French voters will be casting their votes this weekend in the first round of the country’s presidential elections following campaigns that have been characterised by an unusually high number of upsets and quite a few dramatic surprises.
First there was the decision of voters in the primaries for the mainstream right-wing Républicains Party late last year to reject veteran politician Alain Juppé as the party’s candidate in favour of the apparently less well-placed François Fillon.
At the same time, party voters convincingly rejected former president Nicolas Sarkozy’s attempt to win the Républicains nomination for an attempt at a second term in office after losing to current Socialist Party President François Hollande in the 2012 elections.
Then there was the similar decision of the mainstream left-wing Socialist Party to reject a field of candidates for the party’s nomination that included well-known figures such as Manuel Valls, a former prime minister, and Arnaud Montebourg, a former finance minister, in favour of the comparatively unknown Benoit Hamon in its primary elections earlier this year.
The primaries came about because Hollande had announced that he would not be standing for re-election as president, the first time that an incumbent president has decided not to seek re-election during the French Fifth Republic. However, Hamon’s candidacy was no sooner confirmed than he was looking seriously threatened by the emergence of two other candidates outflanking him on the left and centre, respectively.
Left-wing candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, founder of a personal party La France insoumise (Unsubmissive France), apparently modelled on the anti-establishment political movements that have developed elsewhere in Europe such as the Five Stars Movement in Italy and the Podemos Movement in Spain, currently has a 12 point lead over Hamon in the opinion polls.
Meanwhile, centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron, like Mélenchon previously a Socialist Party politician and for a period even a minister in Hollande’s government, has been creating much of the buzz in this year’s campaigns by adopting methods associated with the successful 2008 Obama campaign in the United States, with his En Marche (Let’s Go!) movement attracting often young and enthusiastic crowds.
For a time it seemed likely that Fillon, the official candidate of the Républicains, would have an easy win, capitalising on the unpopularity of Hollande, the disarray in the Socialist Party, and the fragmentation of the overall political scene, with anti-establishment movements appearing as if from nowhere and fated, Fillon and his supporters must have hoped, just as swiftly to disappear.
However, this was before the appearance of a series of scandals harming Fillon’s clean-hands image. For five years French prime minister under the erratic Nicolas Sarkozy, Fillon had a reassuringly forgettable political record behind him, having not been associated with major policy initiatives and having stayed out of the limelight during Sarkozy’s years in power.
Fillon had presumably been keeping his powder dry, and it was just such an image of unsullied gravitas that France most needed, his supporters must have felt, especially when combined with Fillon’s apparently unspotted record.
How bitter they must then have been when disaster struck, it being revealed in January that Fillon had employed his wife and children as political advisers at public expense and had allegedly been less than conscientious about ensuring that any work was done.
While the jury is still out on whether Fillon has been guilty of any offence, since such apparently nepotistic behaviour is not only legal but also widespread in France, the steady stream of revelations about his finances and his behaviour while in office have come close to sinking his campaign.
From being the frontrunner in the electoral campaigns and therefore assumed to be France’s next president, Fillon’s star has swiftly sunk, causing near panic among his supporters as the presidency has seemed to be slipping out of the right’s grasp and giving rise to fresh optimism among its opponents.
Could it be, many have been asking, that France will break the habit of decades in this year’s elections and choose a president who is not on the ticket of either of the country’s major parties – the “parties of government” as they are called in France and corresponding to the mainstream left-right division familiar elsewhere?
Macron, representing himself, and Mélenchon, also representing himself, now seem to have a real chance of being elected France’s next president at the expense of the hapless Hamon, who has perhaps unfairly inherited the curse of Hollande, and the apparently equally ill-fated Fillon.
Adding to the uncertainty hanging over the elections is extreme-right Front National candidate Marine Le Pen, now styling herself as the leader of a “Rassemblement Bleu Marine,” a Marine Blue wave or movement that has sought to emulate the buzz surrounding the non-traditional single-figure parties.
