But the June 18 victory of French president Emmanuel Macron’s La République En Marche! — a party founded only last year as the vehicle boosting what was once a longshot bid for the French presidency — in the second round of France’s legislative elections is nothing short of an astonishing accomplishment for a brand-new party that brands itself as neither left nor right.
The elections leave Macron’s party, together with its ally, the Mouvement démocrate (Democratic Movement) founded by longtime centrist figure (and now Macron’s justice minister) François Bayrou, with 350 seats in the Assemblée nationale, the lower house of the French parliament. It’s one of the largest majorities since the dawn of France’s Fifth Republic in 1958, though it’s a victory tarred by a record-low turnout of just between 42% and 43%. (That compares to around 60% turnout in 2007 and 55% in 2012).
While the French electorate may be fatigued after four rounds of voting — two presidential rounds in April and May, followed by the first round of parliamentary elections on June 11 — it’s far lower than turnout in the 2002, 2007 and 2012 elections, all of which followed the same pattern, synchronizing legislative elections just a month after the presidential.
Ultimately, a 30-point landslide portends more significance than a 20-point landslide.
French voters emphatically rejected Marine Le Pen, though not, perhaps, by the same margin as they rejected her father 15 years ago. But polls, which showed Emmanuel Macron’s 20-point lead shrinking ever so slightly two weeks ago, rebounded after the sole debate during the runoff campaign. Macron’s ultimate margin of victory was beyond what polls were even showing by the end of last week.
Generally, Le Pen and the hard-right Front national knew that a win was highly unlikely. A ‘victory’ would have been winning over 40% of the vote by, say, winning over a majority of the first-round supporters of François Fillon, the candidate of the center-right Les Républicains — or at least winning majorities in the southeast and north of France where Le Pen’s support was strongest.
Instead, Le Pen didn’t even break 34% nationally. She won just two departments: Pas-de-Calais and Aisne in the north of the country. In Paris, the French political, administrative, financial and cultural capital, she won just 10.3% of the vote. Le Pen’s performance fell so short of hopes and expectations that she now hopes to rename her party before next month’s parliamentary elections and could face internal questions about her leadership. Continue reading Macron’s landslide win a emphatic mandate for liberal democracy→
Every piece of election-related data we have suggests Emmanuel Macron will win this weekend’s presidential runoff in France and, by the standards of most political contests, it will be a landslide — perhaps a victory of more than 20%.
But it comes with a sense of disquiet, even among Macron’s supporters.
Part of it is lingering anxiety from last June’s Brexit referendum and Donald Trump’s presidential election last November. That’s understandable. But the polls are far more slanted in Macron’s favor than they ever were for ‘Remain’ or for Hillary Clinton.
Polls haven’t been enough to stop niggling doubts that Marine Le Pen might somehow win just enough center-right voters, while just enough leftist voters are too disillusioned to vote for the aggressively centrist Macron, to score an upset victory. But pluralities of the supporters of third-placed conservative former prime minister François Fillon and fourth-placed hard-left firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon alike say they will support Macron in the July 7 runoff.
Macron’s campaign for the last week, too, has been somewhat tone-deaf. Of course, a candidate who comes from the political and financial elite might have rethought holding an election-night party at a posh Paris bistro. Le Pen crashed his campaign stop last week at a Whirlpool factory, forcing a sheepish Macron to spend an hour talking to working-class voters. Macron, ultimately, spent far more time trying to engage the workers than Le Pen, who posed for some selfies. But the stunt worked — and made Macron look defensive.
There, too, is a sense that Le Pen’s endorsement from right-wing presidential contender Nicolas Dupont-Aignan and a handful of stragglers on the French right (along with Mélenchon’s refusal to endorse Macron) lacks the urgency of the broad ‘republican front’ that met the shock 2002 French runoff between Jacques Chirac and Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen.
On Sunday, voters in France — soon to be the second-most populous member-state of the European Union — will decide the two finalists, out of a field of 11, who will battle for the French presidency next month.
Since February, polls have consistently shown centrist independent Emmanuel Macron and hard-right Marine Le Pen, the leader of the eurosceptic and anti-immigrant Front national,most likely to advance to the May 7 runoff. Macron, a former economy minister in outgoing president François Hollande’s administration, has waged an unorthodox and personalized campaign, pulling supporters from both the center-right and the center-left under the banner of a new political movement, En marche (Forward).
Le Pen, who has somewhat toned down the rhetoric of the party that her father founded in 1972, remains a hard-right warrior championing economic nationalism, with plenty of attacks on the European Union, the scourge of Islam and the woes of immigration. It’s a stand that may yet boost her in the wake of a terrorist strike that killed two policemen on the Champs-Élysées Thursday night in the heart of Paris, as even US president Donald Trump noted early Friday morning.
One-time front runner François Fillon, the candidate of the center-right Les Républicains, leaped into a strong lead last November after defeating former president Nicolas Sarkozy and former prime minister Alain Juppé for the Republican nomination. Since February, however, Fillon has dropped to third place after police opened a formal investigation into whether Fillon used over €800,000 in public funds to pay his wife (Penelope) and his children for essentially ‘fake’ jobs — popularly known as ‘Penelopegate.’ Refusing to drop out, however, Fillon — a social conservative and Thatcherite liberal who served as Sarkozy’s prime minister for five years — has waged an energetic and defiant campaign, even under the cloud of corruption charges.
Meanwhile, Jean-Luc Mélenchon has surged in the polls after strong performances in two debates in March/April sent left-wing voters swooning. The far-left candidate of La France insoumise (Unsubmissive France) and a coalition of communists and other far-left groups, Mélenchon has gained support at the expense of the official candidate of the Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party), Benoît Hamon. A former education minister and left-wing rebel who ultimately resigned in opposition to Hollande’s centrist push for labor reform, has campaigned on a deeply leftist platform of his own, with calls for a universal basic income, a 32-hour work week, a tax on robots and a higher minimum wage. After the deeply unpopular Hollande ruled out a reelection bid, Hamon won the Socialist nomination in January, defeating Hollande’s more centrist former prime minister Manuel Valls. Hamon now languishes in the single digits in most polls, while Mélenchon’s more radical campaign — he wants to introduce a 100% tax on incomes over €33,000 a month, reinvent or leave the European Union and leave NATO — has captured more of the electorate’s imagination.
Those polls now show the top four candidates — Macron, Le Pen, Fillon and Mélenchon — all gathered together within the margin of error, with between 19% and 25% support as voters prepare to cast ballots in the April 23 first-round vote. With Macron and Le Pen unable in the final weeks of the campaign to expand into larger coalitions, with Fillon holding steady with his core of Republican voters and with Mélenchon consolidating France’s leftist voters, no one can predict which of the four candidates will advance.
With less than two weeks to go until the first round of the French presidential election, Jean-Luc Mélenchon is surging in the polls.
