2017: A Terrible Choice for France

The stage is being set for a crucial Presidential Election in France next year, in which liberal progressivism is set to lose, and lose big.

François Fillon, candidate of the centre-right Les Republicains (Photograph: Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images)

It is looking increasingly likely that the Second-Round of France’s next Presidential Election will see far-right populist Marine Le Pen match up against the ‘hard-line’ right-wing François Fillon, the recently selected candidate of Les Républicains (France’s main Centre-Right Party). A contest that will, whatever the outcome, be a disaster for the progressive cause.

Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s nationalist Front National (FN), has long been on the radar of European progressives, as an example of their collective failure and as the embodiment of a resurgent far-right that must be stopped at all costs. However, the likely alternative, François Fillon, if polls are accurate, is an equally unattractive, stomach retching choice.

Fillon, a former Prime Minister under Sarkozy, is a right-wing reactionary, whose candidacy is borne out of the recent rise of ultra-conservative, religious, Christian movements in France. Such movements echo the anger and reactionary nature of the worst elements of the Tea-Party and Christian-Right in the United States — although such parallels are weak, as Fillon comes from a very-French tradition of conservatism.

Such conservative reactionaries are strongly socially conservative, utilising ‘family values’ to justify open and stringent opposition to same-sex marriage, adoption rights for gay couples, abortion rights as well as clearly rejecting any notion of a ‘multicultural’ France. Their impressive mobilisation on social media and organisation on the ground, were key reasons for the surprise landslide victories of Fillon in both the first and second rounds of the Les Républicains Presidential Primary in the last few weeks, beating former frontrunners Alain Juppé and former President Nicolas Sarkozy. The tensions and anger on the French right were best displayed in the personal attacks that surrounded the second round between Juppé, another former prime minister and current mayor of Boudreaux, and Fillon — in which Juppé, a moderate candidate, embracing the “happy identity” of diversity and firmly denouncing anti-Muslim sentiments, was subject to an online hate campaigns, some of which nicknamed him “Ali Juppé”.

Fillon’s ability to capture this angry, rural conservative base is reflective of a more widespread ability of the centre-right to respond to and shape the political narrative, whilst liberals and progressives struggle to provide effective answers to people’s fears over social liberalisation, globalisation and immigration. Fillon’s message was one carefully constructed after three years listening to the concerns of right-wing voters — synthesising them into a hardline campaign for significant reductions in immigration, the restoration of Catholic conservative values, an overhaul of labour laws and big cuts in public sector jobs. Such an effective message, unless the left can turn things around fast, is likely to propel him through the first round of next year’s Presidential Election into a match up against Le Pen and the far-right — to which he is far from an effective antidote, due to his similar policies and ‘establishment’ background.

So how, however unlikely, can the left effectively respond and prevent this calamitous choice next year? The left’s chances of getting into the second-round ballot have significantly improved following President Hollande’s decision to not seek a second term, last Thursday, however there is still much to do.

Hollande would have been a terrible choice for the left, entering an election with the worst approval ratings of any French President in history would have been a recipe for disaster. Such dissatisfaction is largely due to Hollande’s failure to improve France’s calamitous economic stagnation, despite attempts at economic and labour market reforms and his widespread abandonment of much of his more radical policies earlier in his Presidency. These dissatisfactions however, mark very firmly the divisions in the wider French Left — with pro-business and pro-reform elements matching up against more reactionary and radical figures, across a myriad of different parties. The current situation, will see a significant element of the French population still voting for the left, but since their votes will be divided between many different candidates from different parties — it will be impossible for anyone to amass the 26~28% necessary to guarantee a spot in the second round.

The solution seems obvious: a progressive alliance — an alliance between the Front Gauche, The Greens, Parti Socialiste and Macron’s En-Marche!. Such a grouping, however, has already been tried before on a more local constituency by constituency level in 2012, to lock out UMP and FN candidates. Talks fell through, however, due the differences between elements of the parties being too irreconcilable. The solution, must therefore be more traditional — a strong socialist party candidate — especially since the Front Gauche’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon will, despite the attractiveness of his left-wing populism, never garner enough support. Thus, the burden falls on Emmanuel Macron, a former Economy Minister in the Second-Valls Government, as the only the left candidate who is popular enough and not too tarnished by Hollande’s presidency, as Manuel Valls is. To do this, Macron must put his own ambitions to run from the outside to one side, in the name of the greater good, and run in the Parti Socialiste primary in January — becoming the candidate of both the largest left party and his own En Marche! Movement. Only by doing this and limiting the ‘spoiler effect’ among the left, is there a chance of a proper choice and progressive outcome, to what would otherwise be a terrible choice.

Emmanuelle Macron at an event hosted by his En Marche! Movement. (Credit: PATRICK KOVARIK / AFP)

This article was written for and published in Bath Impact’s December 2016 edition. Bath Impact is the University of Bath’s student newspaper.

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