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The wide open space of the French elections

This is a good time to review the dynamics of the French presidential elections.  The results will dramatically impact EU cohesion, the possibility of EU reforms including treaty change and, last but not least, the revival of the Franco-German relationship. Is it too soon to write Fillon off? Who benefits? And what of the nightmare scenario of a Le Pen win and possible Frexit?

The new French landscape

The French voting public have essentially defenestrated all of the known quantities of French political life: President Hollande wisely ruled himself out, but Nicolas Sarkozy, Alain Juppé and Manuel Valls, all political heavy-weights, were roundly discarded in the space of a couple of months. François Fillon was the last one standing but, in a move that, in many ways, reflects that of other western electorates, the French seem to be intent on cleaning house.

As a reminder: François Fillon came well ahead of Alain Juppé in the Republican primaries in November. His unexpected, but thorough, victory against someone thought to be a safe pair of hands and a pleasingly centrist candidate, took everyone by surprise. The aftermath of the primaries saw Fillon consolidate his position as ‘President in waiting’ as most analysts foresaw a duel between him and Marine Le Pen in the second round. Some commentators floated the idea that Fillon’s robust right (catholic, moral, ‘bourgeois’) would undermine Le Pen. This always seemed unlikely: Le Pen’s electorate is not particularly Catholic; it is not the moralising bourgeoisie of Paris and the Centre who swell the ranks of the FN, but the fed-up petty bourgeoisie of the south of France, and the resentful working class in the east and the north of the country. As an indicator of Fillon’s key policies: keen on liberal labour market reform, not so keen on abortion and same-sex marriage. This ticks no boxes with the FN, in the sense that these boxes don’t even really figure.

But now Fillon, whose history of relentless moralising aggravates his case, turns out to have behaved like a slightly naïve, cut-price Trump, employing both his wife and his kids for jobs either barely done, or simply not done at all. Where, oh where is any proof of Penelope actually doing work for him (‘I never saw her’ says a former aid)? As one tweet asks: “François! Just show us an email – anything – that proves she was doing something!”. His failure to foresee how this might become problematic in an age of forensic media scrutiny, followed by his failure to own up, and topped by a week of mealy-mouthed defence couched in outrage have seen his support plummet.

So, whatever small handful of voters Fillon might have stolen from Le Pen, it’s fair to wager that he has lost quite a few more to her given a behaviour that validates everything that Le Pen suggests is wrong with the current French political class.  In fact according the Les Echos’ poll while Fillon has gone from 28% to 20%, Marine Le Pen has increased her percentage by three or four points to 27%.

The new dynamics

So who stands to benefit in the long term? Apparently Emmanuel Macron. Already on a steady climb, the apparently unstoppable former Finance Minister is now seen as a serious contender in the second round. Voting intentions for him have risen to 20%, up from 12% in December. Young, competent and enthusiastic, Macron is both the heir to a ‘social-democracy-that-could-have-been’ under Strauss-Khan (had he not been so thoroughly disgraced) and the recipient of the hopes of both centre-left voters eager for a more active, modern and dynamic French politics, as well as a centre-right that would have always felt reluctant vis-à-vis Fillon and appreciates Macrons’ banking credentials. This recent poll suggests that many who had supported Fillon anyways, are now happy to switch allegiance to Macron.

The Socialists have selected Benoit Hamon (today on 17%), a former education Minister under Hollande – who was sacked from the government for his radical left stance. Signature policy: universal basic income. To Valls near-hysterical secularism, Hamon offers a more modern ‘let-people-wear-what-they-like’ attitude that may not get him elected, but is a welcome relief from the Valls’ stridency of the past few years. However, let’s be clear: Hamon is the candidate of the Socialist rebels who were a thorn in Hollande’s side. Willing to enter into a broad alliance of the European Left, and no friend of budgetary discipline, Hamon’s come hither looks are reserved for Southern Europe rather than Germany. He is no French Jeremy Corbyn –more astute, more experienced and far more conciliatory. But his selection clears the way for Macron by guaranteeing him the support of the more liberal minded left.

If Macron plays his cards right and maintains the centrist momentum.