From a distant fifth place a month ago, Mélenchon’s strong debate performances and his appeal from outside the traditional political mainstream have catapulted him well beyond former education minister Benoît Hamon, the social democratic candidate of the Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party) — and in some polls, even leading former prime minister François Fillon, the center-right and scandal-dogged candidate of Les Républicains.
The latest IFOP poll gives Mélenchon 17%, just behind Fillon (19%), though still some trailing poll leaders Marine Le Pen (24.5%) and Emmanuel Macron (23.5%) — Hamon, who once led Mélenchon, now claims just 9.5%. Earlier this year, before Hamon’s nomination, I wrote about the nightmare scenario (for centrists and liberals) of a Le Pen-Mélenchon runoff.
But you should be skeptical about the Mélenchon surge, which might not be as large as polls currently show. Even so, Mélenchon will struggle to grow his support sufficiently to win the presidency.
Rise of the anti-elite left
Mélenchon is the candidate of the far-left Front de gauche (Left Front), an alliance of communists and other hard-left figures. Though Hamon won the Socialist Party nomination in January on a radically leftist agenda (e.g.,a business tax on robots, a 32-hour workweek, a higher minimum wage and new spending on social welfare), Mélenchon would go farther. Charismatic and acerbic in equal measure, Mélenchon also favors the 32-hour workweek, greater social spending (in the form of a €100 billion stimulus) and a higher minimum wage (€1,300 per month). But he would also levy a 100% tax rate on anyone making over €33,000 a month. He would also dismantle France’s nuclear power program, which supplies over 76% of France’s power needs (more than for any other country worldwide). While Le Pen wants to leave the eurozone and hold a referendum on ‘Frexit,’ Mélenchon wants to leave the European Union and NATO entirely, slams German chancellor Angela Merkel on the campaign trail and vows that he’s the only candidate ‘for peace.’
Mélenchon may sound like the ‘French Bernie Sanders,’ but his policy positions makes Sanders seem like a centrist in comparison.
French politics has seen this show before. Mélenchon, who ran for president in 2012, also saw a mid-April polling surge in the last election. One mid-April 2012 IFOP poll gave him 14.5% in that race, but he ultimately finished far behind in fourth place with 11%, under-performing every significant French poll in the days leading to the vote.
Five years later, anti-establishment sentiment is certainly much higher. There’s no doubt that Mélenchon is as anti-elite as it comes, even more so than the hard-right, anti-immigrant Le Pen, who at least finds common cause in the Catholic Church and other institutions that she believes support her view of traditional French values. Though Macron remains the frontunner to win a runoff against Le Pen on May 7, Le Pen still leads most polls to win the first round of the election on April 23. It’s been taken for granted for so long that Le Pen would win the first-round vote, but it’s still a landmark achievement for her and the Front national. The two candidates of the traditional parties are now polling less than one-third of the vote in an election season that eliminated both former president François Sarkozy and Bordeaux mayor and former prime minister and foreign minister Alain Juppé in the center-right presidential primaries, as well as once-popular prime minister Manuel Valls in the center-left primaries. It also forced an unpopular incumbent François Hollande to skip a reelection bid altogether.
Mélenchon continues to splinter the left, not unite it
Over the weekend, Hamon indicated that if Mélenchon does make the May runoff, his supporters should support Mélenchon. That’s the closest sign of any unity between the two campaigns. Just a few weeks ago, prominent Hamon supporters — including leftist economist Thomas Piketty — were hoping Mélenchon might drop out of the race in favor of a united candidacy around Hamon. Yannick Jadot, who had planned to run as the candidate of the Europe Écologie Les Verts (Europe Economy / Greens), dropped out in late February in deference to Hamon.
Now, many leftists are hoping Hamon will drop out. They add up the total support for Hamon and Mélenchon in polls, and believe that together, they would be a shoe-in for the runoff. But the reality is far more complicated.
Hamon, ironically, is more maverick than the ‘independent’ Macron (a Hollande protégé), and his nomination made the chances of a coalition with Mélenchon far more likely than had Valls won the Socialist nomination.
But Hamon was always swimming upstream as the official nominee of the Socialist Party. After five years of Hollande, the Socialist brand is toxic; after the perceived decades-long failures of Hollande, Sarkozy and their predecessors (on everything from employment to wage growth to immigration), the establishment brand is even more toxic. Moreover, many centrists within the Socialist Party responded to Hamon’s nomination by distancing themselves from a nominee who (1) seemed like a sure loser and (2) is far too leftist for their tastes, and many of those Socialist centrists now support Macron, formally or informally. Hamon has been poorly served by the Socialist Party since January, and there is a chance — however slim — that he might drop out of the race in favor of Mélenchon. (It would be too far late, legally, for the Socialists to nominate a new candidate).
The Hamon-Mélenchon talks failed not only because the two candidates are so far apart on policy (such as EU and NATO positions), but from the fact that they come from very, very different traditions. Think about the difference between, say, longtime French communist leader Robert Hue and former Socialist president François Mitterrand. Even if Hamon dropped out (very unlikely) and endorsed Mélenchon, the Socialist Party would never endorse him — in part, because Macron is already the unofficial Socialist candidate. Moreover, the Socialists also have a tough parliamentary election in June to worry about.
Mélenchon would hardly welcome formal Socialist backing. Just as Macron perceived (and as Hamon is learning), the party’s imprint is akin to a poisoned chalice. Nothing Mélenchon could do or say would more taint him as a ‘sellout’ to his supporters than to accept Socialist endorsement.
Indeed, the best gift Hamon might be able to provide Mélenchon is to drop out and force the Socialists to endorse Macron instead, who already has his share of ‘Socialist’ problems. Though he’s leading a new movement called ‘En marche,’ Macron’s experience in French politics comes from a Socialist background. A graduate of the elite École nationale d’administration and a former investment banker, Macron owes his political career to Hollande. He served as a presidential deputy chief of staff before serving as Hollande’s economy minister from 2014 to 2016. Like it or not, Macron is the status quo candidate in the race, for all his populist bluster about change. Former Paris mayor Bertrand Delanoë now backs Macron, as does Valls. Unofficially, so does Ségolène Royal and many others, including perhaps Hollande himself.
The rupture of the French left into a centrist Macron faction, a progressive Hamon faction and a hard-left Mélenchon faction isn’t likely to change after April 23. Even if the personalities leading those factions change, the divides might widen as the focus shifts to parliamentary elections. If Macron loses the presidency to Le Pen, moreover, the left’s fragmentation could magnify Le Pen’s ability to co-opt economic nationalism and reframe French politics on a nationalist/globalist line instead of a traditional left/right line. Unfortunately for the Socialist Party, the stakes transcend just one election cycle, and the party’s hegemony, at least throughout much of the Fifth Republic, may be finished.
The problem for Mélenchon’s growth prospects
Even while Mélenchon is shaking up the race, there’s a big difference between ‘shaking up’ and winning.
