Benoît Hamon to Jacobin: “French Democracy Is Unquestionably in Crisis”

Benoît Hamon

Next year’s French election looks like it’ll be dominated by right-wing discourses around identity and immigration. Former Socialist candidate Benoît Hamon tells Jacobin how the Left can put inequality back on the agenda and win.

Former Socialist minister Benoît Hamon spoke to Jacobin about the state of French democracy. (PHILIPPE DESMAZES/AFP via Getty Images)

Interview by
Cole Stangler

Eight months ahead of the April 2022 presidential election, France’s political situation is alarming. As civil liberties recede under neoliberal president Emmanuel Macron, the preferred themes of Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally continue to set the national conversation — with obsessions over immigration, identity, and security dominating the airwaves. But it’s not like everyone is enthused by this: in fact, turnout in June’s regional elections hit among the lowest levels ever recorded for a national vote since the Fifth Republic was founded in 1958.

Faced with this situation, the Left is deeply fragmented. La France Insoumise (LFI), Europe Ecology–The Greens (EELV), the French Communist Party (PCF), and the Socialist Party (PS) are all on track to run separate presidential candidates in next spring’s contest — with polls at this stage suggesting that none will secure above 10 percent of the vote. The prospects of various alliances have been floated, but no deal has emerged yet.

To get more of a sense of the Left’s predicaments, Jacobin’s Cole Stangler sat down with Benoît Hamon, who was the Socialist presidential candidate in 2017. A former education minister pushed out of François Hollande’s cabinet in 2014, Hamon won the Socialist primary on a platform calling for a universal basic income and a tax on automation. After winning just 6 percent of the vote in that race, which saw many Socialist power brokers jump ship and back Macron, Hamon left the PS and founded Génération.s, a small party that allied itself with Yanis Varoufakis’s DiEM25 movement in the 2019 European elections. A staunch critic of Macron, Hamon has become an increasingly vocal proponent of left-wing unity. In June, he was reelected to the regional council of greater Paris on a ticket backed by all four major left parties.

This interview has been translated from French and edited for clarity.

Cole Stangler

Let’s start with the regional elections. When you look at the results, what conclusions do you draw?

Benoît Hamon

There’s just one lesson to be taken from these elections — namely, a great fatigue with democracy. Or, more accurately, a great fatigue vis-à-vis representative democracy. People aren’t necessarily rejecting democracy. Quite the contrary — the demand for democracy is very much present in the protests for climate justice, in activism around the questions of gender and racism. But, at the same time, people don’t see elections as an outlet for these struggles.

This disconnection is tragic for the Left. The Left has always made the [building of] links between social movements and electoral politics the condition of its arrival to power. When people who are angry no longer use the ballot as a means to concretize their struggles, we find ourselves in a situation where people don’t participate.

It’s another confirmation that French democracy is sick.

Cole Stangler

There’s a lack of confidence in Macron and his government, and we’re also seeing the National Rally has difficulties of its own. And we’re also in a major economic crisis without precedent. Why hasn’t the French left been able to take advantage of this political moment?

Benoît Hamon

Elections aren’t just a pendulum swinging between one camp and another. There’s a question of cultural hegemony. The real difficulty for the Left today in France — and not just in France — is that we live in a regime marked by the cultural hegemony of conservative ideas. That is, right-wing ideas that are sometimes reactionary, racist, bellicose, and anti-egalitarian.

As a result, those with a passion for equality, social justice, and democracy appear out of touch with the dominant political and social demands. This is a political and sociological fact that’s also intensified by the aging of the population — for the older you get, the greater the role that various fears play in how you vote. These are important structural factors.

But the Left has responsibility for this as well — and we can criticize it for not having done the necessary work.

Cole Stangler

What do you mean?

Benoît Hamon

Today, the French left — and I include ecologists in that — doesn’t have a project for education.

France is a country in which all problems stem from a crisis of equality. Perhaps we could have expected that, faced with this crisis of equality, the Left would think about an educational project which would restore the mechanisms allowing for individual emancipation and the ability to rise up the social ladder through access to knowledge. But on this subject like so many others, the Left is sleepwalking.

I could talk about the economy in the same way, or even the question of democracy. I’ll give an example.

Today, democracy is unquestionably in crisis in France. But time and again, we give an institutional response to this problem. We say, “We need to change the Constitution, we need to change voting methods, we need to change term lengths.” Maybe this is useful, but the truth today is that there’s plenty of space that can be democratized.

