Similar to elsewhere, the French left has reached a point where an old-guard leftist reaction against the forces of neo-liberalism has kicked in, and is exposing the profound disconnect between the anti-market left, and the economically liberal centrists. As a result, the socialist party in France is beginning to fragment. Emmanuel Valls, the current Prime Minister, whose centrist ticket in the socialist primary was rejected in favor of a more leftist programme, claims that the political fissures now apparent are irreconcilable. And he isn’t the only one. Many in the center have scampered away to join Macron’s centrist programme, and the papers’ are all holding their breath for a great migration any day now. For the more hardhearted leftists, these defections are welcomed as a necessary clarification process in which the political board can re-organize itself to reflect the new realities – toughly claiming that the comforting, broad-church left, is illusory, and must be scrapped in favor of schismatic disorientation. ‘Don’t let them hold you hostage Benoit’, says Yannick Jadot, the Green Party chief, ‘let them fly, you don’t need them, their support will only compromise you’.
Benoit is Benoit Hamon, the source of all this kafuffle. He is the socialist candidate in the presidential election, who served for a time as education minister under Hollande. Hamon broke from Hollande, Valls, and the current socialist govt, believing they had betrayed socialist ideals, and were too easily selling out to pro-market economics, and too easily embracing austerity. His victory in the primary (a convincing victory), showed more than anything the disillusion that has set in among the left after five years of disappointment under Hollande, whose govt. has painfully illustrated how hollow is the hole where the left’s raison d’être had once been. But Hamon hasn’t got much chance according to the polls, and his ideas have been dismissed by politicians and the media as fanciful, and unfeasible. Furthermore, he’s having to share the left of center electorate with Jean-Luc Melenchon, whose refusal to reconcile with Hamon, and give the socialist candidate a real shot, comes down to their divergent opinions on Europe. Melenchon, ideologically similar to Syriza and Podemos is anti-EU, while Hamon is pro. So no deal. Some have admired Melenchon’s political integrity, others have criticized his ego.
So really the left have no chance in this election.
Hamon is regularly identified within the resurgent leftist trend, that Sanders and Corbyn are part of, and while the former comparison may be complimentary, the Corbyn one not so much. In fact it’s more of an unwanted taint. Corbyn’s honeymoon (if there ever was one…) is long gone, and the man’s electoral incompetence totally overshadows that refreshing integrity, that now just seems like a depressingly naïve thing to have gotten excited about. And this development isn’t lost in France, with Hamon’s anti-liberal rhetoric, and ambitious proposals, attracting criticism bemoaning the man’s divisiveness and inability to reunite an electorate on a tempered and inclusive platform. But the Corbyn, Hamon comparison has gained ground mainly because it fits superficially together. But there are important differences between them. Hamon is twenty years younger than Corbyn, more charismatic, pro-EU, and socially progressive. And when I say progressive I mean less in the anti-homophobic/misogynistic/racist sense (the slightly irksome reality of what being progressive has come to mean these days), but progressive in the sense that he thinks about the need to reorganize society in the face of profound economic transformations. This progressive tinge is what caught the imagination of so many young people in France. Not least with his famous revenu universel.
Le revenu universel is a proposal to provide every citizen with a basic income irrespective of employment. To begin with, it would be limited to those between 18 and 25. Depending on methods of implementation to be decided upon, it would range between 500 and 800 euro a month. The idea itself isn’t very new, having popped up in varying shapes over the past 200 years. Now Hamon is championing it with an excitingly progressive spin that has many people talking, but is also rendering it vulnerable to scrutiny. The essential preoccupation for Hamon’s election campaign is to sell the idea as progressive, in order to draw attention away from those who criticize le revenu universel as just an unfeasible social protection scheme. And unsurprisingly is choosing not to promote it as social protection. The reason probably being, that for many voters, radical welfare state enlargement is a dead horse, which only regressive leftist ideologues, lacking a forward looking imagination, are still beating. Hamon wants to come across as shiny and new. Gig-economy and all that.
Julien Dourgnon, Hamon’s advisor on le revenu universel, rejects the notion that the proposal amounts to social protection reform, and prefers to present it as something in addition to traditional social security, that will allow people to focus on enriching their individual lives. He presents the proposal as an investment in people, in the pursuance of their interests and passions, allowing for self-enrichment. All a bit fanciful for many no doubt, particularly as his logic implicitly decouples occupation from income. The universal revenue idea is rooted to the theory that technology and robotisation are fundamentally altering the world of work, and rendering stable, full-time employment less and less available. Yet this decline in employment, does not correspond with a decline in wealth – there is simply less work in need of doing – and so, the argument goes, the traditional binary between personal income and occupation is a no longer suitable way of organizing society.
Yet despite’s Hamon’s progressive approach to le revenu universel, not all of its proponents conceive of it in this excitingly progressive way. Amongst the accumulated arguments in favor of the idea, there is a lack of ideological unanimity. The economist, Jean Gadrey whose book Adieu à la croissance would seem to complement Hamon’s vision, points out how some proponents of le revenu universel see it as a means of repairing a defunct social protection system, while others see it as an additional pillar designed to alter the balance between work and free-time. Finland’s experiment with the le revenu universel is close to the former, and Hamon’s campaign team have made a point of distancing themselves from that conception of it, preferring instead to brand it with a tinge of ‘social revolution’. Other proponents of le revenu universel criticize the election frenzy for creating misinformed and unrealistic concepts of the proposal. Marc de Basquiat, president of an organization promoting the introduction of universal revenue, is in favor of le revenu universel, but says he dismisses certain versions of it, such as the notion that people won’t have to work, or that the universal revenu will comprehensively resolve the problem of accommodation. ‘It is time to clarify things’, he says. Basquiat explains it as a reform of income tax that will protect social security (health, public services, housing). Basquiat’s explanation seems a far cry from Hamon’s more futuristic spin, which has been far more adept at catching the imagination of many young voters.
Within the mainstream, Hamon’s claim that the world of work is slowly being taken over by robots and technology has been received with incredulity. Hamon’s thesis relies on the arguments of economists like the American, Robert Gordon, who argues that the technological revolution, whilst having a huge impact, has not boosted general productivity and employment, and is the reason why trickle-down economics hasn’t worked. Yet detractors on the left believe Hamon’s solution is premature, as there are competing theories, which make it impossible to know for certain which direction economies are headed. Other like Macron reject Hamon’s proposal by arguing that work is essential for giving people a sense of purpose and dignity. Even those who share Hamon’s economic theories of declining employment and a need to adjust living patterns to the gig-economy, do not necessarily see the revenu universel as a suitable response, despite admitting to some clear potential benefits.
Those like Denis Clerk, editor of Alternatifs Economiques, are open to the idea of work- sharing, i.e. multiple individuals sharing the same job, and so working less, which would allow more time to focus on pursuing personal interests and enjoyments. Yet the potential benefit to personal lifestyle is a far too hypothetical positive, lacking concreteness, to justify the hazardous upheaval to the tax system that would be required to finance the proposal. And although some concede that the scheme may help to minimize the mal-effects of increased unemployment, they argue it would lead to decreased mobility, as without an immediate incentive for self-betterment, idleness, not self-enrichment, would proliferate.