The question is where Mélenchon can go from here. A once-possible April 20 debate looks like it will no longer take place, denying Mélenchon one last chance to shine (ironically because he refused to join a debate just three days before the first-round vote). He led a well-attended rally in Marseilles over the weekend, but rallies are one thing — converting rallies to votes is another. Unlike Fillon, Hamon and even Le Pen, who have traditional party structures to help turn out the vote, and unlike Le Pen and even Macron, who has cultivated a large organization since last summer, Mélenchon is at a ground-game disadvantage. That’s perhaps one reason his 2012 showing was such a disappointment.
On the left, it’s hard to see where Mélenchon will pick up more voters. Hamon’s supporters must realize he’s a lost cause. But while Mélenchon’s polls began to rise after the first presidential debate on March 20, those Hamon voters are still not switching to Mélenchon, even though he has surged to a 2-to-1 advantage against Hamon in some polls. Maybe he could pick up voters from Macron, but it’s doubtful that the most pro-European centrist in the race would hemorrhage too many votes to an ardent eurosceptic communist. Even as the traditional parties weaken, a dwindling PS base still exists to support the Socialist nominee. Note the baseline support (at least 16% to 20%) that Fillon is still winning from center-right voters, even though police have essentially indicted him for paying public funds to his wife and children for fake jobs.
More fertile ground for Mélenchon might come from Le Pen’s supporters (one reason why he may have held his weekend rally in Marseilles, where Le Pen support runs strong). Like Mélenchon, Le Pen calls for radical change, is skeptical of Brussels and EU officials, and embraces the same economic protectionism as Mélenchon’s old-school leftism. So if he makes a breakthrough later this month, it could be at Le Pen’s expense, reclaiming votes in places like France’s de-industrialized northeast, where Le Pen won over disenchanted — and formerly Socialist — voters.
But another lesson from 2012 should cast doubt on that thesis. After the last presidential race, both Le Pen and Mélenchon ran for a legislative assembly seat in northeastern Hénin-Beaumont, an old coal-mining region. In the first round of that election, Le Pen won 42.4%, far ahead of second-placed Socialist Philippe Kemel (23.5%). Again, Mélenchon disappointed with just 21.5% of the vote. In the runoff (Mélenchon withdrew and endorsed Kemel), Le Pen only narrowly lost by a margin of 50.1% to 49.9%. Nevertheless, the lesson from that parliamentary race, at least five years ago, is Le Pen’s brand of hard-right protectionism was far more compelling than Mélenchon’s 21st century communism.
Le Pen’s support in the 2017 election, however, has universally been stronger than in 2012. So while there’s definitely a path for Mélenchon into the May runoff, it will be an incredibly difficult task.
Emmanuel Macron should not be such a difficult candidate to defeat in the French presidential election.
Set aside the weird personality cult that gushes over Macron’s youthful good looks, or the popular movement, En Marche! that shares the candidate’s initials (E.M.) and that translates to ‘Forward!’ — a schlocky political trick for an electorate that prides itself on sophistication.
Set aside that the 39-year-old rising star has never technically won an election to anything in his life.
Set aside the gaffes — going to Algeria and calling French colonization a ‘crime against humanity’ or criticizing the same-sex marriage law that he said ‘humiliated’ traditional Catholic voters.
Set aside the nasty rumors about his personal life or the wife 24 years his senior (and yes, they are out there).
Why Macron is far weaker than polls currently show
Though Macron is in a commanding position with a month to go until voters first go to the polls, he is the product of two of the most elite educational institutions, Sciences Po and the École nationale d’administration, and before entering politics, he was an investment banker at Rothschild. He represents a strain of neoliberal economic policy that commands lower support today than ever — the Atlantic right is moving toward economic nationalism and the Atlantic left is moving to more aggressive taxation and deeper social welfare programs.
Macron, for all intents and purposes, is the avatar of the French political elite, amid a global climate where voters are rejecting elites. That’s even compared to a former prime minister, François Fillon, the center-right candidate of Les Républicains, or to a former education minister Benoît Hamon, the social democratic candidate of the Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party).
One of the growing myths of yesterday’s poor showing for Geert Wilders and the is that, somehow, the Dutch electoral system is somehow responsible for Wilders’s poor showing.
Consider this paragraph from The Economist that cautions not to extrapolate too much from Wilders’s humbling collapse to just 13% support (good enough, in the current fragmented political context, for second place):
Mr Trump’s win could not have happened without the peculiarities of America’s electoral college. By the same token, the fact that Mr Wilders did not win does not translate on to Ms Le Pen. The Dutch political system is open and diffuse, with over a dozen parties in parliament and low barriers for new ones to make it in. The French system is more rigid.
I’ve seen this theme increasingly on Twitter today (especially on #MAGA Twitter) — somehow as if it’s okay to disregard the Dutch election result because seats in the Tweede Kamer are awarded on the basis of proportional representation or because of the Dutch parliamentary system, as if another system would have delivered a resounding victory for Wilders and the Partij voor de Vrijheid (PVV, Party for Freedom).
Imagine that Dutch elections were instead organized like American elections. You would see a primary on the right (much like we’ve seen recently in Italy, even though it’s more of a parliamentary system). In this hypothetical primary, Wilders would have campaigned against not only prime minister Mark Rutte, but against Christian Democratic leader Sybrand Buma and Christian Union leader Gert-Jan Segers and even Thierry Baudet, the head of a little-known group, the Forum voor Democratie (FvD, Forum for Democracy), a small right-wing populist and eurosceptic group that managed to win 1.8% of the national vote yesterday. If you extrapolate the results — that’s a little tricky because the Dutch voted for parties, not for personalities — it’s clear that right-leaning voters far preferred Rutte to Wilders.
That would have been true in 2012, by the way, and it would have been true in 2010 (the high-water mark for Wilders and the PVV). An American-style ‘primary’ in 2006? Former Christian Democratic prime minister Jan Peter Balkenende would have easily defeated both Rutte and Wilders. In a presidential-style ‘general election,’ Rutte would have faced off, perhaps, against Alexander Pechtold, the leader of the left-liberal Democraten 66 (D66, Democrats 66), with Wilders standing on the sidelines stewing over Islam or running a doomed third-party challenge. (Though of course sore-loser laws in the United States would have effectively prevented Wilders from running both for the Republican nomination and a third-party candidacy).
Imagine, too, a world where Dutch elections used the French system. Rutte and Wilders, as the leaders of the two parties with the largest number of votes in the 2017 election (again, it’s tricky to conflate votes for parties and votes for individuals) would presumably face one another in a runoff.
But it’s hard to see where Wilders would have picked up votes, much beyond the populist 50PLUS party or the FvD. That’s clear enough from the 65% (or so) of the Dutch electorate that supported moderate parties of both the left and the right that are generally pro-Europe and tolerant (if not always enthusiastic) of immigrants. Rutte, I’d be willing to wager, would win a French-style runoff by the same margin that centrist Emmanuel Macron currently enjoys against populist Marine Le Pen in polls forecasting the May presidential runoff in France.
Finally, consider the United Kingdom, where each member of parliament is elected in a single-member constituency by first-past-the-post voting.
There’s a reason that third parties fare so poorly in FPTP systems — they are unfairly disadvantaged.
