France – The presidential election takes shape

On Sunday, the Socialist party chose its candidate for the 2017 French presidential election. At the second round of the party primary, voters chose Benoît Hamon over the former Prime Minister, Manuel Valls. Hamon won about 59% of the votes cast. With his selection, the line up of candidates – or at least the serious ones – for April/May’s election is now probably complete.

There are five main candidates in the field. From left to right, they are: Jean-Luc Mélenchon of The Left Party; Benoît Hamon for the left of the Socialist party; Emmanuel Macron for the centre-left or centrist En Marche! movement (the exclamation point is obligatory); François Fillon for the right of the right-wing Republicans; and Marine Le Pen for the populist, alt-right, extreme-right National Front.

The election is François Fillon’s to lose and he seems to be trying his best to do just that. The received wisdom was that whoever the Republicans chose as their presidential candidate would be able to win the election easily. This was because there was no serious candidate on the left and because Marine Le Pen is unelectable at the second ballot. So, when Fillon won the party nomination in November, he seemed to be a shoe-in. However, things are perhaps changing.

Fillon won the primary by appealing to the conservative element within the Republicans. This made sense if we assume that the median voter in the party is also conservative. However, once selected, it would appear to make sense for him to move to the centre. He has to win 50% of the  popular vote to win the second round of the presidential election and he will need the vote of people other than traditional conservatives to reach that figure. Yet, since his selection he has pretty much maintained his conservative stance on moral issues, welfare policy, and public sector cuts. Perhaps he assumes that he is bound to go through to the second ballot. On that assumption, then he may also assume that he actually has to avoid moving to the centre too soon and in so doing cede ground on the conservative right to Le Pen, thus continuing to pen her in as it were on the extreme-right. However, his refusal to move anywhere close to the centre has merely created a wide-open centrist space for Emmanuel Macron to move into. What’s more, last week a story broke about Fillon’s wife. It has become known as ‘Penelopegate’ after his English wife’s first name. The allegation was that Fillon had employed the aforementioned Penelope from his parliamentary allocation, but that she had done no work in return. If so, this is a so-called ’emploi fictif’, which is a crime. In an attempt at political damage limitation, Fillon said that he would withdraw from the contest if he was formally put under investigation. The long timeframe that it would most likely take for a formal investigation to start works in his favour, so it was probably a safe declaration to make. However, his problem is that even if nothing comes of the allegations before the election or indeed ever, which is quite possible, it has painted Fillon as a person of the establishment, remunerating his wife, and it turns out his sons as well, from the public purse. Relative to Sarkozy and Juppé, he was able to position himself as a sort of outsider, despite the fact that he lives in a castle. (Sorry, manoir). Not any more. His poll ratings have dropped and he is now in a tight race to qualify for the second round.

Fillon’s main first-round challenger has emerged as Emmanuel Macron, who has positioned himself somewhere on the centre-left. Perhaps more importantly, while he has some ministerial experience, he too is presenting himself as an outsider. In the context of France, Europe, most of the previously civilised democratic world, and, who knows, perhaps the universe generally, this seems like a winning electoral strategy at the moment. He has been helped by Fillon’s political positioning and #Penelopegate. He should also be helped by the Socialists’ choice of Hamon, who is on the left of the party. Already some PS deputies have said they are going to support Macron ahead of their party’s official candidate. In the most recent poll, Macron came in at 21% on the first ballot, one point behind Fillon. We all know that polls are no longer worth the pixels they’re reported in, but it looks like a closer first-round race now than at any time before. Indeed, all polls show that, like Fillon, if Macron qualifies for the second round, then he will easily beat Le Pen. So, there is now much talk of President Macron.

However, some caution may yet be in order. Macron is still behind Fillon, though only just. More importantly, he has no campaigning experience. He has been astute so far, but the campaign is only really beginning. He could come a cropper, especially as he comes under more scrutiny. More than that, he has no policy programme yet. It’s promised some point soon. But, as it stands, we don’t really know exactly what he is proposing. When it appears, it could raise issues that he has difficulty responding to. Also, he doesn’t have the backing of the Socialist party. More than that, the party establishment, or parts of it at least, would probably wish to see him lose, maximising their chances of maintaining their position as the main force on the left, rather than helping him win and then having to play second fiddle to him and his new movement!. At some point, not being the candidate of a major party might be a problem, especially if the Socialists play dirty. So, while Macron is currently better placed now than ever before and while recent events have been favourable to him, as yet he is no certainty to qualify for the second round.

In terms of Mélenchon and Hamon, we can think of it as a battle for what’s left of the left of the left. Mélenchon would have preferred Valls to win the Socialist primary. This would have allowed him to take up the mantle of the anti-establishment left candidate unopposed. However, Hamon is a Socialist frondeur. He’s been a thorn in the side of the Hollande administration and has gained some popularity by proposing the idea of a ‘universal income’. With Hamon campaigning in the same general space, it’s difficult to see Mélenchon breaking through. The same can be said of Hamon, though. There’s probably around 15-20% of the population that might be tempted by a credible truly left-anchored candidate. However, Mélenchon and Hamon are likely to fight out that vote between them. In fairness to Hamon, though, he has revitalised a certain previously demoralised Socialist electorate that feels hard done by under President Hollande. Hamon has the wind in his sails for a short time at least. He too can credibly position himself as an outsider. He may well beat Mélenchon, but it’s difficult to imagine the circumstances in which he would make it through to the second ballot.

This leaves Marine Le Pen. She is still ahead at the first ballot in all the polls, though sometimes not by much. Her problem is that she loses to everyone at the second ballot by a large margin. Her hope is that she will be the Donald Trump of France. In fact, she had herself pictured in Trump Tower in New York just before the inauguration. She wants to bring together the usual anti-immigrant, extreme-right vote that has been loyal to the FN for a while now, but add to it a working-class electorate that is worried about economic issues and that doesn’t like the EU. She is pushing a certain social welfare agenda, pressing on populist economic issues, and, as usual, identifying lots of enemies at home, the near abroad (read Brussels), and further afield still. It’s a strategy similar to ones that have worked in the US, Austria (nearly anyway), and in the Brexit referendum. In terms of getting elected, it’s a strategy that might have legs, especially if Fillon and the right implodes, and if she faces Macron at the second ballot in the context where Macron’s own campaign has become derailed somehow. In other words, it’s not beyond the bounds of imagination that the polls are underestimating her support, that some of the filloniste right could vote Le Pen at the second round ahead of even Macron, and that some of the left might even stay at home and not vote for Macron, in which concatenation of probably unlikely circumstances Le Pen could perhaps just squeak through. (Did you see all the qualifications I put in there).

But even then it’s a long shot. While Le Pen’s strategy has allowed her to emerge as the first-placed candidate at the first ballot, there are still no signs that she has sufficient support to win at the second. In France, there is already a certain populist left. This makes it more difficult for Le Pen to build a populist left/right coalition that might be possible in other countries. She, and the party, also have their own corruption issues. Indeed, the FN was relatively slow to jump in on the #Penelopegate furore last week, at least partly because of those troubles. More generally, there is still a solid set of voters on the left, the centre, and on the right that sees the FN as illegitimate and that will not vote for it whatever the circumstances. Finally, if you tie your colours to the Trump mast (bright orange presumably), then while you may rise with Trump, you can also fall with him too. No doubt some of the things Trump is doing in the US also appeal to FN voters in France, notably the immigration ban from certain Middle East countries. However, for at least as many voters the prospect that a Le Pen presidency might engender the same sort of chaos in France as Trump is currently causing in the US is likely to be off-putting.

There was a time when the 2017 French presidential was very predictable. No longer.

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