Over the next few months, you’re going to be hearing a lot about the French Presidential Election. It takes place on April 23rd this year and it’s fair to say the stakes have rarely, if ever, been higher.
The election itself is fought over two ‘rounds’. In the first round there is an unlimited number of candidates fighting for as much support as they can get. Voters can pick whichever candidate they like and vote for them directly. The two candidates with the highest percentage in the first round then progress to the second round, or ‘run-off’. They compete against each other directly and the candidate with the highest percentage of the vote at the end, wins the Presidency. The President runs the show and appoints a Prime Minister below him or her.
The current front-runner is Marine Le Pen who leads the extremist right-wing party Le Front National, or National Front (hereafter referred to as the FN). The FN have a long and colourful history, to put it mildly. They were founded by Marine Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie, in 1972 and have long been characterized (largely accurately) as not much more than a party of racists, fascists and neo-Nazis. Jean-Marie himself is an odious figure in many respects. An ex-paratrooper, he has been repeatedly convicted of inciting racial hatred and holocaust denial,including dismissing the gas chambers as nothing more than “a detail of history”.
However, in 2002, Jean-Marie shocked the world when he made it to the second round of the Presidential election, facing off against Jacques Chirac. He was crushed in the run-off, winning just 18% of the vote to Chirac’s 82%, as even Chirac’s opponents voted for him in order to defeat Jean-Marie and the FN. This time, his daughter hopes to go one better than her old man.
Marine has made great efforts to ‘detoxify’ the FN and bring them into the mainstream of French politics, even expelling her father from the party after he repeated his holocaust denial. She has very deliberately distanced herself from his anti-Semitic rhetoric, replacing it with an anti-Islam agenda. Her domestic platform is based primarily on populist economic rhetoric, targeted directly at the white working-class feeling left behind by globalisation and automation. She has pledged to launch a renegotiation of France’s European Union membership, followed by an in-or-out referendum (any of this sound familiar?). Her party also has some, ahem, ‘interesting’ financial ties to Putin’s Russia and Russian banks have provided several large loans to the FN. Were she to win, there would be serious question marks over France’s long-term membership of both the EU and NATO.
So in one corner we have Marine Le Pen. In the other, representing Les Républicains, the oft-renamed party of the centre-right, stands François Fillon. He was Prime Minister of France from 2007 to 2012 under President Nicolas Sarkozy. Fillon is in many ways an archetype of France’s entrenched political class, having held various government positions since the early-1990s. This time, he is running on a Thatcherite-style program of economic modernization, planning to slash-and-burn his way through the public sector, pledging to cut 500,000 civil service jobs. In an attempt to outflank the FN, he has also tacked to the right on social policy, publicizing his vote against gay marriage and writing a book entitled ‘Conquering Islamic Totalitarianism’.
However, Fillon’s campaign has run into serious trouble over the last couple of weeks. His pledge to introduce a program of austerity is founded on a carefully-nurtured image of himself as scandal- and sleaze-free (unlike the stereotypical corrupt French politician). This image has been shattered by accusations that he paid his wife up to €900,000 between 1998 and 2012 of public money to work as his ‘Parliamentary Assistant’, despite little evidence of her doing any actual work during that time. This week, both Fillon and his wife were interviewed by the French police over the matter. Whether or not the allegations are true, the damage to Fillon’s image has already been done.
The third candidate, representing the Parti Socialiste, France’s main left-wing party, is Benoit Hamon. He won over 60% of the vote during the recent left-wing primaries. Hamon is a hard-line left-winger and may have trouble uniting a party destructively divided between radical left-wingers and moderate social democrats (again, sound familiar?) Although the current President of France, Francois Hollande, is also a member of the Parti Socialiste, his approval rating currently sits somewhere close to 4%. Unhealthy isn’t a strong enough word for those kind of numbers. Long dead and suffering from severe rigor mortis might be a better description. Most polls suggest that, whoever the candidate is, the Parti Socialiste will not even come close to making it through to the second round. Hamon’s task appears to be entirely thankless.
All of this drama creates the potential for another twist in the tale. This twist is named Emmanuel Macron. He is a young, photogenic centrist, running an independent campaign for the Presidency after founding his own progressive party called En Marche! A former investment banker, Macron served in Hollande’s government in several different economic roles. However, he resigned from the government in 2015 and has since distanced himself from his former boss (a sensible idea, considering said former boss has approval ratings lower than a number of infectious diseases). Since the scandal around Fillon’s wife broke, Macron has gained steadily in the polls. Hamon’s selection as the candidate of the left also gives Macron a potentially large pool of moderate voters to target. He may yet produce a surprise.
Most conventional wisdom says that Marine Le Pen cannot win; that even if she makes it to the second round, it will be a repeat of her father’s defeat in 2002 when every other political party united together to defeat the threat of the FN. Some people might find that reassuring. Personally, having spent the last 6 months or so being force-fed an entrée of Brexit followed by a plat principal of Trump, my stomach is already preparing itself for a digestif of Le Pen.