See the map above from the 388 municipalities of The Netherlands. That sea of dark blue? It’s the wave of municipalities where Rutte’s governing Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie (VVD, the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy) would have won on a FPTP basis. In a world where the Tweede Kamer was a 388-member parliament, the VVD would easily dominate it, followed (not particularly closely) in second place by the Christen-Democratisch Appèl (CDA, Christian Democratic Appeal), represented above in dark green.
By my count, the PVV won first place across just 23 municipalities. That compares with 13 municipalities where the Staatkundig Gereformeerde Partij (SGP, Reformed Political Party) won the highest number of votes (see in orange above) — a party that wants to run the country on ‘biblical principles’ and Calvinist orthodoxy!
The system — in this case at least — had no bearing.
Wilders has no one to blame but himself and his party’s vague and divisive message. It simply didn’t break through to many Dutch voters, and that lack of enthusiasm would have manifested itself in any number of electoral systems.
Step back from the obsession over Marine Le Pen’s economic nationalism or from the day-to-day headlines over François Fillon’s scandals and imploding campaign.
With about six weeks to go in the French election, we know that the two established parties of the French political elite — Fillon’s center-right Les Républicains and the center-left Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party) of president François Hollande and its presidential nominee Benoît Hamon– are doing historically poorly.
It’s entirely possible that the Republican and Socialist candidates place third and fourth, if current polls are predictive, giving the French public for the first time a runoff without either major party. In aggregate, the two candidates poll around 33%, a massive drop from the combined first-round percentage of Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy in 2012 (55.81%), and even lower than in 2002, when incumbent Jacques Chirac and Socialist Lionel Jospin still managed a combined total of 36.06%. (You’ll remember 2002 as the year Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, made it to the runoff by edging out Jospin to second place).
If the election were held today, both of the runoff candidates would be ‘outsiders’ — the Front national leader, Marine Le Pen, and the independent Emmanuel Macron, the head of the En marche movement and a former Hollande aide and economy minister running as a centrist. Polls show that Macron holds a roughly 60%-40% edge over Le Pen in the May 7 runoff.
But that also creates a far higher level of uncertainty about the outcome of the elections that follow on June 11 and 18, when voters — fresh after selecting a new president — will also select the 577 members of the lower house of the French parliament, the Assemblée nationale (National Assembly). There’s surprisingly little coverage of those elections, though they will be just as important (maybe more) than the presidential race.
A return to cohabitation or a shift to coalition-style politics?
Neither Le Pen’s Front national nor Macron’s En marche today seems to have the kind of national party infrastructure to follow a presidential victory with a parliamentary victory, though the president-elect has for the last three election cycles roared into June parliamentary elections with massive momentum. Macron has vowed that En marche will field 577 candidates for the parliamentary elections, and while he has indicated he wants to accept political refugees from mainstream parties, he also wants at least half of the movement’s candidates to have no previous political experience or affiliation.
Since 2002, each French presidential term (now five years, reduced from seven years) has lined up with the term of the National Assembly, such that the parliamentary elections follow a month after the presidential runoff. Generally speaking, since 2002, the prime minister has served as the chief parliamentary official carrying out the president’s legislative program. Even in 2012, when Hollande narrowly edged Sarkozy in the May presidential runoff, the Socialists and their allies still wound up with nearly 58% of the seats in the National Assembly after elections a month later.
When presidential terms and parliamentary terms weren’t harmonized, it was far likelier that the presidency and the National Assembly could be controlled by different parties. In cases of divided government — cohabitation — the president’s power crumbles and the opposing prime minister sets the domestic agenda and much of the foreign policy agenda. In the Fifth Republic, France has seen only three periods of cohabitation: the Chirac premiership under the Mitterand presidency (1986-88), the Balladur premiership under the Mitterand presidency (1993-95) and the Jospin premiership under the Chirac presidency (1997-2002).
But with the Front national as strong as it’s ever been (Le Pen still leads Macron, narrowly, in the first-round polls) and with a Macron victory becoming more likely, the Republicans and Socialists will not simply give up. To make things trickier, the Front de gauche (Left Front) will also be running candidates in the parliamentary race — presumably including its presidential contender, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, as he did in 2012.
That makes it more likely that no single party or movement will win the June parliamentary elections. Even if Macron wins the presidency in a massive landslide, he might still have to face cohabitation or, for the first time in French political history, cobble together the kind of multi-party coalition government so much more common in the Nordics and Germany.
In the past, voters have had a good idea about who will form the government because, presumably, the prime minister and other key officials will come from the same party as the president. But Macron doesn’t have a party. So if, indeed, ‘personnel is policy,’ French voters are somewhat in the dark about what to expect under Macron. Rather unhelpfully, Macron hasn’t specified exactly who would be prime minister, or what he’s looking for in a prime minister, other than someone with experience who can command a parliamentary majority. (Well, of course…).
It may be that Macron doesn’t want to tip his hand, or it may be that Macron knows just how unsettled the June parliamentary elections will be. Per Macron, the next prime minister will not be François Bayrou, a center-right moderate and three-time presidential contender who announced he would not run this year and, instead, endorsed Macron. Earlier today, Macron mused that it would be great to appoint a female prime minister and, indeed, former Socialist presidential nominee, ecology minister Ségolène Royal, has praised Macron throughout the election (though not quite formally endorsed him). She would fit the bill.
Traditionally, France’s unique two-round system has helped the two major parties maintain their lock on power. Smaller parties and contenders are often weeded out after the first round, often setting up a direct second-round contest between the center-right and the center-left. Unlike for presidential runoffs, however, it is possible to have a three-way runoff (triangulaire) or even a four-way runoff (quadrangulaire) if the additional candidate(s) wins at least 12.5% of the vote in a given constituency.
So far, they have been surprisingly rare. Among 577 constituencies, only 44 resulted in triangulaires in 2012 (despite Marine Le Pen’s robust third-place showing in the 2012 race) and the high-water mark is 1997 with 79 triangulaires. France hasn’t seen a parliamentary quadrangulaire since 1978.
This system, in the past, has massively disadvantaged third parties. Despite Marine Le Pen’s third-place showing in the April 2012 presidential election and despite the Front national‘s 13.6% support nationwide in the first round of the June 2012 parliamentary election, the party ended up with just two seats in the National Assembly (0.35% of all seats).
In a world where the Socialists and the Republicans are struggling to win 15% or 20% of the national vote, however, you can expect a rise in the number of triangulaires or even the return of a handful of quadrangulaires.
Buckle up for a bumpy five-way contest for the National Assembly
But that calculus changes when the Front national is winning more supporters than the Republicans, and when Macron’s En marche movement appears stronger than the Socialists and the Front de gauche. Moreover, the unprecedented nature of the election and the shifting political sands leave much of the parliamentary election in doubt (with surprisingly few polls available to guide analysis).
