French left seeks unity as Macron gains ground

PARIS: France’s newly-minted Socialist candidate Benoit Hamon has issued a call for the divided left to unite for the presidential election, but his victory could boost fast-rising centrist Emmanuel Macron.
Hamon romped to victory over former prime minister Manuel Valls in Sunday’s primary. He will go up against an array of candidates in April’s first round of voting for president, from far-right leader Marine Le Pen and right-wing candidate Francois Fillon to Macron in the centre and Jean-Luc Melenchon on the far left.
The election is being closely watched after the victory for the Brexit camp in Britain and Donald Trump’s triumph in the United States.
Polls currently show Hamon will be eliminated at the first hurdle as the Socialists pay the price for five years in power under deeply unpopular President Francois Hollande.
Hamon, who came from behind with a radical left-wing programme, faces a fight to prevent moderate Socialist voters from switching to 39-year-old former investment banker Macron, who says he is neither of the left nor the right. Adding to the uncertainty of a wide-open race, long-time frontrunner Fillon’s popularity has taken a hit after claims his wife Penelope was paid half a million euros ($535,000) for a fictitious job as his parliamentary aide.
Hamon’s triumph is another upset in the topsy-turvy French race, with the former education minister and son of a dockworker viewed as an outsider only three weeks ago.
As he savoured victory, Hamon urged the fractured left to pull together, appealing to hard-left candidate Melenchon and environmentalist contender Yannick Jadot to build a “governmental majority”.
“Our country needs the left, but a modern, innovative left turned towards the future,” 49-year-old Hamon told supporters.
Macron, who created his own En Marche (On the Move) party to contest the elections, has indicated he would be open to alliances but is considered highly unlikely to throw his hat in with the Socialists. Valls, who conceded defeat and wished Hamon well on Sunday, took a parting shot at Le Pen, saying that Socialists “reject (her) face being the face of France in the future.”
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 Europe. But her anti-immigration and anti-EU National Front party is also embroiled in its own expenses scandal over money from the European parliament.
A poll published on Sunday showed the race tightening as Fillon loses ground in the wake of the allegations against him.
Le Pen would lead all candidates in the first round with 25 per cent, ahead of Fillon on 21 per cent, virtually level with Macron, according to the poll conducted by Kantar Sofres-Onepoint on Thursday and Friday.
Hamon would receive 13 per cent, with Melenchon scoring 10 per cent, according to the survey of 1,032 voters. The poll also showed that while Fillon would easily beat Le Pen in a run-off, he would lose a duel with Macron.
The embattled Fillon walked into a packed Paris rally on Sunday hand-in-hand with his wife and told supporters that his critics should “leave her out” of the election.