Unless he can break into the 20s, his campaign ends with the first round. He can therefore choose to woe the Macronites on the right (but seems unwilling to offer anything positive – relying on attacks on Macron that have fallen flat so far), Melenchonites on the left (but it is hard to ape Melenchon’s radicalism and keep what remains of the Socialist Party on board) or speak to the estimated 30% of the electorate who currently tell pollsters that they plan to stay home.
They will probably be watching tonight. That should be Hamon’s priority.