No one ever gave Hollande or anyone else in the Socialist camp much chance at winning in May. Barring a major upset over the next six weeks, the Socialists will also lose seats in June, in light of Hollande’s unpopularity and Hamon’s weakness. Hamon is running harder to the left than either Hollande or one-time presidential frontrunner Manuel Valls, the former prime minister. In a sense, the real winner of the Socialist primary contest was Macron, who is closer to the center-left than the center-right. To that end, leading Socialist officials are already breaking ranks by abandoning Hamon for Macron — most recently, the former Socialist mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë, though Royal and finance minister Michel Sapin are very sympathetic to Macron’s candidacy. Hollande (who remains close to Macron, his former deputy chief of staff) and Valls have yet to campaign for Hamon.
As it becomes more likely that Macron will win the presidency, it’s possible that the Socialist Party will split into factions, with a core leftist wing supporting Hamon and a more centrist wing migrating to En marche. While that could benefit Macron in June by adding some experience hands to the En marche movement, it also tarnishes Macron’s avatar as an independent agent of change.
Before his campaign cratered due to the ‘fake jobs’ scandal and impending indictment for corruption and abuse of public funds, former prime minister and Republican nominee François Fillon was favored to edge out Macron and then win the runoff against Le Pen. (In hypothetical scenarios, Fillon still leads Le Pen by a margin only slightly smaller than Macron does). But as Fillon falls further into third place behind Macron (police indicate that Fillon will be notified of a formal investigation — essentially indicted — on March 15), and as leading Republicans, including his former rival Alain Juppé, abandon his campaign, the Republicans risk depressing their own turnout in June as well as in April.
There’s still time for the Republicans to replace Fillon if the embattled prime minister drops out of the race. But Juppé on Monday, even as he slammed Fillon’s campaign as ‘at a dead end,’ ruled himself out as a Plan B. Other top Fillon surrogates, including Bruno Le Maire and many of Fillon’s campaign staff, have already abandoned him. On Monday, senior Republicans met and reaffirmed their support for Fillon, though it’s still possible for Fillon to drop out — François Baroin, a 51-year-old rising star, Troyes mayor and former finance and budget minister, who is close to Sarkozy and Fillon, now seems the most likely ‘plan B’ candidate, if it comes to that. If Fillon’s numbers drop further, however, it could lead to catastrophic losses in the parliamentary elections that, only two months ago, would have been an easy follow-up after a resounding Fillon victory.
A new re-branding of the French left and the French right — or a new re-ordering of French politics into liberal and illiberal camps
It’s true that parties have been historically weak in France compared to the United Kingdom or the United States. The ‘Republican’ veneer is a 2015 rebranding of what was, during the Chirac and Sarkozy eras, the ‘Union for a Popular Movement,’ which was a successor the old Gaullist ‘Rally for the Republic,’ itself three makeovers removed from Charles de Gaulle’s ‘Rally of the French People’ that dates to the WWII Free French resistance.
The Socialist Party has had more etymological consistency, if not policy consistency. It existed as the French Section of the Workers’ International from its foundation in 1905 in the middle of France’s Third Republic through 1969, when it was just one of a handful of leftist French parties and movements that ultimately (but not completely) consolidated behind François Mitterand in the 1970s and 1980s. France’s communists remained separate, and form the nucleus of the Front de gauche today.
It’s also true that, in a narrow sense, a Macron-Le Pen runoff looks a lot like ‘left-right’ runoffs of the past — this is just another realignment of a new left and a new right as in the past. But Macron’s call for reform is closer to Sarkozy’s economic vision than that of many French Socialists today, and Le Pen’s economic protection is far out-of-sync with the business-friendly conservatism of Fillon and the Republicans.
Instead, the Macron-Le Pen runoff looks more like a contest between liberalism and illiberalism, which increasingly, more than traditional left-right differences, the central fight in developed democracies.
For now, the French political scene looks like a free-for-all — especially if Macron and Le Pen emerge as the runoff contenders. How that translates into a two-round parliamentary election in just three months’ time, however, is anyone’s guess.
If there’s one thing that unites Europeans, it’s the concept that they are better — more enlightened, more cultured and more sophisticated — than Americans.
That was especially true during the presidency of George W. Bush, when France, Germany and other leading anchors of the European Union vociferously opposed the US-led invasion of Iraq. In 2002, it sometimes seemed like German chancellor Gerhard Schröder was running against Bush, not against his conservative German challenger, Bavarian premier Edmund Stoiber.
Europeans might be leaning in a similar direction in the Trump era, even though it’s hardly been a month since Donald Trump took office. In the days after Trump’s surprise election last November (and after the Brexit vote last summer), populists like Geert Wilders in The Netherlands and Marine Le Pen in France had reason to believe that Trump’s victory would give political tailwinds to their own electoral efforts in 2017.
If anything, however, Europeans are pulling back from populism in the first months of 2017. As four of the founding EU countries gear up for elections in the coming months — the first will be The Netherlands in just nine days — the threat of a Trump-style populist surging to power seems increasingly farfetched.
Maybe Europeans simply outright disdain what they perceive as the vulgar, Jacksonian urges of American voters. Maybe it’s shock at the way Trump’s inexperienced administration has bumbled through its first 40 days or the troubles of British prime minister Theresa May in navigating her country through the thicket of Brexit and withdrawing from the European Union.
More likely though, it could be that Trump’s oft-stated criticism of NATO and praise for Russian president Vladimir Putin have finally shaken Europeans out of the fog that’s gathered for 70 years under the penumbra of pax Americana. Even as officials like US vice president Mike Pence and US defense secretary James Mattis reassure European allies that the United States is committed to the trans-Atlantic security alliance, Trump continues to muse about NATO being obsolete (as recently as the week before his inauguration). Furthermore, the America-first nationalism that emerged from Trump’s successful campaign has continued into his administration and promises a new, more skeptical approach to prior American obligations not only in Europe, but worldwide. Just ten days into office, Trump trashed the European Union as a ‘threat’ to the United States, only to back down and call it ‘wonderful’ in February. Breitbart, the outlet that senior Trump strategist Stephen Bannon headed until last summer, ran a headline in January proclaiming that Trump would make the European Union ‘history.’
All of which has left Europeans also rethinking their security position and considering a day when American security guarantees are withdrawn — or simply too unreliable to be trusted.
Arguably, NATO always undermined the European Union, in structural terms, because NATO has been the far more important body for guaranteeing trans-Atlantic security. Though Federica Mogherini is a talented and saavy diplomat, the EU high representative for foreign affairs and security policy is far less important to trans-Atlantic security than the NATO secretary-general (currently, former Norwegian prime minster Jens Stoltenberg). While the stakes of EU policymaking — trade, consumer and environmental regulation, competition law and other economic regulation and a good deal of European fiscal and monetary policy — aren’t low, they would be higher still if the European Union, instead of NATO, were truly responsible for European defense and security. That’s perhaps one reason why the European Union has been stuck since the early 2000s in its own ‘Articles of Confederation’ moment — too far united to pull the entire scheme apart, not yet united enough to pull closer together.