Part of playing those cards right is a) being able to both claim experience while remaining untainted by his contribution to Hollande’s failed Presidency; b) finally putting some meat on his electoral programme. So far Macron has been light on proposed measures – claiming that he doesn’t want to be a slave to precipitation. But the election is 81 days away (as I write) – and some detail would help finally solidify his position; c) this means towing that line so delicate in France for a liberal: conscious of the importance of the state, whilst able to reform a sclerotic set of rules. So far there is every sign that if anyone can do it someone, like Macron, who combines high level private sector experience with that of Minister of Finance for a socialist government, is ideally placed. But it is partly dependent on his capacity to turn the momentum gathered from his hybrid position (of the left, but not of the Socialists; at the helm of a movement [En Marche – see what he’s done there?], rather than a party) into solid support. This last issue is one of Macron’s few real weaknesses: having the machine ready for the Legislative elections to be held a few weeks later. 

So what of the Le Pen wild card?

Much as I’d like to tell the standard tale of a populist ‘domino effect’, the fact is that I don’t think Madame Le Pen is on the cards. Our conversations and research – even in FN strongholds – lead us to believe that something is shifting in France. And this has as much to do with the renewed hopes buoyed up by the thorough thrashing of all the old guard and by Macron’s soaring popularity (built in part on the carefully developed narrative that he is the ‘credible outsider’ to Marine Le Pen’s nasty one), as it does with internal FN dynamics – including those of its electorate – the latter seeming to escape external observers.

Marine Le Pen has clearly benefited from some of the same dynamics that have propelled populist agendas centre-stage in western economies over the past few years: a perception of growing inequality, rising concerns about freedom of movement, the aftermath of the financial crisis, and the obvious inability or unwillingness of centre-left parties to deliver the goods that native, working class voters have traditionally aspired to: welfare protection, security, and a promise of a better life for their children. In the face of the French government’s inability to restore employment and growth, as well as its tentative (but failed) reforms, those afraid of immigration and those of afraid of unemployment have embraced the FN as new form of politics that would privilege them – over the elite. This has propelled the FN to about 6 million votes in 2014, and promises to deliver somewhere between 25% and 30% of the vote to Marine Le Pen in April.

But, it’s worth pointing out that 25% – 30% is a tricky bracket: at 30% she’s definitely in the second round, at 25%, she’s not – simply because of the expected scores of Macron, Fillon (if he stays the course) and Hamon. This is not so much a fragmentation of the Left (of the kind we saw in 2002 and which brought her father to the second round against Jacques Chirac) as an evening out across the political parties, an electorate relatively evenly divided. So, however chilling, the second round of a major election in a major European economy will be in part determined by participation, minor events, and luck. But Marine Le Pen is no shoe-in.

If she makes it to the second round, then what? I would say, then, probably, nothing. She would fail against all of the candidates she would face. Possibly less dismally against a candidate of the Left, but the hypnotic nightmare brought to life by some of the media and some of France’s most gifted novelists, will not take place.

It is here that the legislative elections (on which far too few people are focussing) become interesting. Some have suggested that they would serve as an exutory for all of the dashed hopes of FN voters in the aftermath of the presidentials. This view, I think, under-estimates what the FN voters have been sold – which is victory in the Presidential elections. For the FN, this is a make or break moment. If Marine, even with an honourable score, fails to make it there will be widespread consternation inside the party, and amongst her voters, to whom everything has been promised. Furthermore, the FN is a deeply divided party, with many putting up with Marine Le Pen’s strategy (a strategy led by Le Pen’s trusted adviser Florian Philippot—almost universally despised within the party) only on condition that she deliver (grateful to Joel Gombin for these insights). If she doesn’t, then border-line FN voters and the softer support may not mobilise for the legislatives; and without it she’s nowhere. The FN currently have two seats in the French national assembly; They are aiming for 50, which is an incredibly high number. With or without the traditional ‘Front Républicain’ (lock-down across parties to block the FN), they will struggle to reach these figures no matter what (most observers predict about 20 seats), and all the more so if the presidential elections are ‘disappointing’. Finally, it would be foolish to discount the possibility of damaging information about the FN surfacing at this crucial time: The FN’s finances are notoriously opaque – not just in terms of loan provenance (some from Russian banks) but also in terms of their organisation with respect to personal liabilities both with regards to Le Pen father and to Marine Le Pen. All of this has been a matter of suspicion for some time, but as the US elections have shown – and of course the revelations about Fillon – no candidate should get too complacent.

