The nightmare French election scenario no one is talking about

Former prime minister François Fillon is now the odds-on favorite for the French presidency, but five months is a long time. (Facebook)
Former prime minister François Fillon is now the odds-on favorite for the French presidency, but five months is a long time. (Facebook)

After Sunday night, it’s suddenly hard to find anyone who doesn’t believe François Fillon will be France’s next president.France Flag Icon

With a commanding come-from-behind victory on November 20 against former president Nicolas Sarkozy, vanquishing the combative and contentious leader’s hopes at a presidential comeback, Fillon easily won the nomination of the center-right Les Républicains against former foreign minister Alain Juppé.

Indeed, polls show that Fillon (unlike Sarkozy) has taken a clear lead against the far-right Marine Le Pen, the leader of the populist and nationalist Front national that has developed a hearty contempt for the European Union, Muslim immigrants and economic liberalism, both in the first round scheduled for April 2017 and in the runoff. François Hollande, the incumbent president, has alienated nearly everyone in France with his out-of-touch and incompetent attempts at implementing both progressive and centrist policies.

Hollande is still the nominal leader of his party, the center-left Parti socialiste, but he is no lock for renomination, and he could face a challenge from his own prime minister, the Spanish-born Manuel Valls or from the populist left in Arnaud Montebourg, a former industry minister who is perhaps best known outside France for a decree that attempted to prevent foreign takeovers of assets across a range of national industries. We’ll know the winner of that primary after January 22 and January 29, but none of them come close to either Le Pen or Fillon in the polls.

So given the choice between a competent, grey-haired, bureaucratic figure like Fillon and a firebrand populist like Le Pen (viewed as troublingly illiberal, eurosceptic and xenophobic by a wide swath of the French electorate), the choice seems an echo of France’s 2002 race. In that year, incumbent center-right president Jacques Chirac faced, to everyone’s shock, Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, in that year’s presidential runoff. Chirac, with the wide support of the French center-right, moderates and the left, easily dispatched Le Pen by the margin of 82.2% to 17.8%.

Indeed, Fillon’s acceptance speech Sunday night after winning the Republican nomination had the tone of a presidential acceptance speech, and his campaign indicates that it will run on the kind of ‘steady hand’ approach that feels eerily like the complacent approach Hillary Clinton took on her march to losing the US presidential election to Donald Trump earlier this month.

But it’s not 2002, and the first-round dynamics for France’s election next April could easily shape up in a way where four candidates are vying for a shrinking moderate share of the vote, leaving open a clear path to the runoff for the far right (through Le Pen) and for the far left in Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who is already placing third in some polls.

It’s far too early to make predictions, especially without knowing the Socialist nominee in 2017. But there’s probably a far higher risk of a Mélenchon-Le Pen runoff than most observers currently imagine (as I’ll explain below). Note that there’s plenty of precedent for this kind of scenario across world politics. Just think about the race for the US Republican presidential nomination in 2015 and 2016, where a wide field of ‘normal’ conservatives split the establishment vote, facilitating Trump’s rise.

But the clearer example is Peru’s 2011 election, when a crowded field of former presidents and moderates all canceled each other out, leaving a runoff between Keiko Fujimori, the conservative daughter of Peru’s former dictator and Ollanta Humala, a leftist former army officer who previously had nice things to say about socialism and chavismo. At the time, Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa likened it to a choice between AIDS and cancer and, six years later, there are an awful lot of French voters who would feel the same way about a runoff between Mélenchon and Le Pen. Continue reading The nightmare French election scenario no one is talking about

Castro’s legacy? Libertador or monster? Depends on where you sit.

Fidel Castro and Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara in 1959, when Cubans were briefly united in support behind the young new revolutionaries.

History will remember him in the same breath as Mandela or Gandhi for 1959.cuba

History will remember him in the same breath as all the other 20th century monsters for every year that followed.

That’s the tragedy and the shame of the Castro legacy. Continue reading Castro’s legacy? Libertador or monster? Depends on where you sit.

Sarko’s defeat is great news for French (and global) moderates

Nicolas Sarkozy's hopes for a comeback crashed to a halt Sunday evening with a third-place finish in France's conservative presidential primary. (Facebook)
Nicolas Sarkozy’s hopes for a comeback crashed to a halt Sunday evening with a third-place finish in France’s conservative presidential primary. (Facebook)

The sound that you heard Sunday evening?France Flag Icon

A sign of relief across the liberal democratic world that former French president Nicolas Sarkozy sank to third place in the presidential primary of the center-right Les Républicains (the Republicans), the successor to the party that Sarkozy once led and that he helped to rechristen and remake over the last two years.

Instead, his former prime minister, François Fillon, a social conservative who promises Thatcher-style reforms to the French economy, and his former foreign minister (and long-ago Chirac prime minister) Alain Juppé, who has promised a far more moderate approach to governance than either Sarkozy or Fillon, will head to a runoff next Sunday, November 27.

But with Fillon’s dramatic first-place finish, following a week-long reversal in the polls for both Sarkozy and one-time frontrunner Juppé, and with Sarkozy’s quick endorsement of Fillon’s candidacy, Juppé appears to have a limited path to victory next week.

Fillon may or may not prove a stronger candidate than Juppé. But he most certainly will be stronger than Sarkozy.