Perhaps, alternatively, it has nothing to do with blowback to Trump or Brexit, and voters in the core western European countries, which are accustomed to a less Schumpeterian form of capitalism, are simply more immune to radical swings than their counterparts subject to the janglier peaks and valleys of Anglo-Saxon capitalism. It’s not too much to think that, possibly, in the aftermath of both Brexit and Trump’s election, core Europe, unleashed from the toxic dynamic of British euroscepticism and emboldened to forge new relationships from outside the American security aegis, may be finding a new confidence after years of economic ennui.
Nevertheless, populists across Europe who tried to cloak themselves in the warm embrace of Trumpismo throughout 2016 are increasingly struggling in 2017. A dark and uncertain 2016 is giving way rapidly to a European spring in 2017 where centrists, progressives and conservatives alike are finding ways to push back against populist and xenophobic threats. Continue reading Trump effect: Europe turning toward integration, away from populists→
In French politics, François Bayrou is always the bridesmaid — never the bride.
That was true in the 1990s, it was true in the 2000s and it now seems true in the 2010s as the longtime centrist ended his own presidential hopes for 2017 and endorsed the center-left independent candidate, Emmanuel Macron.
The 65-year-old Bayrou, who got his start in politics in the 1980s, and who has waged three earlier presidential campaigns, is forming an alliance with Macron as France turns to the first round of its presidential election on April 23, a presidential runoff on May 7 and parliamentary elections on June 11 and 18.
In stark language, Bayrou warned that his country was at ‘extreme risk’ after an election campaign that had so far ‘made a mockery of France,’ a risk that necessitates an ‘exceptional response’ — in the form of elevating the relatively inexperienced 39-year-old Macron to the presidency.
Bayrou came closest to winning the presidency himself in 2007, when he appealed to voters with doubts about both the center-right candidate, Nicolas Sarkozy, and the candidate of the center-left Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party), Ségolène Royal, winning nearly a fifth of the French electorate in that year. But his appeal faltered in recent years, and polls show that Bayrou would win merely 5% or 6% of the vote among an extraordinarily fluid and crowded 2017 field.
Once a rising moderate star of the French right, Bayrou served as education minister under former prime minister Édouard Balladur from 1993 to 1995 and then under Alain Juppé from 1995 to 1997. Bayrou also serves as the mayor of Pau, the capital of the Pyrénées-Atlantiques region of southwest France. Yet Bayrou never incredibly warmed to Sarkozy, and he has excoriated François Fillon, the former Sarkozy prime minister who came from behind to win the Républicain nomination (eclipsing both Sarkozy and one-time frontrunner Juppé). Fillon has been stung by accusations in recent weeks that, while in office, he funneled public funds to his wife, Penelope, and children for jobs they never actually performed.
Greater scrutiny is taking its toll on Macron
Though Macron’s popularity soared in December and January, his campaign has stalled with voters at around 20% support. With the far-right candidate of the Front national, Marine Le Pen, leading the first-round vote with around 26%, Fillon and Macron are essentially tied for second place and the all-important ticket to the May presidential runoff against Le Pen. Polls show that either Fillon or Macron today would trounce Le Pen by a nearly 60%-to-40% margin. Continue reading Bayrou, heir to liberal-right UDF tradition, joins forces with center-left Macron→
With national security advisor Michael Flynn’s resignation and new reporting from The New York Times that Trump campaign officials had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials, it is time to ask the fundamental question about this administration’s underlying weakness over Russia:
Was there a quid pro quo between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign to help Trump win?
No one wants to believe this, of course, and it is an important moment to give Trump as many benefits of the doubt as possible. It is probably true that Trump would have defeated Hillary Clinton without any Russian cyber-shenanigans (though of course Richard Nixon would have easily defeated George McGovern in 1972 without ordering a break-in at the Watergate Hotel). It is also true that the leaks coming from the intelligence community could represent a serious threat to civil liberties, though it is not clear to me whether this information is coming directly from the intelligence community or secondhand from any number of potential investigations. There are many ‘known unknowns’ here, and there are potentially even more ‘unknown unknowns.’
The former education minister, and more recently, rebel backbencher, clinched the nomination of the Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party) over one-time favorite, former prime minister Manuel Valls. He did so with a hearty serving of left-wing economic policies designed to drive the party’s base and recapture leftists voters who, according to polls, had abandoned the Socialists for the communist candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon.
Instead of a Hamon party coronation, French voters instead watches the wheels fall off the campaign of former prime minister François Fillon, previously the frontrunner to win the second-round runoff in May.
Not surprisingly, Fillon’s undoing is a corruption scandal, and it has left an already topsy-turvy presidential election even more uncertain. Fillon came from behind to defeat a former president (Nicolas Sarkozy) and a trusted and moderate former prime minister and former foreign minister (Alain Juppé) to win a surprise victory in the presidential primary for the center-right Les Républicains last November.
The mostly satirical and sometimes investigative Canard enchaîné last week reported that Fillon’s wife, Penelope, received over €500,000 from public funds for a job that she allegedly never performed when Fillon was a member of the French parliament and prime minister under Sarkozy from 2007 to 2012. Since that story broke, it’s been alleged that the amount totals something more like €900,000, and that Fillon paid additional amounts of around €84,000 to his children for equally cozy sinecures.
Penelope Fillon was born in Wales, and unlike some of the previous leading ladies of the Élysée, is quite averse to publicity, claiming as recently as last year that she preferred to stay at home at the Fillon country estate, decrying, as recently as last year, said she wasn’t involved at all in her husband’s professional or political life. After Sarkozy’s bling-bling presidency and whirlwind romance of singer Carla Bruni, and the odd dynamics among incumbent president François Hollande’s former consort Valérie Trierweiler, his former partner (and presidential candidate) Ségolène Royal and his various other romantic interests, Fillon’s reticence was just fine with French voters.
That is, until they found out that Penelope Fillon earned nearly a million euros in public funds for, apparently, very little work. It’s not great, as a candidate for the presidency, to defend nepotism, let alone the notion that your wife actually performed the work in question that merited such a cushy and reliable salary.
Fillon’s Thatcherite platform calls for eliminating a half-million public-sector jobs to cut wasteful spending. Moreover, he won the Republican nomination by contrasting his previously squeaky-clean record with that of the ethically challenged Sarkozy and with Juppé, whose most recent prominence came after a long period in the wilderness induced his own corruption conviction. So the charges against Fillon are just about fatal. It’s hard to imagine that he can survive the hypocrisy of his current position.
While Fillon has said that he will not drop out of the race unless French police formally open an investigation (presumably well after the election this spring), he may be forced out of the race from sheer embarrassment and collapse in support. As the scandal continues to unfold, the latest Kantar Sofres poll shows him at 22%, now falling behind the anti-immigration, anti-EU leader of the Front national (FN) Marine Le Pen (25%) and nearly tied with the independent centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron, a former Hollande minister (21%). Hamon, buoyed by his surprise Socialist nomination, drew 15% and Mélenchon drew 10%.