Macron and Mélenchon, both presenting themselves as anti-system candidates, have much to learn in this regard from Le Pen, whose discourse is based on a rejection of both the traditional ruling parties, calling down, so to speak, a “plague on both your houses.”
Yet, while Macron and Mélenchon have been able to point to records in government – both have been Socialist Party ministers – and in this respect at least are part of the political mainstream, Le Pen is the leader of a party that since its foundation by her father Jean-Marie Le Pen in 1972 has been widely seen as being associated with some of the most disreputable elements in French society and as being unelectable on anything other than a local level.
Under the party’s new leadership – Le Pen succeeded her father in 2012 – the Front National has gone to considerable lengths to clean up its image, and the threatening-looking young men with shaven heads who used to hang around party gatherings have been excluded from the traditional gathering on 1 May and other events.
However, while this strategy of “normalisation” has born some fruits, not least in the new respect apparently being accorded to Le Pen personally, it has not led to the Front National putting forward anything like a convincing programme for government.
It is here that all the non-traditional party candidates may fall down, when compared to their mainstream competitors. Whereas the Socialist Party and the Républicains have respectable numbers of French MPs, with the Socialists at present enjoying a majority in the Assemblée Nationale, the lower house of the French parliament, and therefore being the party of government, the Front National has two MPs and a handful of local councillors to its name, and En Marche and La France Insoumise consist essentially of Macron and Mélenchon.
Moreover, while all three have been engaged in a kind of bidding war, with particularly Le Pen and Mélenchon seemingly engaged in a kind of upward spiral of ever more outlandish promises, there is still the problem of how they will make the kind of compromises necessary to form a government and how they will in fact manage to govern.
Some of these issues will doubtless be cleared up in the parliamentary elections in June that follow the presidential elections. Perhaps Le Pen, if she is elected president, will be able to win some kind of working majority in the Assemblée Nationale. Perhaps Mélenchon or Macron will be able to form governments consisting of Socialist or Républicains MPs. Or perhaps all three candidates will be forced to abandon their promises if elected to office.
Mélenchon has been calling for a top rate of income tax of 100 per cent, outbidding even Hollande’s proposal of an 80 per cent rate in 2012. That promise was swiftly dropped when Hollande was elected president, along with many others, and there seems little reason to doubt that whoever is elected to the presidency on the second round of the elections in May will not in fact implement very much of his or her electoral programme.
For the time being, with just days to go before the first round of the elections on 23 April, the country is resigned to uncertainty about who will be the next president, with the opinion polls also indicating that abstention rates are likely to be high, at least on the first round.
In recent polls, Le Pen and Macron have come out on top, with some 22 or 23 per cent of those surveyed saying they will vote for them. They have been followed by Fillon and Mélenchon on around 19 or 20 per cent, with Hamon bringing up the rear at seven or eight per cent. If these figures are reproduced in the vote on Sunday, the second round run-off will see a contest between Macron and Le Pen.
Since 1965 when the present system was introduced the opinion polls have accurately predicted the results of the first round of the French presidential elections on all but one occasion. This was in 2002 when despite the polls Jean-Marie Le Pen of the Front National beat Socialist Party candidate Lionel Jospin to go through to the second round.
However, this year’s elections have been complicated by at least two new factors. The first is that on present projections both candidates in the second round will be anti-system, leaving the country’s mainstream parties effectively excluded and being very far from an optimal situation.
The second is tactical voting both on the left and the right. Were left-wing voters to aggregate their votes behind a single candidate they would be able to ensure that he made it through to the second round, since it is largely the disarray on the left that has been responsible for the present fragmentation.
Should they fail to do so, there is a real chance that the left will not be represented in the crucial second round of the elections.
Similarly, the French mainstream right could rally sufficiently to send Fillon through to the second round to stand against either Macron, anathema to many, or Le Pen, who despite her showing in the polls for the first round has next to no prospect of being elected president on the second.
The results of Sunday’s first round of voting could thus still see numerous possible combinations of candidates for the second round on 7 May, which under the French electoral system will decide the country’s next president.