Thursday,23 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1334, (2 - 8 March 2017)
Thursday,23 November, 2017
Issue 1334, (2 - 8 March 2017)

Ahram Weekly

The Fillon-Macron match

The situation is becoming clearer with just weeks to go before the first round of the French presidential elections

I am putting the question of possible American decline to one side this week, but I will return to it in the next issue of Al-Ahram Weekly. This is because an overview of the French presidential elections is now overdue, as things are becoming clearer.

The French electorate is clearly divided into four or five segments, depending on how you assess the left’s situation: one camp split between two different candidates, or two different camps altogether.

Both analyses have plusses and minuses. To put it simply, if left-wing candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon decides to withdraw from the race, most of his supporters will probably opt for Socialist Party designee Benoit Hamon, while a few might vote for the extreme-right candidate Marine Le Pen, who shares with Mélenchon a deep hatred for the European Union and its “cosmopolitan elites”.

Things would be less clear if Hamon was the one to withdraw: many of his supporters are urban young people with post-modern outlooks who might dislike the old-fashioned left. However, both scenarios are implausible, as Hamon won a landslide victory in the Socialist Party primary elections, and Mélenchon’s main objective over recent years has been to destroy the Socialist Party and not to strengthen it. Moreover, this might be his last presidential race.

If things turn out as foreseen, both left-wing candidates will be unable to reach the second round of the elections, despite Hamon’s shrewd tactics and despite the fact that together they could easily reach the 25 per cent of the vote threshold needed to go through to the second round.

It seems to me that Hamon is aware of this and that he is simply preparing for the next Socialist Party congress and the 2022 presidential elections by running in this year’s elections. He is courting France’s Muslim constituency, which has been playing an increasingly important role in French political life. He is also trying to neutralise the right wing of the Socialist Party.

The polls have consistently said that Marine Le Pen should emerge as a clear first in the first round of the elections. Her score keeps on improving, and she is now well above the 25 per cent threshold needed to go through to the second round. Moreover, nearly all those who say they are going to vote for her also say they will not change their minds. She has apparently succeeded in putting across two different things: that she is the protector of the poor, or of those hurt by globalisation, and that she is the candidate of the Catholic fundamentalists close to her niece Marion Le Pen.

The financial scandals that have affected her party the Front National do not seem to have affected her, and her supporters consider that these scandals are merely a plot to discredit her. I would also say that her foes have inadvertently helped her, as their attacks have been ill-advised.

Most pundits say she has failed to build coalitions, however, and as a result she will be unable to reach the necessary 50 per cent in the second round in order to win the race. Nearly everyone will come together to defeat her, they say. However, I am not so sure about this, since first of all her predicted score for the second round keeps on improving, and she is now expected to score more than 40 per cent. Secondly, everything will depend on her opponent. Nevertheless, for the time being the pundits’ opinion is more than plausible.

The real race now is between right-wing candidate and former prime minister François Fillon and centrist candidate and former finance minister Emmanuel Macron, who are competing for second place in the first round.

Fillon was considered to be the favourite a few months ago — indeed, many said this was going to be the safest presidential race ever for the French right. I was sceptical from the start, however. Fillon’s programme, a mix of cultural and religious (Catholic) conservatism and economic ultra-liberalism, seemed to me to be too severe a medicine for the France I know. I understood that people wanted to try something new, but this seemed to be too much to swallow.

Fillon was later plagued by scandals related to jobs for his wife and sons: it is not certain that these jobs were real ones, and the salaries were too high for the tasks involved. Worse than this was the fact that these were not the kind of scandals that French people can easily forgive. Le Pen, for example, has allegedly improperly used taxpayers’ money to pay staff doing real work. This is also a serious offence, but it is considered by many as simply “business as usual”.

Fillon’s behaviour, on the other hand, looks, rightly or wrongly, as a case of personal enrichment, which is a very different thing. My French contacts are deeply shocked by these allegations, as for decades Fillon has been portrayed as Mr Clean and has been lecturing everybody else on ethics and advocating severe sanctions against those found guilty of improper financial behaviour.

Nevertheless, he is not finished yet. After a sharp drop in the polls, he seems to be recovering and is once again at over 20 per cent. True, nobody seems to believe that he is innocent. But the right-wing in France wants a victory, and it is too late to find another candidate. Moreover, many French people still consider Fillon to be the most “presidential” and the most “competent” of the candidates. He might not be the ideal candidate, but he is the best in the field.

But is he? The independent and centrist Macron has turned out to be a very serious contender. He is brilliant, a good listener, and knows how to manage a team. His aides enjoy working with him. Many voters seem to be fond of him: he is young, is a real newcomer, is culturally liberal, and on other issues is deemed to be what the French call “a socio-liberal”, in other words, a centre-leftist like former British prime minister Tony Blair and German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. He now has the support of former centre-right candidate François Bayrou, a widely respected statesman.

It seems that Macron has correctly analysed the impact of the primaries: that the right-wing electorate has opted for a “very rightist “candidate, and the left-wing electorate has picked a “very leftist” one. As a result, there is space for the centre, and moderate and swing voters afraid of what they see as extremist policies now have an option unconstrained by the unpopular political parties.

This is not to say that Macron is the ideal candidate either. Some weeks ago, he committed many blunders and said things you should not say if you want to win a French presidential election. This cast doubt on his understanding of the French electoral map and the country’s mood.


The writer is a professor of international relations at the Collège de France and a visiting professor at Cairo University.

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