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.

Fillon’s at his ceiling today — not his floor

Marine Le Pen has far more in common with the nationalist tradition that won the Brexit vote and elected Donald Trump. (Facebook)
Marine Le Pen has far more in common with the nationalist tradition that won the Brexit vote and elected Donald Trump. (Facebook)

Fillon, who is receiving between 26% and 30% of the vote in polls today, is probably already hitting his ceiling among the first-round candidates. In 2012, Sarkozy received 27.18% of the first-round vote (enough to place first, though Hollande ultimately defeated him in the runoff). Even in 2007, at the height of his popularity, Sarkozy received 31.18% of the vote.

Of course, Fillon is a far less toxic candidate for 2017 than Sarkozy, whose ‘bling bling’ presidency and myriad legal and ethical challenges cost him reelection in the first place. Voters generally have the sense that while Sarkozy pursued romance and adventure, Fillon worked to push through the economic reforms that had been at the heart of Sarkozy’s 2007 agenda.

Nevertheless, Fillon is a staunch social conservative who opposed legalizing marriage equality and, while that may help coax Le Pen voters back to the center-right, Fillon will not hold the same broad moderate appeal that Juppé might have. Moreover, Fillon spent much of the campaign languishing far behind in fourth place, and so hasn’t been taken seriously enough to receive real attacks from political opponents. That below-the-radar approach ends now.

Le Pen, who has increasingly embraced an economic philosophy in defense of the French working class, will be able to filet Fillon for his role in pushing through an increase in the retirement age to 62 (still lower than in Germany or the United States). She will also certainly savage his willingness to embrace the ‘Thatcherite’ model of Anglo-American market reform, pitting herself as the 21st century defender of the Gallic approach. Fillon’s embrace of Thatcher also gives Le Pen an opening to attack him as yesterday’s man, a figure running on discredited ideas that have already failed under Sarkozy and Hollande, to say nothing about their failures abroad. Fillon has called for laying off thousands of government workers and getting rid of the 35-hour work week, but much of his reform plan lies in tax cuts and more of the same budget austerity.

Crowded in the center

Emmanuel Macron is a fresh-faced 'reformer' of the center-left running as an independent in 2017. (Facebook)
Emmanuel Macron is a fresh-faced ‘reformer’ of the center-left running as an independent in 2017. (Facebook)

Moreover, Fillon may find himself competing with at least three other centrists in the first round.

The most potent threat could be Emmanuel Macron, a dashing young former investment banker who briefly served as Hollande’s economy minister. Like Fillon, a proponent of reform, the 38-year-old Macron has the same air and energy that Sarkozy generated in the mid-2000s, except on the center-left. Macron, probably wisely, is running as an independent and not competing for a Socialist nomination that might well be too toxic in 2017. Macron left government in August after forming his own movement En Marche (‘On the Move’), and he launched his presidential bid earlier this month.

Perennial candidate François Bayrou, sometimes a gadfly and sometimes a genuine threat, also seems likely to run for what would be his fourth attempt at the Élysée. Bayrou is the leader of the moderate Mouvement démocrate (Democratic Movement), and he is as squarely in the mushy moderate center of French politics as anyone. He won nearly 7% in the 2002 election, crested to 18.57% in the 2007 election, and still won 9.1% in the 2012 election.

No one knows yet who will win the Socialist nomination, but if it is either Hollande or Valls, the Socialists too will be fighting for the centrist vote. That’s especially true for Valls, a law-and-order figure who has called for renaming the Socialists and rebranding it as a center-left party like the Italian or American Democratic parties. But news reports pit him at odds with Hollande over the nomination, with the incumbent furious over Valls’s clear intent to run for the presidency; Hollande is allegedly considering whether to sack his prime minister. Such infighting could damage Valls, either by boosting the more hard-left Montebourg or by weakening him and Socialist unity in the April election — it’s not crazy to think that the Socialists could fall to fourth or fifth place with single-digit support.

That means that as voters focus in the springtime, much of Fillon’s ‘support’ today could bleed either to Le Pen on the far right or to other centrist candidates like Macron, Bayrou or Valls.

Piketty’s man on the left?

Jean-Luc Mélenchon could benefit from the rise of a new global left and a divided field of centrist candidates to emerge as a surprise contender in 2017's runoff. (Facebook)
Jean-Luc Mélenchon could benefit from the rise of a new global left and a divided field of centrist candidates to emerge as a surprise contender in 2017’s runoff. (Facebook)

Enter Mélenchon, the leader of the Parti de Gauche (Left Party) who made something of a splash in the 2012 election with a call for a new sixth republic, is an unabashed clarion for the values of the hard left.

Four years ago, there was a sense that a lot of Socialist voters were divided — their hearts were perhaps with Mélenchon, but their heads were with Hollande. Though that approach delivered power to the Socialists, even party stalwarts believe Hollande has squandered his 2012 mandate, lurching to the left in a failed bid to raise taxes, then lurching to the right to cut the budget and pick fights with unions over pension reform, all while subjecting the country to gossip-fueled headlines about his failed romantic partnership with Valérie Trierweiler, trysts to meet secret lovers and the personal humiliation and political resurrection of Hollande’s former partner of years (and the mother of his children), Ségolène Royal.

Moreover, in the last 18 months, the democratic world has seen not only the rise of a nationalist and sometimes illiberal right (in the Brexit and Trump votes), but also the rise of hard-left Jeremy Corbyn, now twice ratified as the leader of the British Labour Party, and the rise of a more full-throated voice for social democracy in the United States in the form of Vermont senator Bernie Sanders’s robust challenge to Clinton for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination. If ever a moment for a resurgence of the Gallic left, 2017 would seem to be ripe with opportunity.

Like Macron, Mélenchon isn’t running in the Socialist primary and will compete directly in the first-round election.

It doesn’t exactly take a leap of imagination to believe Mélenchon could play the role of France’s Sanders or Corbyn in 2017, especially if the Socialists nominate a relative centrist like Hollande or Valls. That would leave Mélenchon as the clearest voice for a bona-fide leftist agenda for France, and it makes him even more of a change agent to French voters than Le Pen. He might even win the support of leftist economist Thomas Piketty, whose 2013 tome Capital in the 21st Century won global acclaim in demanding activist policies to stem the tide of growing economic inequality. Nevertheless, Mélenchon could easily amass support from the union members who have traditionally voted Socialist (and who might otherwise be tempted by Le Pen’s economic nationalism and protectionism). He would join the ranks of new hard-left governments across Europe, including Alexis Tsipras’s SYRIZA-led government in Greece and António Costa’s coalition of various center-left and socialist parties in Portugal.

The bottom line? Five months is a long time in a presidential election, and if the trends from the United States, the United Kingdom and elsewhere hold true for France, we shouldn’t necessarily assume Fillon will easily head to victory.

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