In France, President Hollande’s utter failure to foster broad consensus for structural reforms has paved the way for the most contested election in decades. While public debate focuses on the 2nd round winner, the real story is that Marine Le Pen’s agenda has already shifted the French political landscape.
In recent polls, the French presidential rivalry involves 3-4 viable candidates, which together account for 85-90 percent of the total vote. Until recently, the leader of the Front National, Marine Le Pen, and the centrist Emmanuel Macron, have each garnered about 25 percent in the polls. The two are followed by the center-right François Fillon, who has about 20 percent, and the socialist Benoît Hamon, with 15 percent.
While Le Pen may win the first round, she is not likely to win the second round, in which her popular triumph would be likely contained by a coalition of her adversaries. Yet, the future belongs to Le Pen’s agenda which the next president must coopt to win – and coopt to sustain victory.
Who’s afraid of Marine Le Pen
The French presidential election will take place in late April, but the real winner will be chosen in the second round in early May. Even if Le Pen won the first round, the consensus is that a centrist or a center-right candidate will win the second round.
Marine Le Pen (49) is the youngest daughter of the veteran FN leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, a French far-right politician who supported euro-skepticism, opposed immigration and pushed for law and order, traditional culture and values. As long as he led the FN, it was a marginal far-right, anti-Semitic party with politically incorrect neo-Nazi associations. In the past decade, Marine Le Pen has successfully “mainstreamed” FN away from the margins and extremism. Nevertheless, she has had difficulties funding her campaign because of the opposition of every French bank to her political platform.
In her campaign, Le Pen continues to support traditional values, law and order, while opposing immigration and the EU. As her campaign kicked off, Le Pen pledged a fight against “two totalitarianisms, globalization and Islamism” that seek to “subjugate France.” Running in the name of the French people, she reaffirmed the FN’s anti-immigration, protectionist and anti-EU stance. “The divide is not between the left and right anymore, but between patriots and globalists,” she said. “Financial globalization and Islamist globalization are supporting each other. Those two ideologies want to bring France to its knees.”
Le Pen wants to pull out of the Euro and a return to French franc, a referendum on EU membership within 6 months, and taxes on imports and the employment of foreigners in France. Building on Gaullist legacies, she is a critic of and wants to pull France out of the NATO. She would like to revise French relations with the U.S. and has denounced French bandwagoning toward Washington. Her France needs greater independence, believes in a multipolar world and neo-gaullist geopolitics.
The three anti-Pen musketeers
Emmanuel Macron (40) is a self-proclaimed proponent of a “third way” and the product of the elitist École nationale d’administration (ENA). After a stint as an investment banker at Rotschild & Cie Banque, he served in Hollande’s socialist governments, where he advocated business-friendly reforms that were a poor fit with Hollande’s socialist constituencies. Like Blair and the Clintons, Macron tends to support whatever is expedient at the time, whether it has been Rotschild’s neoliberal profits or Hollande’s bureaucratic socialism.
Married with his 24 year older high school teacher he first met at 15, Macron’s personal life and policy stances remain ambiguous. Last November, he declared that he would launch a social liberal bid under the banner of En Marche!. In public, this was legitimized as a new Clintonesque-Blairian ideology; in practice, it was necessary because Macron had alienated socialists while failing to gain enough support among conservatives; he lacked a party platform.
Of the key candidates, Macron is the ultimate Europhile and federalist, although he sees himself as EU-agnostic. He supports integration and structural reforms. In controversies about immigration, secularism, security and terrorism, Macron has favored a balancing act, which accounts for the perception that he avoids taking any stances. Ironically, that makes him valuable to neoliberal business, Brussels and Washington.
Born into privilege, François Fillon (63) became nationally known as President Sarkozy’s Prime Minister. Already years ago, he undertook controversial reforms of the labor code and the retirement system. He represents conservative Republicans (previously Sarkozy’s Union for a Popular Movement, UPM), France’s largest center-right party. Last fall, Fillon still seemed to appeal to the conservative “silent majority” in France, but that was before a widening embezzlement investigation following charges that he had paid his wife and children almost 1 million euros from the public payroll for little or no work. Rather than resign, Fillon attributed all blame to a “smear campaign” and has stayed in the game.
Just as Fillon thought he could get on with his presidential campaign, he was recently hit by more claims of financial irregularities as Canard Enchaine disclosed that he has also received an interest-free, undeclared loan of 50,000 euros from a French billionaire tycoon in 2013. If Fillon can remain afloat, he could prove a minority kingmaker in the second round – unless centrist forces can agree on a unifying candidate.
Known as an “Anglophile,” Fillon is a French Thatcherite. He would like to balance the budget and abolish the wealth tax. He would raise retirement age to 65 and reduce the public sector by cutting half a million civil-service jobs. He holds tough views about immigration, Islamic radicalism and terrorism. As a believer in realpolitik, he has called for dialogue with al-Assad’s Syria and Putin. “In a Trump era,” he says, “Europe must spend more on military.” While he stands for the West, he sees the expansion of NATO to Russia’s borders in the 1990s as a provocation that was bound to alienate Moscow and foster redundant friction.
The last viable candidate is Benoît Hamon (49), a French socialist (PS) who defeated the centrist and business-friendly Manuel Valls in the party primaries. While he is portrayed as a new figure, he is a veteran party bureaucrat and has served in the European Parliament (2004-9), Hollande’s Junior Minister for the Social Economy (2012-4) and Minister of National Education (2014).
Hamon supports a basic income to all French citizens, a 35-hour workweek, legalization of cannabis and euthanasia, and huge investments in renewable energy. Unlike recent socialist leaders who have managed to widen the gap between business-friendly and pro-NATO social democratic leadership and the socialist and NATO-skeptical grassroots constituencies, Hamon represents the left wing of the PS and is an admirer of US Democrat Bernie Sanders. He is critical of neoliberal myths and the NATO.
In contrast, the more leftist Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who heads the new “Unsubmissive France,” would like France to leave both the euro and NATO. While Mélenchon has barely 10%+ support in France, the two might align to achieve a unified left position in May. Nevertheless, after years of Hollande’s failed policies and plunging ratings, all socialist candidates face a steep uphill.
Coming shifts in French policy stance