France 2017: Quel Serait-il? (Encore Un Fois)
After a tumultuous year in France, characterised by terrorist atrocities, economic slough and stubbornly high unemployment, the race to decide the next president of the Republic is reaching the final straight. Last year, I surveyed the wide field of runners for the Palais de l’Élysée: a year on, events have resulted in the most fragmented and unpredictible race that France has ever seen.
Some things are certain. Firstly, President Hollande will not be staying in office. Whilst his tenure began with high hopes of economic recovery and a drop in unemployment, in reality the violence and joblessness of the last five years have ensured his candidacy was always doomed. As the least popular president France has ever had, victory was always exceptionally unlikely this May; in standing aside, Hollande has at least done the decent thing and allowed another to try and win for the left.
The right, in contrast, has two strong and profoundly concerning figures vying for the presidency, neither of whom should be allowed to win without a fight. Of the two, Marine Le Pen is without a doubt the worst — head of her vicious, racist party the Front National, she would turn the French state into nothing more than a tool to harass and attack Muslims. The FN aims to break up the EU and import into Europe the worst excess of Trump’s political philosophy; no matter who ends up in the second round, Marine Le Pen cannot be allowed to win. Francois Fillon, the surprise nominee for Les Republicains is preferable to the FN, but his hardline Thatcherism would see hundreds of thousands of people lose their jobs and years of social liberalisation come to a grinding halt.
With Jean-Luc Mélenchon leading his movement, “Unsubmissive France” — a motley crew of far left parties — the only unselected candidate is for the Modem, a centrist liberal group. The nomination for the Socialists has produced Benoit Hamon, a surprisingly popular figure from the left who backs cannabis legalisation and a minimum basic income, having rejected Manuel Valls, the moderate former prime minister between 2014 and 2016. However, so hamstrung is the PS by the legacy of President Hollande, neither of those who ran for the nomination was ever likely to do well enough to get to the second round and challenge for the presidency. Hamon’s unorthodox ideas — whilst he is popular with his party, he attracts very little public suppot — may see the PS drop into a distant fourth or even fifth place.
This is a serious problem for France — if the two most popular tickets in the first round are the LR and FN nominees, then Fillon will win the presidency in a landslide of tactical voting, an effective rerun of 2002. An FN victory would be a catastrophe, and the first priority of all France’s voters should be to prevent this. This does not make a win for Fillon anything better than the lesser of two evils, however. Being elected in a potenial landslide will give the LR candidate the illusion of an overwhelming mandate, which his divisive ideas do not deserve.
For those who believe in a progressive, open society, the only choice remaining is Emmanuel Macron. A centrist liberal, his success in business led him to be included in Valls’s government until his resignation last year. Young, energetic and leading the inclusive En Marche!, Macron may be the ideal figure to challenge the FN/LR duality and offer France a real choice in these upcoming elections. With PS so divided, moderate voters will flock to Macron’s promises of reform, both economic and social. If the Modem, led by Francois Bayrou, get behind Macron’s candidacy then there is a real chance that his ticket might garner more votes than the FN, locking them out of the run-off and allowing for French voters to choose out of hope, not simply fear. Indeed, Bayrou would be an obvious choice for Prime Minister, leading the sort of moderate, technocratic cabinet that would be favoured in a Macron presidency.
However, the reality is that the FN are riding high in the polls, with it more than possible that they will win the first round. Le Pen’s scapegoating of Muslims is bigoted and savage, but in a country transfixed by the fear of terrorism and questions of law and order, her message is attracting well over a quarter of the population. Above all, she cannot be allowed to win: for the sake of European unity, the values of the French Republic, and the lives of millions of people within and without the country, she must be defeated. If this means ushering in Francois Fillon, then so be it — as was said in 2002, vote for the crook, not the fascist.