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Valls attacks ‘illusory’ Hamon in French TV debate

Manuel Valls sought to make up lost ground in the race for France’s Socialist presidential nomination by attacking frontrunner Benoît Hamon’s “illusory” economic proposals and “ambiguous” stance towards radical Islam.

In a primetime television debate four days before the party’s primary run-off, the former French prime minister challenged his rival’s claim that automation would destroy jobs, leaving individuals with fewer work opportunities.

Mr Valls criticised Mr Hamon’s flagship measure to introduce a monthly universal basic income of about €750 as a move that would require tax increases, hurt companies’ profits and increase public debt.

“One must not create illusions,” Mr Valls said. “It’s not about making people dream, it’s about being credible.”

The leftwing Mr Hamon responded by outlining a vision of a society in which people would adopt healthier lifestyles and could work a 32-hour week in an economy that would be environmentally friendly and less focused on growth. He defended his commitment to increase public spending even if that meant widening the deficit.

“The left has to offer a desirable future,” Mr Hamon said. “You can negotiate with bankers, you can’t negotiate with nature. Our debt today is not financial, it is environmental.”

The contest between Mr Valls, a social democrat who pushed through business friendly reforms while serving under President François Hollande, and Mr Hamon, a former education minister who spearheaded a rebellion in parliament against the reforms, has laid bare the deep divisions that have long convulsed the Socialist party and now threaten to tear it apart. Mr Hollande ruled out a run for re-election in the face of abysmal approval ratings.

You can negotiate with bankers, you can’t negotiate with nature. Our debt today is not financial, it is environmental

Mr Hamon, who stepped down from Mr Valls’ government in 2014 because he disagreed with Mr Hollande’s pro-business shift, is well placed to win the party’s nomination after securing more than 36 per cent of the votes, against 31 per cent for Mr Valls, in a first round of primary elections last Sunday.

In the run-off this weekend he can rely on support from Arnaud Montebourg, the former economy minister who also opposed the government’s supply side U-turn and attracted 17.5 per cent in the first round.

Mr Hamon’s victory would mark a clear shift to the left for the Socialists, who, facing the prospect of heavy defeat in the presidential elections in the spring, have been unsettled by the surge in the polls for Emmanuel Macron, the former economy minister, who is running for president on an independent platform. Mr Macron has risen to third place in the presidential contest, behind Marine Le Pen, the far right leader, and François Fillon, the centre-right candidate.

Wednesday’s debate saw two career politicians seeking to highlight their differences while avoiding outright confrontation.

Mr Valls criticised Mr Hamon’s position on the Islamic veil, which Mr Valls views as a symbol of “women’s submission” to a “macho order”, and implied that his rival was soft on radical Islamist organisations.

One must not create illusions. It’s not about making people dream, it’s about being credible

Mr Hamon fought back by reminding viewers that Mr Valls had backed bans on the wearing of the burkini, full-length Islamic swimwear, last summer which had subsequently been ruled illegal by France’s supreme court. Secularism was above all “a freedom”, Mr Hamon said.

Resentment flared at times during the two-hour debate, hinting that the scars of the rebellion that impeded Mr Valls’ reform drive in parliament were still fresh.

“One must follow the rules in government and Benoît did not respect them all the time,” Mr Valls said near the end of the debate.

“Following the rules starts with respecting the programme on which you were elected,” Mr Hamon replied.

Via FT