France – President Fillon: faute de mieux?

I was invited as an expert on the France 24 news programme last Friday (17th February).  As a guide to what I might prepare, I was told:  simply talk about the fronde.  Talk about Fillon, Hamon and the frondeurs. The use of the term the fronde has become ubiquitous.  Bearing a very loose link with its original meaning (the revolt of provincial parliaments and nobles against the centralizing pretensions of the French monarchy), it has been translated into a metaphor for resistance to an established  government (in the case of Valls from 2014-16) or even politicians (the case of Francois Fillon). Widely used to describe the rebellious group of Socialist MPs during the Hollande presidency, the term la fronde is now being employed to point to the stiff resistance of a number of Republican deputies – second fiddles close to Nicolas Sarkozy – to the prospect of Francois Fillon’s candidacy for the Republicans. Georges Fenech, Claude Goasguen, Nadine Morano and others justified their latest attempt to bar the route to Fillon with the argument that it is impossible to campaign for the candidate, that there is a deep lack of trust from Republican supporters throughout the country. A first attempt to force the LR candidate to stand down was crushed in Fillon’s press conference of 5th February; a second, more half-hearted effort was put down by Fillon on his return from La Réunion (a welcome three-day respite) a week later.

Faced with pressures from Sarkozy supporters, Fillon has decided to remain droit dans ses bottes, to resist the pressures pressing on him not to stand. This determination appears backed up by the latest surveys; the IFOP survey for the Journal de Dimanche (19/02/2017), for example, reports that 70% of likely Republican voters believe Fillon ought to maintain his candidacy for the Elysée. A core Republican electorate of 18-20% provides a solid base to encourage perseverance, though it is down from 28% in the immediate aftermath of the LR primaries.  As the deadline nears for filing the support of the minimum 500 signatures of elected officials, Fillon appears more than ever likely to tough it out and be a candidate. There is no serious Plan B. The 40-something generation is totally unable to agree on an alternative, while the Barons of the primary – Juppé and Sarkozy – have declared they will not contest Fillon. His determination to stand as candidate – even in the event of being called to trail, a break with his initial stance – is justified by Fillon with the argument that there is no possible alternative candidate.

Dampening la fronde required a contrite Fillon to pay a visit to erstwhile rival Nicolas Sarkozy, however, following which the LR candidate pledged to lower the age of criminal responsibility to 16 years old, an old Sarkozy promise. The re-focusing of the campaign on security issues is a testament to the continuing influence of Sarkozy. In the context of riots in the suburbs, after a vicious police attack on the adolescent Théo and the violent response of a small minority of demonstrators, Fillon’s campaign has taken a security turn.

Meanwhile, the PS candidate Benoît Hamon – one of the leading frondeurs during the Valls premiership – is discovering the difficulties of reunifying a divided party, let alone a imposing himself as the uncontested champion of the left.  The aftermath of the primary retains a bitter taste. Few close to Valls have been involved in the Hamon campaign and the Macron temptation remains real, though there has been only limited movement towards Macron and En Marche ! (the main exception being the mayor of Lyon, Gerard Collomb, and most of his local party).  Hamon’s strongest argument is that of the useful vote; without a rallying of the main forces of the left behind his presidential bid, there is a real possibility that the left will be excluded from the second round. This logic is more or less accepted by Yannick Jadot, the candidate designated by Europe Ecologie les Verts, who organized an internal consultation which produced massive support (amongst voters in the EELV primary) for a rallying to Hamon as a Socialist candidate acceptable to the ecologists and their post-material and environmental agenda. But the key factor that might make a difference is that of Jean-Luc Mélenchon: the candidate standing in the name of la France soumise remains at around 10% of the electorate and is showing no inclination to stand down in favour of Hamon (whose likely electorate is stagnating at around 14-15%). Hence the direct appeal to Melenchon’s electors on the basis that Hamon is the only candidate who might prevent a run-off between Fillon and Le Pen – or between Macron and Le Pen (an equally sad state of affairs for some). The strategy just might pay off, especially now that Macron’s support has shown the first real signs of ebbing faced with his unwillingness – or inability – to publish a presidential programme.

Emmanuel Macron’s campaign is the most intriguing. Thus far, Macron has been the clear beneficiary of the public’s disaffection with Fillon and the choice of the frondeur Hamon as the PS candidate. Rising as high as 23% in the first round voting intentions, Macron is behind Marine Le Pen but ahead of Fillon. But is the Macron ferment beginning is likely to fade? The rally of support from disaffected PS deputes that he might have expected following Hamon’s victory in the primaries has not yet materialised. Attendance at campaign meetings has been rather disappointing (with the exception of Lyon). The En Marche ! candidate is beginning to pay the price for the refusal, or inability to publish a presidential programme. Where exactly does he stand on the big issues of the day? His attempt to position himself above left and right represents the latest attempt in the Fifth Republic to escape the straightjacket of the traditional left-right cleavage. Bayrou, with over 18% in 2007, came within a whisker of overhauling the established order, but failed at the last hurdle (Sarkozy and Royal fighting the run-off). Will Macron go one better?  Nothing is less certain: cultivating a new form of equidistance between left and right, he is likely to disappoint both centre-left and centre-right supporters. Declaring in Algeria that colonization was a crime against humanity might strengthen his position amongst certain groups in French society, but will alienate others whose support Macron needs if he has any chance of winning through to the second round. The logic was clear: to confront the issues from France’s colonial and post-colonial history preventing the nation from progressing. But has the candidate unnecessarily raked up past tensions for minimal political benefit? The ostensible efforts at destabilization by Putin and the Russian secret service deserve the fullest attention– the rumours on his sexuality, or on the financial sources of his campaign are  identified as a source of  illegitimate intervention not only by Macron, but by the Foreign minister Ayrault as well. But how long can Macron prosper without a programme?  An energetic candidate Macron is en marche…but towards what, exactly?

In the 2017 campaign, one candidate – Marine Le Pen – is very well prepared. She is the most likely to profit from the shifting of the agenda to security and migration related issues in the wake of the police brutality claim against Theo and the outbreak of violence in the Paris suburbs. The security turn has the advantage of occulting – somewhat – the issue of campaign funding. Herein lies the greatest paradox; Marine Le Pen is summoned to repay around €350,000 received by the European parliament to pay assistants working, in reality, for the FN in Paris. But this damning indictment has been transformed from a potential dead-weight into a political argument, at least insofar as it is a stick to beat Brussels and to tap into an underlying state of Euroscepticism. Marine Le Pen has been polling up to 27% in one of the recent polls. She has the most solid electorate: around 90% of potential Marine electors affirm they will not waver and declare themselves certain to vote for their candidate. By contrast, only 35% of Macron voters states they are certain to vote for the En Marche ! candidate. How solid is the glass ceiling that prevents the FN’s Marine Le Pen from being elected on the second round in 2017? When financial markets start to worry – and the ‘spread’ starts to widen – is it time to reevaluate the chances of Marine Le Pen? Making predictions post-Brexit and post-Trump is a hazardous business. This is the strangest campaign in recent years. It is very difficult to predict which candidates will run through to the second round. If  Marine Le Pen looks in pole position, her likely adversary could conceivably be one of three men: Macron, Fillon and – possibly –Hamon, if the latter manages to create a unitary dynamic in the last few weeks of campaigning. The most likely scenario in this fluctuating and addictive campaign is that the glass ceiling will hold – this time – and that Marine Le Pen will not win on the second round. This scenario is the most plausible if Fillon wins through to the second round, which is looking increasingly likely. Fillon faute de mieux?

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