Even when it comes to companies themselves, we could figure out a way to fight against the imbalance of power between company owners or shareholders and those who sell their labor — workers — and all the related parties like local governments and citizens. This question of democracy in the economy is something the Left isn’t thinking about.

I had a discussion in the US in 2016, when I met Bernie Sanders. We didn’t talk for a long time, we talked for maybe a half hour, but it was on the question of the commons, the governance of the commons, and the way in which we put democracy in the economic sphere, all the while thinking about the environmental impacts [of the economy].

On these subjects, I observed that American politicians were well ahead of French politicians. I can assure you now that five years later — well, on Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s side, things have been done, there’s real thinking being done there — but the rest of the Left hasn’t worked more on these questions than they did five years ago.

Cole Stangler

I saw the interview you did for Mediapart a couple months ago in which you said that France is living in a prefascist moment. Could you talk a bit about this for our readers? These were pretty strong words.

Benoît Hamon

There are all the weak signals that we’ve seen in other countries that point to an authoritarian temptation. The main political outlet for this authoritarian temptation is the far right.

The French far right isn’t Donald Trump. It’s not the same far right. We have a far right that’s historically linked to various currents that are fascist or religious extremist. It could seize the considerable power offered by the Fifth Republic. This should legitimately worry citizens, French or otherwise. If France swings to the far right tomorrow, we’ll have far fewer checks on power than in the United States.

We saw in the United States that Trump couldn’t do everything he wanted — the Constitution didn’t allow it. In France, the president of the Republic has considerable powers. Thanks to Macron, restrictions on fundamental liberties were integrated into common law in the name of fighting terrorism, giving the [next] president greater authority. You don’t need to change the Constitution or the laws. And when we know all the means of mass surveillance that technology can offer, there’s reason to worry.

Why do I think we’re in a prefascist climate? First of all, because the media has shifted. Today we see strong generational conflicts, even if this is broadly reassuring in the medium-to-long term. There’s a restructuring on the question of climate, on feminism, on the relationship to production, on anti-racism, and we see a sort of bourgeois bloc reconstituting its cultural and economic power around Macron [and] in broad resistance to these demands around emancipation, equality, and respect for identities.

And, indisputably, those who are in power have never been as scared. When you govern with fear in your stomach, the risk of an authoritarian temptation is greater. And that can express itself in the vote for Marine Le Pen.

Cole Stangler

Or maybe far-right TV pundit and writer Éric Zemmour?

Benoît Hamon

Maybe Zemmour. I’m not making any predictions. But it’s the same thing.

The problem, in a word, is Macron’s responsibility in all this. Who have he and his government demonized over the last five years? They have called us on the Left a danger to the Republic; we have been suspected of complicity with Islamists. Certain [members of the Socialist Party] have said this too, labelling our political project on the climate and on the economy as “dangerous for the stability of the Republic and social cohesion.” And as you demonize the Left and ecologists through this strategy, you de-demonize the far right.

In a debate on public TV, Macron’s interior minister told Marine Le Pen, “You’re too soft.” He said, “You should’ve voted for the law that I’m proposing on separatism.” Never before in the history of the Fifth Republic have we seen a moment like this, in which a minister has called on the far right to get behind a legislative text that mentions foreigners. It’s incredible. And Macron, who paints himself as a humanist, is the president under which fundamental liberties have receded the most under the Fifth Republic.

Cole Stangler

I also wanted to talk about the elections in 2022. Are we heading straight into a wall? Are there any chances for the Left in 2022? Or is it already lost? Others say as much, maybe not publicly but —

Benoît Hamon

I’ll make two remarks. One about 2022 as such and then about a difficulty that the French left faces in the Fifth Republic.

The deeper nature of the Left is to promote forms of democracy that are built on collective intelligence, not the genius of a providential man or woman. And yet, the Fifth Republic, as we often say, is an elected monarchy. We elect a king. He doesn’t receive a staff or a crown from his heritage or birthright, but from the people that give them to him. The president of the Republic has considerable power.

It’s harder for the Left to win in these conditions. And when it does win, it’s because it abandons part of its political DNA by playing the game of the institutions. That’s the first real structural difficulty for the Left.