The fear for Republicans is that Fillon will be so damaged that he fails to make it to the May runoff (or falters against Le Pen in the runoff), but not so damaged that he must quit the race. A defiant Fillon in recent days has tried to hide behind his wife and railed against shadowy figures that he claims are trying to bring down his candidacy, and that he can provide proof that his wife’s work was legal and valid.
No one believes him.
French police raided parliamentary offices earlier this week, and investigators are closing in on the one-time frontrunner, whose odds of winning the election are plummeting.
Even if Fillon does drop out of the race, there’s no consensus Plan B among French conservatives. Juppé, the runner-up in the November nomination contest, would be the natural replacement. In fact, Juppé might even prove the more formidable candidate because he can bring more centrist voters to the Republicans than the socially and economically conservative Fillon. But he has ruled out stepping in as Fillon’s replacement. Though Juppé could change his mind, there are any number of potential candidates who could step in: Sarkozy himself, former ecology minister and Paris mayoral candidate Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet or former agriculture minister Bruno Le Maire. No one knows.
So where does this leave the rest of the field?
It’s great news for Le Pen, who has struggled to win more than 25% of first-round voters, who can now rail against the hypocrisy and corruption of the political elite. Even if Fillon drops out and Republicans find a replacement, ‘Penelopegate’ is a gift to the hard right, and more conservative voters will now be giving the Front national a second look. Le Pen herself is under a cloud because of her refusal to reimburse the European Parliament for €300,000 in misused funds.
Most immediately, Fillon’s collapse will help Macron, another vaguely centrist independent, though none of Macron’s message of neoliberal reform, avowed defense of the European Union and immigration, his background as an investment banker nor his recent record as a top aide to Hollande and former industry minister in Hollande’s government seem to fit the current moment of populism and nationalism. Fillon also hopes to win over centrist voters who feel Hamon veers too far from the Socialist Party’s social democracy and too close to hard-left bona fide socialism.
Fillon’s collapse might also give another center-right figure, François Bayrou, an opening. Bayrou, who has run for president three times in the past and is something of a gadfly in French politics, still managed to win 18.5% of the vote in the 2007 election (against Sarkozy and Royal). Without a strong conservative in the race, Bayrou could still emerge as the sole moderate untainted by Hollande’s deeply unpopular Socialist government. Though he has downplayed the likelihood of a fourth run, Bayrou hasn’t completely shut the door, and Fillon’s collapse could give him the platform to reconsider.
As it turns out, a center-right figure known for his tough talk on ‘law and order’ and immigration who has served for years as prime minister to the most deeply unpopular president in modern French history was probably never the best bet to lead the French left into the 2017 presidential election.
Furthermore, with few signs that they are likely to prevail in the presidential and parliamentary elections later this year, party members in France’s (barely) governing center-left Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party) seem to want to use this month’s presidential primary as an opportunity to draw a line for the party’s future — not to choose the most credible future president.
That explains how Benoît Hamon, a 49-year-old leftist firebrand, came from third place to edge both former prime minister Manuel Valls and former industry minister Arnaud Montebourg in the first round of the Socialist presidential primaries on January 22. Party voters this weekend will choose between Hamon and the 54-year-old Valls in a final runoff to decide the official Socialist standard-bearer in the spring’s presidential election.
During the primary campaign, Hamon, an avowed fan of US senator Bernie Sanders, openly called for a universal basic income of €750, making him one of the first major European politicians to do so. At a time when many French reformists argue that the country must abandon the 35-hour workweek it adopted in the year 2000, Hamon wants to lower it to 32 hours (and for his efforts, has won the support of the author of the 35-hour week, Martin Aubry). Hamon would scrap the current French constitution and inaugurate a ‘sixth republic’ that would transfer power away from the president and to the parliament, the Assemblée nationale. To pay for all of this, moreover, Hamon would introduce higher wealth taxes and a novel tax on robotics that approximates an ‘income’ attributable to the work done by such robots.
Faire battre le coeur de la France. Make France’s heart beat.
Though Hamon has often been reluctant to discuss the role of France’s growing Muslim population, he has nevertheless pushed back stridently against Valls for stigmatizing French Muslims (including the ill-fated ‘burkini’ ban introduced after the Nice attacks). Valls, for example, was one of the few members of his party to support the burqa ban in 2010, and as prime minister he attempted (and failed) to strip dual-national terrorists of French citizenship.
While Hamon’s ideas are creative and imaginative, representing the cutting edge among left-leaning economists, for now they seem unlikely to win a majority of the French electorate. Nevertheless, Hamon’s victory signals that the Socialists — much like the British Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn — will be veering far to the left in the future. Depending on the circumstances, Hamon’s rise could soon formalize an increasingly severe rupture between France’s hard left and France’s center-left.
No matter who wins the Socialist primary runoff on January 29, however, the Socialist candidate will be competing against two other figures of the broad left. The first is Emmanuel Macron, a charismatic figure who served as economy and industry minister from 2014 to 2016, when he left the government to form an independent progressive and reform movement, En marche (Forward). In bypassing the Socialist primaries altogether, it’s Macron who may have ‘won’ the most last weekend. The second is Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the candidate of France’s communist coalition, the Front de gauche (Left Front).
Polls consistently show that Macron is in third place and rising, floating just behind the center-right candidate of Les Républicains, former prime minister François Fillon and the far-right, anti-immigrant candidate of the Front national, Marine Le Pen. Both Hamon and Valls languish in fifth place in those same polls, often in single digits, behind Mélenchon. Leading figures in within the Socialist Party (including 2007 presidential candidate and environmental and energy minister Ségolène Royal) have already all but announced their support for Macron.
If Valls wins the runoff, he risks losing votes in April from the Socialists’ leftists supporters to Mélenchon.
If Hamon wins the runoff, he risks losing votes in April from the Socialists’ centrists supporters to Macron and, indeed, it’s even possible that Macron’s supporters voted in the primary for Hamon to engineer this precise outcome.
Still other long-time Socialist voters, frustrated by income stagnation and joblessness, like what they hear in Le Pen’s economic nationalism and antipathy to both the European Union and immigrants from further afield.
François Hollande’s decision not to seek reelection should have been a no-brainer. He’s obviously a drag on his party, the Parti socialiste, and he should have cleared the path for potential successors months ago, given his massive unpopularity.
Before taking a look at what this means for the 2017 presidential contest, it’s worth noting how spectacular the last two weeks of French politics have been — two of the seven presidents of the Fifth Republic have now been vanquished altogether, their careers ended. Au revoir, Hollande. Au revoir, Nicolas Sarkozy.
Looking to the future, Hollande’s decision now clears the way for his prime minister, the once very popular (now less so) Manuel Valls, a 54-year old, Spanish-born official who previously served as interior minister with a reputation as a tough-guy reformer on the center-right of the Socialists. Hollande’s decision gives Valls the green light to proceed without adding to the considerable bad blood between France’s president and prime minister. Continue reading What Hollande’s decision not to stand for reelection means→
After a four-day delay between Gabon’s election and the announcement of results — an interval that saw an increased military presence in the capital city of Libreville and across the country, and that brought an Internet blackout that blocked access to Facebook and other social media outlets — protestors set the national assembly ablaze Wednesday and an opposition headquarters has been bombed in what could become a sustained stalemate between president Ali Bongo Ondimba and challenger Jean Ping over Gabon’s next government.
