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→
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.
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 socialiste (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.
In France’s previous two regional elections, in 2004 and 2010, the center-left Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party) easily won nearly all of the country’s 22 regions.
That was typical for France’s regional elections, which typically tilt against the party in power nationally, and the Socialists were very much out of power in both years. In the most recent March 2010 elections, the Socialists (together with its allies) won fully 21 of the 22 regions in metropolitan France. Alsace, on France’s border with Germany, supporting then-president Nicolas Sarkozy’s center-right instead.
What a difference five years can make.
Today, the Socialists are in power, though president François Hollande and prime minister Manuel Valls have some of the lowest approval ratings in the history of France’s Fifth Republic. Despite a solidarity bump in support following last month’s terrorist attacks in Paris, that did not carry over into support for the Socialists in Sunday’s regional elections. Instead, the far-right, anti-immigration Front national (FN, National Front) of Marine Le Pen emerged with the largest share of the vote, leading in six of France’s 13 metropolitan regions after the first round on December 6.
When minor parties are eliminated for the second round on December 13, however, it’s entirely possible that the Socialists and Sarkozy’s rechristened Gaullist center-right Les Républicains will split so much of the vote that the Front national wins control of one or more regions in the country. The far-right’s success is historically significant, because it’s by far the most support that either Le Pen (or her father, the former Front leader) has won in a national French election.
Marine Le Pen has gradually tried to detoxify her party’s anti-Semitic roots (in part by banishing Jean-Marie Le Pen, the party’s founder and her own father from the party earlier this year). With doubts about the European Union’s economic and security leadership and a French populace that’s lived through two jihadist attacks since January, Le Pen’s ‘fortress France’ approach to politics has brought it into the French political mainstream. In additional to the Front‘s traditional supporters, Marine Le Pen has made some inroads with young voters, who are suffering from massive unemployment as a group, and from disillusioned leftists in France’s industrial northeast, who are angry with Hollande’s failure to improve the French economy.
While last Sunday marked a very impressive performance for France’s far right, it’s hardly a sign that Le Pen’s Front is necessarily in position to win the 2017 presidential election — or even that the Front is now a permanent third force in French politics. For at least three reasons, it’s worth taking a deep breath before drawing any broader conclusions from the result of the first-round results. The Front may lead in six regions for now, but it certainly will not wind up controlling six regional councils, and there’s a chance that it may fail to win power in even a single region after next Sunday’s second-round voting. Continue reading Why French regional elections don’t really matter→