When I was a candidate in the presidential election — and it’s not the [only] reason for my defeat — but anyways, I would say, “There’s no providential man, it’s an absurdity, we’ll create a Sixth Republic, we’re going to make things more horizontal, we’re going to think in terms of checks on power.” I refused the personalization of the election, including in the tabloids. At the end of the election, my wife, who’s half Danish, said to me, “Bravo, dear, you ran a great campaign for a Swedish prime minister.” She wasn’t totally wrong. By picking this sort of ethical and moral approach to power, you run the risk of ultimately not responding to this French passion of electing the king. French people didn’t want to totally rid themselves of the monarchy, they wanted to say, “We’d like to choose our king.”

Cole Stangler

Just to bounce off that — since we’re talking about 2017 — there was a moment at which it looked like Mélenchon might have been able to make it to the second round. Why didn’t you say, “OK, I’m going to get behind him”?

Benoît Hamon

Because the moment at which that question was posed, when the polling trends inverted, was only one month before the election.

When you represent a political family — and we had a very rich project, with my fights over universal basic income and a new relationship to work — it’s impossible to change the rules of the game a month before the election by saying, “OK, we’ll step down.” It was impossible for [Mélenchon] when I was ahead in the polls and when he could’ve stepped aside himself. That’s how it is.

That said, we don’t have to be trapped again by the political game. Yes, we were trapped by campaigns that were different and that didn’t stand up for the same things. There were certain points in common, but they were different in their tone and their proposals. Today, we don’t have to fall into this trap again.

To get back to the situation in front of us, I’m hoping there’ll be a single candidate representing the Left and political ecology. Firstly, for reasons of “efficiency.” Only two candidates qualify for the second round of the presidential election. So, to make it to the runoff, you need to aim for 20 percent. We know that as soon as there are two, three, or four candidates, none of them have any chance of making it through.

If we want to improve people’s lives tomorrow, if we want an environmental transition — because it’s only the Left and political ecology that will do it in a serious way — there needs to be a single candidate.

The second reason is we can’t all say separately that we’re entering the critical decade for climate change — we all have this in our projects and literature — while offering voters strategies that are losing strategies. I’ve said it to all of them — to [Socialist Anne] Hidalgo, to Mélenchon, to [Green Yannick] Jadot — “I’d take out the passage on the climate emergency in your flyers. You have no credibility on this issue, because you’re going into the election to lose.” This is the second reason.

And the third is, yes, there’s a fascist threat, and we know it. We’ve all seen it. There’s a strengthening of reactionary, conservative, fascist intellectuals along with like-minded journalists — and an incredible opening up of racist speech. And at this moment, faced with this real, tangible danger, we’re each deciding to go at it separately? For these three reasons, we need to unite.

Cole Stangler

When you say, “the Left and political ecology,” just to be clear, you’re talking about the Socialists, the Greens —

Benoît Hamon

And La France Insoumise.

Cole Stangler

OK. A single candidate. It looks like it could be Mélenchon then?

Benoît Hamon

It’s true that Mélenchon is a bit ahead, but he’s not as strong as in 2016.

I think that, at a certain moment, we’re capable of getting around a table and saying, “OK, we can be in the second round, we can win.” There would be such a dynamic — including among working-class people who don’t vote anymore — if they knew that there’s a single banner for the Left and ecology. The mobilization would be there. We all have everything to gain from this.

Moreover, everyone’s platform has the [call for creating a] Sixth Republic, except the Socialists, who are now doing things — I don’t want to say anything mean — but anyways, everyone else is in favor of it. We’d change the rules of how power is exercised. It doesn’t matter who the face on it is — we’d all be able to participate in exercising power. We’d all win. And in the history of the Left, there have been moments when this did happen.

Cole Stangler

You think this is possible — to get La France Insoumise, the Socialist Party, and the Greens to agree to a common candidate?

Benoît Hamon

Today, it appears difficult. There are Socialists who say, “Never! I don’t want an alliance with France Insoumise.” There are Insoumis who say, “Never with the Socialists.” We’re in this sort of political, tactical face-off that’s often artificial and stupid. Yes, it’s very difficult. The problem is that politics is made up of men and women. If there were robots and software, sometimes it’d be easier. We could say, “OK, what’s the best strategy?” We’d have the right program and the right strategy.

The only thing I’ll do in the coming months is to say this. I won’t be running myself. I’ll just be repeating this.

Cole Stangler

Is there a candidate who could head this alliance?

Benoît Hamon

Today, among those who are already candidates, there’s nobody. There was one figure who had a sort of unique status — that’s Christiane Taubira, the former justice minister [under François Hollande]. She doesn’t want to do it and I respect her decision. But she had a special status.