Britons have become used to those professing to lead us having no plan. Muddling through seems to lie at the heart of British public policy.
In France the idea remains that there must be A Plan. But even there it is rare, as with any contact sport, for plans to stay on the rails. I have been writing this article on the 2017 French Presidential election for more than ten days, but the situation has been too fluid for me to be confident that it would not become obsolete within minutes.
At the moment, though, things are calm enough to offer a snapshot.
This election had an unusual beginning as both Left and Right agreed to select candidates through primary elections. While this was intended to avoid public hostility towards deals in dark corridors, the process left the parties at the mercy of more committed and extreme elements and unknown non-members whose motivation for taking part remains unclear.
So I’m not sure if the open primary selection process was such a great idea. It produced considerable heat, air and theatrical media coverage. It offered the public extended TV coverage of debates featuring some of the world’s smuggest politicians, mostly educated in the elite institutions of Paris. At a time when there is a strong populist backlash against elites, a stage-managed barrage of smirking did not go down well. Consequently, the establishment candidates who were expected to win, didn’t.
The Right, Les Republicains, who held what many considered to be a successful event, chose François Fillon, the Prime Minister during M. Nicolas Sarkozy’s rumbustious presidency. M. Fillon is billed as a Christian conservative who believed that state-socialist, benefit-happy France is long overdue for a Thatcherite revolution. This is a recipe for prolonged unrest in large parts of the country and M. Fillon must prepare for a great deal of loin-girding if elected.
The Left chose a fundamentalist socialist, Benoit Hamon, a Jeremy Corbynish figure, earnest and harmless, who wants to legalise soft drugs, legalise euthanasia and extend the generous activity of the state. Few believe he will get beyond the first round. The retiring socialist President, Francois Hollande, has become what all politicians dread more than death itself, a general figure of fun, and he has taken his party with him. History may be kind to M. Hollande but the current damage is deeply rooted and will take time to repair.
But there were two major candidates who refused or found it unnecessary to subject themselves to the lottery of the primaries.
Emmanuel Macron resigned last year from his position as economy minister in Hollande’s government to found his own party, En Marche, with the express intention of running for the Presidency. He says that he is neither Left nor Right. I heard him described on the radio the other day as la chameleon politique, thereby confirming his Blairite credentials. The Socialists might be relieved that he is no longer a party member and cannot wreak the havoc that Mr Blair visited on Labour.
The redoubtable Marine Le Pen continues to lead the family business, Le Front National, unchallenged. She loves being the bête noire of both the centre Right and their establishment colleagues on the Left. She is considered by many to be France’s worst-case scenario, who will do to France what Donald Trump is doing to the United States.
Against immigration and free movement, sworn to the “drain the swamp” of the self-serving elite, opposed to the globalisation that she believes has ravaged the French economy and the lives of French workers, and determined to take France out of the European Union, Marine Le Pen stands at the heart of this crucial election.
If she does not win this time, so the narrative goes, with the influence of Trump’s victory and the unexpected success of the Brexit campaign, she never will.
So, with seven weeks to go until the first round election on April 23, there are three serious candidates and four overriding questions. Assuming that Le Pen wins the first round, who can stop a surge for Le Pen in the second round? How can France be protected from further terrorist attacks? What should be done about the perception of massive immigration? And how can the sluggish French economy be revived, encouraging a more dynamic enterprise culture while keeping the current balance of social protection?
M. Fillon talks tough — he is, after all, the Thatcherite candidate and being tough comes with the territory. However, his campaign ran into considerable difficulty when the weekly Le Canard Enchaîné (The Chained Duck), the French counterpart to Britain’s Private Eye, published allegations concerning the bogus employment of his family as administrative staff paid for by the taxpayer. It is normal for family members to work for politicians in France, but fraud involving public funds is very badly received.
Fillon’s campaign, whose narrative portrayed him as the morals candidate, has stalled badly and he now is running third in the polls. Les Republicains are split over whether to support him or to ask him to do the decent thing and stand aside. But there is no credible replacement. None of those defeated by M. Fillon in the primary wish to step into the breach.
Nor does M. Fillon appear to have any intention of backing down. He seems to believe that by carrying on and waving the sword of truth in the face of his “politically motivated” accusers, he will display Strength of Character. This may be true, but many remember M. Sarkozy calling him “M. Nobody” when he was Prime Minister. And M. Fillon himself torpedoed this fantasy one week after the scandal broke by denying everything and then offering a vague apology. His candidature is now all about the drama and not his party’s vision for the future.
Les Republicains are running out of time and out of hope.
If M. Macron were standing for office in the UK he would already have been destroyed by the tabloids. Not only does he represent the Third Way, while in today’s Britain there seems to be only one way, but his wife Brigitte is 24 years older than him. They met at the school where she was a teacher and became a couple, officially, when he was 18. In Britain this background would have killed his candidacy stone dead but in France it is considered very French, notwithstanding some sniggering at the back of the classroom.
Although Michel Houellebecq, arguably France’s most important writer, has described M. Macron as a “mutant”, he is young, dynamic and new. His rallies are well attended and he is an energetic orator. He is aggressively pro-EU, pro-globalisation, and pro-engagement with the world, standing as an antidote to the Trump/Brexit world view. He wants to continue the work he started, under Hollande, of modernising the French economy without the brutal sacrifices proposed by M. Fillon.
The French political establishment distrusts him, as he has circumnavigated their privileged system. But now that M. Fillon’s dreadnought is sinking fast beneath the waves, M. Macron is the only only credible opponent to Marine Le Pen. He is positioning himself as the light against the darkness of the Front National. As he now is coming second in polls for the first round, he could canter to victory in the second.
Marine Le Pen’s “France First” campaign is following a predictable national socialist path. It has been all relatively reasonable so far, compared to the ranting campaigns led by her father in the past and the chaos being preached by the Right in both Britain and the US.
She appears to be confident as she watches most of her opponents implode. The Front National’s main weapon is, as ever, fear of immigrants. Bombs, machine guns and mass murder by truck on the promenades of Nice could have a profound effect. That is, after all, the general idea of terrorism.
The continuing threat of Islamist attacks is a godsend which allows her to quietly say, “I told you so”. Tension in the suburbs adds to the sense that France is under a siege laid by illegal immigrants whose poverty is the fault of no one but themselves.
And yet… Politics is a cruel game, often stealing the prize from one’s grasp at the moment of victory. Le Pen’s problem has always been reaching her maximum vote in the first round without being able to raise it any higher in the second. The other parties’ voters could easily swing behind her opponent and once again make her the gallant loser.
This year’s presidential election will be historic. If M. Fillon drowns, the second round will be fought by two outsiders with diametrically opposed visions of the future. Whoever wins will lead France away from five decades of predictable power-sharing between an elegant establishment on the Right and an elegant establishment on the Left. French voters are holding their breath to see what happens next.
Ronnie Smith is a British writer. At present he is living in Languedoc, France.