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Tuesday, 14 March 2017

French presidential election 2017 - The "Big Five" and a perplexed electorate

The French presidential election is turning out to be one of the most confusing and unpredictable of recent times.

And it’s really not surprising that,  according to many of the (innumerable) polls, there are a sizeable number of French who are still unsure as to how they will vote - at least in the first round April 23.

Of course, many of the leading candidates have their hard core supporters - but none of them is guaranteed a place in the second-round head-to-head.

What follows is not a (huge sigh of relief) poll and, admittedly, far from being scientific. It’s a recap of the five main contenders (in reality there are only three) to be this country’s next president. The comments are based on observations - something more than just a chat to the taxi driver on the way from the airport after being parachuted in to a country - from someone who lives among the French and hears their fears, confusion as to what might or might not happen in this year’s presidential elections.

The "Big Five" French presidential hopefuls: Marine Le Pen, François Fillon, Emmanuel Macron, Benoît Hamon and Jean-Luc Mélenchon (collage of YouTube screenshots)


Perhaps the best-placed (again according to those omnipresent polls) to make it through the May 7 run-off is the far-right Front National’s (FN) Marine Le Pen.

Along with her faithful lieutenants (such as Florian Philippot), Le Pen has made a pretty good job of what the media calls “dédiabolisation” or “de-demonising” the party in terms of its image: giving it a veneer  of respectability, positioning itself as an anti-system alternative to “politics as usual” and broadening its electoral appeal.

In essence though, for all its nationalist and populist bluster about how it would do things differently if in power, the party would still be at the mercy of a political and institutional system (and all its inherent flaws and self—serving perks).  The FN also remains fiercely anti-immigration (a sugar-coated way of saying xenophobic and anti-Islam) implausible on economic policy and typically protectionist - although given recent global events such as Brexit and The Donald’s election in the United States, that might well be seen as an attribute.

The party is also a peculiarly “family business”.  Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie, was its founder, her partner, Louis Aliot, is one of its vice presidents and her niece, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, one of its two members in the National Assembly.

The right wing (although the party still insists on portraying itself as representing the Right/Centre-right) Les Républicains’ François Fillon was for many months the political pundits favourite to face Le Pen in the second round.

His overwhelming victory in the party’s November 2016’s primary provided him with a virtual “boulevard” to the Elysée: well that was the proverbial common wisdom. He would make it through to the second round and, even though he might have a hard time convincing those who had voted for leftwing parties in the first round, there was no way they would allow a Le Pen victory. In much the same way as Jacques Chirac had sealed success against Jean-Marie Le Pen in 2002, so Fillon would be assured of doing (but less emphatically) in 2017.

But then it all well pear-shaped. The man who had always taken the moral high ground and presented himself as almost “whiter than white” found himself embroiled in “the Penelope gate” fiasco, suspicions that his Welsh-born wife and two of his children had earned hundreds of thousands of euros for “fake jobs” as his parliamentary assistants.

“If a presidential candidate is indicted - no matter for what reason - he (or she) cannot possibly maintain the trust of the electorate and must withdraw from the race” of his earlier campaigning became “I have become the victim of a media witch hunt and “I’m going to see this out to the very end”. A neat reversal of what he had said just months earlier. So much for consistency and integrity in French politics.

And then there’s Emmanuel Macron. His very strengths could also prove to be his weakness. He’s young (38) - perhaps too young for many to have that much needed gravitas of a Statesman. He not politically bound, even though he served as advisor and economics minister under the current president François Hollande, a man he is accused as having “stabbed in the back”. He has never stood for elected office before and his programme - yes he has one at last - for the longest time seemed vague: exciting but confusing - that mix of Centrist ideas that lack ideology (and dogma) and try to appeal to everyone and anyone (apart from the extremes).

Criticised by the Right as representing “Hollande redux” - and few French want a repeat performance of the last five years - and by the Left as not being Socialist enough, Macron has nevertheless managed to garner support from across the political spectrum with his movement “En marche” (On the move) - yes only the most confident (or arrogant) of people could give his political movement his own initials.

The media darling and golden boy of French politics has surprised many. His movement has gathered momentum but he lacks the structure of a political machine behind him. Sure, he could beat Le Pen if he makes it through the second round, but the transitory nature of his support - that so-called Centre - could also be his undoing.

So, what is the Socialist party up to? Well, it’s not so much fighting a presidential race as defining its own future as a party. In its primary it chose Benoît Hamon as the candidate. For many he’s “too Socialist”, too Utopian, offering the French what they want (to hear): no belt-tightening economic reforms (but no real guaranteed progress either). In fact more of the same as the country entrenches itself deeper in the beliefs of the past.

And Hamon is not drawing in the big crowds as he had hoped. The former rebel of yesteryear who resigned as Hollande’s education minister after just a few months in the job (what staying power) now finds himself confronted with his own rebels - hard-hitting party bigwigs who feel he is leading the lot of them into political oblivion and are (more than) tempted to throw their weight behind Macron. Result? Hamon has had to blow hot and cold on some of his core ideas such as universal suffrage.

Finally among those that really matter (and apologies for any other candidates who might obtain the necessary signatures to enable them to stand) there’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

If only this former Socialist party member could pull his act together and get over himself to join forces with Hamon, the Left might actually have some say in determining the outcome of the 2017 presidential elections.

But no, the angry old bloke of French politics (who has admittedly calmed down a fair deal since his campaign managers discovered social media) has an ideological path that doesn’t sit well with many inside the Socialist party. Oh yes - and an ego.

You see, and this is actually unusual in French politics - or any politics come to that, Mélanchon actually has (don’t say this too loud) principles. Employment rights, welfare programmes and a real redistribution of wealth to tackle existing socioeconomic inequalities actually mean something to him. And oh yes, he’s very anti-EU.

No wonder the French are perplexed. There’s no clear “leader” to guide the country over the next five years. Le Pen might well score highly in the first round but there’s still (hopefully) - at least on the Left - enough French who would do the “right thing” and vote tactically to keep her from winning the run-off.

Should she face Macron, it would be easier for those - Left and Right of the political spectrum - to swallow their pride and help the young pretender into office…no matter what their qualms might be about his leadership qualities.

But Fillon versus Le Pen casts quite a different picture. Distasteful Right against even more distasteful Far Right…and some might just be tempted to let the latter win simply by abstaining.

And that most unlikely combination of Macron against Fillon…heck, that’s just introducing another unfathomable element into the equation.


1 comment:

Patra Gaffar said...

Along with her faithful lieutenants (such as Florian Philippot), Le Pen has made a pretty good job of what the media calls “dédiabolisation” or “de-demonising” the party in terms of its image: giving it a veneer of respectability, positioning itself as an anti-system alternative to “politics as usual” and broadening its electoral appeal.
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