The Financial Express

A challenging time for the French establishment

| Updated: October 23, 2017 11:25:02

A challenging time for the French establishment

The French will elect a new President in April or May. The first round of the election will take place on April 23 and if no candidate fails to secure a majority of votes, then the two top candidates will face each other in a second run-off on May 07. This election will be a test case to find out how deep the far-right political force has established its root in France in challenging the French establishment.  In the backdrop of BREXIT referendum in the UK, and the election of  Donald Trump as the US President of the USA, just who gets elected with what kind of political orientation will be of great interest to many political observers both within and outside Europe.
 French elections are normally a two-party contest like in most western democracies between the conservative Les Republicains and the left-oriented Socialist Party.  But in this election all bets are off as four front running candidates are vying for the Presidency who include Francois Fillon (Les Republicains), Benoit Hamon (Socialist), Marine Le Pen (Front National) and Emmanual Macron (Independent). There are other candidates but their chances are extremely slim.
Francois Fillon, a practising catholic,  has emerged as the leading candidate for the 2017 election as President. President  Francois Hollande's Socialist Party went down in tatters after a disastrous term of  office. Hollande has turned out to be one of the least popular presidents in the country's history.No wonder that he is not seeking a second term.  But Fillon himself is now in serious trouble after a French semi-satirical weekly Le Canard Enchaine claimed that his wife  was paid  half a million euros to do a parliamentary job which never existed (rumour has it that a vengeful Sarkozy was the likely source of the leak).  He was charged a few days ago with several offences following the fake job scandal. The story is real but timing is suspect as the facts are many years old. 
However, bringing down Fillon  will increase  chances of Macron who is gathering increased support from the right of the socialists  as well as from the neo-liberals. Fillon, the early favourite, is now vying for the second spot in opinion polls with Macron. Fillon is an admirer of Margaret Thatcher. That tells a lot about him and his economic and social policy. He is going to cut half million public sector jobs, do away with 35-hour week and cut the wealth tax. In foreign policy, he is in favour of dealing positively with President Putin, the idol of the European fascists and helping President Assad to ensure the safety of the Syrian Christians. In essence, Fillon draws his ideas from the same cesspool of ideas as does Marine Le Pen.
Benoit Hamon, dubbed as Jeremy Corbyn of France, is the left leaning Socialist candidate. He has rather a radical left agenda given the climate of extreme right-oriented (populist) political leaning in the country. His agenda is built around a universal monthly payment for all French citizens regardless of income, to tax wealth created by robots, ditch the labour law passed last year that made it easier to hire and fire and he also wants to legalise cannabis.
Marine Le pen, the far-right candidate, is definitely taking a very different direction. Her party Front National (FN) is an  integral part of the rising far-right neo-fascist movement in Europe. She was the leading light at an European gathering of far-right neo-fascists held recently (where many news organisations were banned from attending) in the central German city of  Koblenz to chart out their joint "vision for a Europe of Freedom". She stood  shoulder to shoulder with Frauke Petry of the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany, Geert Wilders of the Dutch anti-Islam Freedom Party (who describes Islam is the communism of today and if Islamisation is not stopped the West will lose its identity) and Matteo Salvini of Italy's anti-EU Northern League. She is riding high on the current wave of patriotism (ultra-nationalism) and anti-globalisation sentiment. She will take France out of both the European Union and the Euro. She will cut immigration to 10, 000 a year and recruit French citizens only for jobs. She is against free trade and unfair competition. She is also anti-NATO. She is in essence anti everything that the French establishment stands for.  Currently she also faces investigation over campaign financing and misuse of money at the European Parliament. But she has refused to reply to summons from judges over her parliamentary expenses case.
Emmanual Macron, a former  merchant banker (Rothchild Bank), was President Hollande's minister for the economy but resigned from his position  last August and established his own new centrist party  called En Marche' ( on the Move). He declared himself  "neither of  Left nor of  Right, but for France''. But his tenure as the minister for the economy proved him to be pro- business and also an economic liberal. He never held any elected office. He supported deregulation of certain industries and ending 35-hour week for younger workers but on the left on social issues. A few days ago the Paris prosecutor's office has opened an investigation involving favouritism in awarding a contract by his ministry. At this point he is not targeted personally and denies any wrong-doing. 
France, which in its modern history has had five monarchies, five republics and 16 constitutions, is in political turmoil. Some are now demanding a new constitution -the 17th one. The current Fifth Republic is virtually a republican monarchy with a powerful president with a downgraded parliament. The electoral system gives voters and politicians a second chance not so much to reconsider their choices already made but more to react to the choices already made by others. The end result is:  in the first round, one votes for the candidate one wants and in the second round, the same person votes against the person he/she fears or dislikes. 
The present French system is in crisis as a sizeable section of voters are disillusioned with the establishment parties and looking for alternatives coming from outside the establishment in the form of Marine Le Pen. Her party's main support comes from the rust belt regions with high levels of immigrants. She possibly can count on a third of French electorate. On my last visit to Paris about a year and a half ago, arriving in Gare du Nord from London St. Pancras by Eurostar gave me the feeling that something was not right. The station was dirty and smelled. The boulevards around the station were full of homeless people and refugees.  I also encountered many Bangladeshis there. When I made inquiries about the situation around Gare Du Nord, I was told this is not the best part of Paris. This  is a kind of  Parisians being in a kind of self-denial mode. The situation has not changed at all rather is getting worse from  the information I gather from people visiting Paris in recent times. True, there is also other side of Paris with its beautiful little cobbled streets, chic cafes and grand boulevards lined with grand buildings with magnificent architectural designs and grand monuments. It is possibly the one of the most beautiful cities on earth. But you feel there is an all pervasive sense of despair.
France appears to be on the brink of a political revolution. The establishment candidates are in serious troubles. Similar to the UK and the US, candidates portraying themselves as not part of the establishment have very strong appeal to the voters. The French electorate is now left with largely three main contenders, Fillon, Le Pen and Macron. Fillon is battling to stay in the presidential race with his compromised position; Le Pen is portraying herself as the true outsider and making sure that the electorate view other candidates as  part of the political establishment.  Macron is also trying hard to portray himself likewise as an outsider but of a different kind. He is largely seen as an establishment insider. The final run-off is likely to  take place between Le Pen and Macron. The latest opinion poll shows  Macron and Le Pen on 26 per cent  each and Fillon on 20 per cent. But victory of either of them (Macron or Le Pen) will bring two different sets of  problems - even crises. In the case of Le Pen, her victory will lead to strikes and violent demonstrations by those who see themselves as the defenders of the Republic against fascism paralysing the country. On other hand, if Macron wins he will be a one-man band without much support from the parliament. He will pursue the liberal economic reforms which will arouse strong opposition. Politicians, both on left and  right side of politics, will like to see him fail - and he is likely to fail.  So the political and  economic crises  in France will continue.

The writer is an independent economic and political analyst.


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