In May, the elections will determine the next President of France. The current leading candidates are François Fillon and Marine Le Pen. I will not be surprised if Le Pen becomes the first female President of France.
I’m sure many people will dismiss Le Pen’s prospects without a second thought. After all she has spent her entire political career on the fringes and leads a party with extreme views. However, she has one key advantage: she is not a member of the establishment. We cannot ignore the fact that anti-establishment feeling is overhauling Western Politics. This year, Britain will issue Article 50, and Donald Trump will become the first US president to have never previously held political or military office. In Westminster, the Leader of the Opposition is veteran Socialist Jeremy Corbyn and the previously marginalised SNP are the third party. A couple of years ago, one of these things would have been extraordinary, let alone all four.
Anti-establishment feelings are rife in France. Nicholas Sarkozy became the first President of the Fifth Republic to lose a bid for a second term. Incumbent François Hollande isn’t even attempting to seek re-election. It is hardly surprising that after nine years of economic stagnation and high levels of unemployment the French are dissatisfied with the status quo. Hollande’s employment ‘reforms’ have enabled employers to impose a 46-hour working week. The last but one President, Jacques Chirac was convicted for fraud, after embezzling millions of Francs when he was Mayor of Paris
It’s quite easy to draw parallels between Trump v Clinton, and Fillon v Le Pen. Like Clinton, Fillon is the worst example of an establishment candidate who secured his party’s nomination as he was the only credible candidate (his main rival was Alain Juppe who was given an 18-month suspended prison sentence for corruption and embezzlement). He is experienced, but his track record is controversial. As Prime Minister, he eroded the popular 35-hour week and his cabinet included the aforementioned Juppe. He reputedly tried to have his rival Nicholas Sarkozy prosecuted. He is a member of the Bilderberg Group (something which the conspiracy theorists will pounce on). If as predicted, the second round is between Le Pen and Fillon. I suspect a lot of French voters will sit on their hands.
This would not be the first time that a corrupt candidate and the French Nationalists have competed on the final ballot. In 2002, Jacques Chirac and Le Pen’s father, Jean Marie Le Pen were the final candidates. Chirac’s corruption was public knowledge, yet due to his blanket immunity from prosecution he had not even been arrested. Holocaust denier, Jean Marie Le Pen was at best, a joke candidate. The French Socialists donned gas masks and voted for Chirac. Chirac secured the biggest majority in the history of the Fifth Republic.
Unlike Chirac, Fillion does not have the advantage of incumbency. Furthermore, there are fundamental differences between these two elections. A lot has happened over the last 15 years: the refugee crisis, the Paris attacks, the debt crisis in the Eurozone and the Credit Crunch. Under Jean Marie, the Nationalists were a fringe movement however under Marine, they have gained significant ground, winning the most seats in the European Parliamentary elections in 2014, and winning the first round of the regional elections in 2015. Most cruically one of Le Pen’s flagship proposals (leaving the Schengen Area), has become relatively mainstream: in 2016 six countries, including France, introduced border controls.
The French left are currently fielding three candidates. This will almost certainly result in the left-wing vote being split third ways and neither candidate qualifying for the final ballot. In order to prevent Len Pen, the Left will have to persuade people that the best way to deal with years of economic stagnation and hardship is to elect the spiritual son of Margaret Thatcher.
It will be interesting to see if the French media make the same mistakes as the US media during the election. Trump was not treated as a serious candidate and initially his speeches were broadcast unedited and unchallenged. The thinking seemed to be that as he was ill-informed, extreme and a possible psychopath, there was no need to fact-check his ludicrous ramblings.
Unfortunately, when you live in a society where critical thinking is discouraged, and people are indoctrinated into believing you should always trust a rich man in a suit, many people lapped-up his claims. Eventually, the media started pulling apart some of his more insane statements, but by then he’d received an estimated $2 billion worth of free airtime. Le Pen appears regularly on French TV. As of 2015, she has had at least five appearances on the French equivalent of Question Time.
There is another factor we cannot ignore: voters’ unfathomable voting habits. When it comes to voting, people often vote against their own interests, and/or a party with policies they completely disagree with. Polls in this country show that even the majority of Conservative party supporters oppose NHS privatisation, but that does not stop the party having a double-digit lead in the opinion polls. From personal experience, I have found a lot of Conservative supporters will deny that NHS privatisation is happening, or that cuts to social security benefit cuts are effectively the genuinely disabled. It is plausible that Le Pen’s supporters will deny she wants to create a police state.
Another voting habit is to cherry-pick parts of a manifesto they like. The NF have four policies which I personally consider attractive: reducing VAT on essential goods, safeguarding a woman’s choice to have abortions, abandoning the Euro, and tax breaks for small businesses. However, their remaining policies are a combination of xenophobia and Orwellian surveillance.
If the French left-wing wish to prevent Le Pen being President, they need a credible candidate for the second ballot. Offering another five years of the status quo, on the grounds of it being the lesser of two evils, is no longer enough. There are currently three left-wing candidates running for the French Presidency, who between them are currently polling enough to comfortably secure a place on the second ballot. If they selected a unity candidate, not all their supporters would back that candidate on the first ballot. But it would be enough to block Le Pen, and maybe even beat Fillon.
[Image courtesy of Rémi Noyon on Flickr]