No matter what you thought of his presidency, Sarkozy’s defeat is good news for everyone on the right, middle and left who hopes to prevent Marine Le Pen, the leader of the anti-immigrant and eurosceptic Front national (National Front) from winning the presidency in May 2017. France chooses a president in two rounds — the two individuals with the most votes in a first-round April vote advance to a May runoff. Polls show today that Le Pen would almost certainly win one of those two runoff spots.

Sarkozy, more than Juppé or Fillon, was willing to run in 2017 (much as he did in 2007) by co-opting the language, if not the outright policies, of the far right. On immigration and crime, in particular, Sarkozy telescoped that he would compete with Le Pen primarily on her own turf. For many French voters who find Le Pen’s views on immigration, Islam, and the European Union repugnant, Sarkozy would have reinforced and normalized those views, pulling Le Pen closer to the heart of France’s political debate.

In 2007, Sarkozy effectively sidelined Le Pen by co-opting her rhetoric. That, in retrospect, only empowered Le Pen and her movement. In 2017, Le Pen will prove a far greater threat. French voters have now rejected Sarkozy (in 2012), and his leftist rival François Hollande, featuring approval ratings as low as 4%, faces a quixotic hope for reelection. With the French electorate so unhappy with the status quo, and after the shocking victories for Brexit in the United Kingdom and for Donald Trump in the United States, Le Pen must now be taken seriously as a threat to win the Élysée Palace next spring.

Even as Sarkozy’s nomination would have emboldened Le Pen and the illiberal, populist right, he would have simultaneously embodied everything that many French voters despise — the ostentatious ‘bling-bling’ nature of his presidency, the drama of his whirlwind romance with Carla Bruni, the attempts at neoliberal reform that voters have come to blame for inequality and stagnation. Even worse, Sarkozy would have gone into the 2017 elections under a legal and ethical cloud that aggregates several lawsuits and scandals, not least of which the notion that he received political funding from Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi in his 2007 election.

With the French left in tatters after Hollande’s disastrous and ineffective presidency, and with several figures on the left likely to compete for votes in the first round, Sarkozy might well have ended up as Le Pen’s challenger in the runoff, where he would have been an easy foil for Le Pen as the compromised avatar of a failed French political establishment — just as Trump so effectively demolished the scions of the American political establishment in Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton.

It’s true that Juppé and Fillon both carry baggage as figures associated with the French political establishment. So, too, will Emmanuel Macron, a former Hollande economy minister who announced earlier this month that he will stand as an independent in the presidential election (and who might eventually outpace Fillon to the runoff). So, too, will Hollande or the eventual nominee of Hollande’s leftist Parti socialist(PS, Socialist Party).

But Sarkozy would have personified the worst of the French political establishment while also giving political cover to the National Front’s far-right views on politics and policy. Fillon, Juppé, Macron and the eventual Socialist nominee (likelier than not the brash, Spanish-born centrist prime minister Manuel Valls) will all certainly talk tougher about immigration and security in 2017, given the traumatic Charlie Hebdo, Bataclan and Nice terrorist attacks. None of them, however, seem poised to parrot the Le Pen line on immigration or on France’s Muslims to the extent Sarkozy was willing.

The Le Pen threat, now much more tangible than it was before Trump’s election two weeks ago, is still a serious one. But classic economic liberals and social liberals, on both the right and the left, should be relieved that they will not have to rally around such a clearly flawed candidate as Sarkozy at a time when Le Pen’s support is cresting.

Like it or not, the multipolar era is coming sooner than we thought


One of the most important concepts in international relations is polarity, which is just a term that political scientists use to describe power in the international system.USflag

Typically, we think of the global order in three separate modes:

  • Unipolar, where one overweening global power dominates (such as the United States, more or less, after the Cold War).
  • Bipolar, where two rivals view for global power (such as the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War).
  • Multipolar, where several regional powers balance one another (such as Prussia/Germany, Great Britain, France, Russia and the Ottoman Empire in the decades between Napoleon and World War I).

In the view of many scholars, the world has been stuck in American-dominated unipolarity for years, slowly gliding (hopefully peacefully) to a multipolar world, sometime far off in the distance. At some point, most scholars believed, the rise of China, and possibly other powers, such as Russia, India or a united Europe, would allow for a multipolar world gradually to unfold.

Donald Trump’s election as the 45th president of the United States means, above all, that we’re hurtling even more rapidly to that emerging multipolar world, and you can see it in the global response to his shock election a week ago. Continue reading Like it or not, the multipolar era is coming sooner than we thought

The last, best hope for global economic liberalism? Look to France.

Alain Juppé could be the last man (or woman) standing on the UN Security Council in defense of liberalism. (Facebook)
Alain Juppé could be the last man (or woman) standing on the UN Security Council in defense of liberalism. (Facebook)

Imagine the following lineup of the leaders of the UN Security Council: France Flag Icon

Russian president Vladimir Putin.
Chinese president Xi Jinping.
American president Donald Trump.
British prime minister Theresa May.
French president Marine Le Pen.

In a matter of months, we may wind up in a world where every leader of the Security Council is illiberal and nationalist.

That was unthinkable four months ago — and it should shock all of us who believe in free markets, mutually beneficial trade and sensible reforms to safeguard those displaced by trade. Continue reading The last, best hope for global economic liberalism? Look to France.