When the results were finally announced amid the tense post-election climate, Ali Bongo had won reelection to a fresh seven-year term, albeit by a narrow margin. That would sustain the governing Parti Démocratique Gabonais (PDG, Gabonese Democratic Party) in power through 2023 — incidentally, far longer than the PDG governed as the only party in a one-party state.
Gabon, a country of nearly 2 million people, is rare in that its nGDP per capita of nearly $8,300 (per the World Bank’s 2015 estimate) is far higher than most of sub-Saharan Africa, thanks to its oil wealth. That’s given the Bongo family, since the first decade of Gabon’s post-independence history, the resources to run the central African country, nudged on the western coastline south of Cameroon, as a family fiefdom. Up to a third of the country, nevertheless, lives in poverty as a result of the unequal distribution of oil profits.
Ali Bongo was first elected in 2009, following the 46-year rule of his father, Omar Bongo, who had governed the oil-rich central African country since shortly after it won independence from France.
His challenger, Ping, is a 73-year-old veteran of Gabon’s government who served as Omar Bongo’s foreign affairs minister from 1999 to 2008, president of the UN general assembly from 2004 to 2005 and who chaired the Commission of the African Union (the African Union’s executive and administrative arm) from 2008 to 2012. Ping’s father, Cheng Zhiping, was a Chinese businessman who emigrated from Wenzhou to France, where he worked for a time in a bicycle factory, and finally to Gabon, where he married and raised his family. After leaving the African Union in 2012, he turned both to the private sector and to Gabonese politics, resigning in 2014 from the ruling party and making plans to run for this year’s election. But Ping was once even married to Omar Bongo’s daughter Pascaline and had two children with her. Until two years ago, he would have represented exactly the kind of status quo that many Gabonese voters want to change. Though Ping has strong ties to China and is internationally well known, it’s not clear that his top priorities would be reducing corruption or political and government reform.
Historically Gabon has been a classic kleptocracy, and Omar Bongo ruled the country as his personal fiefdom and one of the most enthusiastic proponents of Françafrique, which normalized often shady connections between French and colonial political, financial and other vectors. French oil companies would extract Gabon’s post-independence oil wealth, and Elf Aquitaine, the former French state oil company, would some of Gabon’s oil proceeds to a special personal slush fund for Omar Bongo and the Bongo family.
While Bongo introduced multiparty elections in 1990, the benefits of incumbency (and an array of tricks to deny opposition candidates funding, to refuse equal access to media and other state resources and to deploy tribute to voters during election campaign) kept the Bongo family easily in power, even after Omar Bongo’s death in 1990.
Three factors made the August 28 presidential election in Gabon surprisingly close — and will continue to shape what could be days, months or even years of political uncertainty.
First, Ali Bongo’s hold on power is far weaker than his father’s ever was, though he served as a longtime figure in his father’s regime. Though he managed to win election after Omar Bongo’s death in 2009, it was after a closely fought contest against several officials who had also figured prominently in previous Gabonese governments. In the current campaign, Ali Bongo’s opponents claimed that he wasn’t even Gabonese — instead, a war refugee from Nigeria clandestinely adopted by Omar Bongo. The president’s supporters have dismissed it as akin to the ‘birther’ movement that inaccurately claimed US president Barack Obama was secretly born in Kenya (and not in Hawaii). Moreover, voters in 2016 may have grown weary of the Bongo family, more willing to take a chance on limited change in the form of a Ping-led government.
Second, 81% of Gabon’s export wealth — and 43% of the country’s GDP and 46% of government revenue — derives from oil. Needless to say, the past two years have been economically difficult for Gabon as global oil prices remain depressed. It hasn’t helped that China, one of Gabon’s chief trading partners, is suffering an economic slowdown and, accordingly, there’s far less demand for Gabon’s oil as well as its iron ore deposits. Ping, throughout the campaign, has attacked Ali Bongo’s efforts to diversify the Gabonese economy as widely inadequate. The problem goes even deeper for Gabon, though, because it reached peak extraction in 1997 and its oil production has steadily declined since. Gabon in 2014 was producing just 240,000 barrels of oil a day, making it the world’s 37th most oil-productive country. In a decade or two, Gabon’s oil wealth might be extinguished completely, leaving the country struggling to maintain its current level of development.
Finally, several rivals in the final days of the campaign, including former Bongo prime minister Casimir Oyé Mba and former National Assembly president Guy Nzouba Ndama, dropped out of the presidential race in a coalition designed to unite the anti-Bongo movement behind Ping’s candidacy. Under Gabon’s election rules, the candidate with the most voters wins — period. There’s no second-round runoff or the requirement that a candidate win a 50%-plus absolute majority. That gave Ping and the opposition a real chance of overtaking Ali Bongo.
Together, those reasons explain why Ping and his supporters remains so skeptical about the results, announced after several days of delay and after an ominous military mobilization that’s now in danger of tilting into widespread violence.
It shouldn’t have been a surprise to Ping’s camp that the government announced a narrow victory for Ali Bongo. Nevertheless, it shouldn’t have been a surprise to Ali Bongo’s supporters that Ping would placidly concede defeat. European Union observers said that the vote count ‘lacked transparency.’ But there’s ample evidence that the narrow margin of victory (of around just 5,500 votes) might be explained in full by possible fraud in Haut-Ogooué, the eastern-most of Gabon’s nine provinces, much of it bordering the Republic of the Congo (Brazzaville) and, most notably of all, Ali Bongo’s home province.
There, mysteriously, 99% of the electorate turned out (compared to a national turnout rate of around 59.5%) and supported Ali Bongo with 99.5% of the vote. The discrepancy makes it almost certain that Ali Bongo would have fallen short of victory in a legitimate election.
That leaves Gabon in a political state of emergency, because Ping and the Gabonese opposition seem unlikely to back down in the face of obvious electoral fraud. The question now is whether Ali Bongo is willing to deploy real force, however, in a bid to hold power at all costs.
Though the idea of Gabonese democracy has made some gains since 1990, a prolonged conflict between Bongo and Ping supporters could easily erase those gains. Unlike countries like Ghana, South Africa, Senegal, Kenya and even Nigeria, Gabon’s central African neighbors have all been loathe to adopt truly competitive democracy. In neighboring Congo-Brazzaville, president Denis Sassou Nguesso, president since 1979 (excepting one term between 1992 and 1997) easily won reelection with over 60% of the vote in March after revising the country’s constitution to remove a two-term limit. Few observers have much faith in the elections scheduled for November 27 in central Africa’s largest state, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where Joseph Kabila is defying term limits to run for reelection and where leading opposition figure Moise Katumbi has already been sentenced to jail.