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French Socialists decisively pick leftist Benoît Hamon in presidential race

Benoît Hamon, who rose from political obscurity on a guaranteed basic income proposal, will be the Socialist Party candidate in France's upcoming presidential election.

Benoît Hamon addresses the media after a meeting with French Prime Minister Bernard Cazeneuve on Monday in Paris.
Thibault Camus/AP
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Benoît Hamon will represent France's ruling Socialist Party in the country's presidential election, as determined by his winning margin of nearly 59 percent of the votes in the three-quarters of polling stations tallied Sunday.

The underdog victory of Mr. Hamon, who has proposed giving all French adults a regular monthly income to protect them in an automated future where they may lose their jobs to machines, appeared to reflect widespread rejection of outgoing President François Hollande and Hamon's opponent, Manuel Valls, who served as President Hollande's prime minister for more than two years. 

Hamon "has a lot of the youth vote with him, which is sick of the old politics," 18-year-old Maayane Pralus, a student and first-time voter, told the Associated Press. "People call him utopian, but that's the politics we've been waiting for." 

Facing the lowest approval ratings in modern history, President Hollande opted in December not to run for reelection. Hamon's victory over Mr. Valls, who had been the favorite for the Socialist primary, is not the first surprising development in what observers are calling one of the most unpredictable elections in recent times, as Sara Miller Llana reported for The Christian Science Monitor on Monday: 

The prospect that far-right leader Marine Le Pen could win has had the world on tenterhooks, as the anti-establishment sentiment that swept Donald Trump into power in the United States and is pushing Britain out of the European Union threatens to knock out the political elite here, too.

But she’s not the only force representing the riotous mood. Both mainstream parties dismissed their centrist contenders, choosing the more ideological underdog on both the right and left. There is even a chance neither will make it to Round 2 of the race expected this May...

Much of what is happening here is driven by an electorate that looks familiar across the West: one fed up with the same faces, the sense that the political elites are just in it for themselves, that there is no difference between left or right anymore. And some of the wild ride toward the presidency is driven by particularly French pressures that could ultimately reshape the Fifth Republic – perhaps not all for the worse...

In France specifically, the Fifth Republic has functioned as a multiparty system with two major poles. This race clearly indicates that dynamic has shifted. Some believe major institutional change will follow.

"I have never seen such a volatile situation before, where you feel like everything is possible," Bruno Cautrès, a political analyst at Cevipof (Center for Political Research) at Sciences Po in Paris, told the Monitor on Monday. 

Now, some leading members of the Socialist Party have publicly refused to support Hamon, whose controversial policies also included legalizing cannabis and canceling debts between EU states. Some Valls supporters may shift their allegiances over to centrist Emmanuel Macron, deepening divisions in an already-weakened Socialist Party. 

A poll published on Sunday in French newspaper Le Figaro showed far-right leader Marine Le Pen coming in first in the election's first round in April with 25 percent of the votes, and conservative candidate François Fillon earning 21-22 percent and Macron 20-21 percent.

This report includes material from the Associated Press and Reuters.

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