The interesting paradox is that either Marine Le Pen shatters every possible ceiling on the first round, or she has failed—she has placed herself in a binary and almost untenable situation. And unlike Trump, or the results of a referendum, we have a long trail of data on the FN and its voters, and it seems, to say the least, unlikely, that Marine Le Pen would buck the trend of the past few years. It’s a long way between 30% and 50%… something to which even Donald Trump can attest. Barring a catastrophic event (a major terror attack for instance), what we might be seeing is the onset of crisis in the FN – something to which the party is no stranger.

So the most important point here is that Marine Le Pen only has one shot: she either breaks through the 50% barrier on the first round, or she is nowhere. This is a relatively new scenario that comes from the cards having been so thoroughly re-shuffled recently. The likelihood of her cleaning up in round 1 is, barring any major scandal or attack, at about 10%.  This is non–negligible, but it does mean that, while she has had a disproportionately large impact on French *politics* she’s not the most important person in the *race*.

Improbable scenarios

 A number of scenarios could potentially have an impact. The first, what if Fillon is replaced by Juppé? Is  even a possibility? Asked about this yesterday, Juppé ‘it’s not on the cards at the moment’. A rather sibylline turn of phrase. If the Républicains were crazy enough to try this, then it is doubtful that voters would follow suit. Replacing a currently scandal tainted politician with one who was not only defeated, but who has had his own brushes with justice seems like doomed choice. The floated name is François Baroin, former Budget Minister and Overseas Minister under Chirac. A light-weight place holder. It looks as though, now matter how damaged, Fillon might still be the best bet.

Second scenario, what if the real radical left (Mélenchon) were to do particularly well; This would dent support for Hamon, but wouldn’t be of great consequence.

Third, possible scenario, long-time, long-suffering centrist candidate François Bayrou, threatens to make a comeback. Like a piece of gum stuck to an electoral shoe, Bayrou this would be Bayrou’s fourth attempt to run for the Presidency (2002, 6.4%; 2007, 18.57%; 2012, 9.13%) always as a centrist candidate. Should he now stand, this would take roughly 1% from each of the current candidates.

Lastly, it’s worth asking how this lot will fare during the debates. Fillon was calm and convincing during the primaries, it’s quite possible however, that if he does make it that far, he may be rattled and belligerent. Something which would only further dampen his appeal.

Hamon, came out fighting in the Socialist primaries and managed to convey both dynamism and a relatively relaxed attitude which did him no end of good in contrast to Valls’ aggressive tone. But in the context of a race for France’s highest office however, such a performance would immediately brand him as inexperienced. As for Macron, we know he is gives a good interview, but has not yet found his feet as an orator. Everything will depend on his being able to maintain both dynamism and gravitas – a balance he has had difficulty in striking in the heat of the moment and which has sometimes led him to unfortunate, vociferating heights.

Ironically, Marine Le Pen might be the only real known quantity: and we know that she manages a bulldozer like calm in the face of questioning. Her deep voice and slow turn of phrase (in contrast to her father’s flights of rhetoric) have become the hallmark of someone who has spent years establishing herself as presidential.   Yet, the fact that French voters are familiar with her now, may be both an advantage and an impediment: she no longer seems so fresh.

The new French outlook

So then what of the governance outlook? What happens after these elections? It’s clear from the way in which the French electorate has mobilised over the past few months that there is a deep eagerness to shed the image of the stale-mate state, to reclaim a position in Europe, to put the terrorist attacks behind.

This desire for a break had been until very recently a monopoly of the FN, but it is no longer the case. The primaries – the Républicains ones, but also the Socialist ones and this in a country where this is a very recent tradition – have mobilised supporters who, a few months ago, were in despair. Macron’s momentum, his talent aside, is also a sign of this wish for a different political settlement.

Our work across France over the past few years – dozens and dozens of discussions and focus groups – suggests deep transformations; some of which have been very visible in the form of support of the FN, but also vital green shoots in entrepreneurialism, in reasoned flexibility, in expectations and in the carving of a different Europeanism, different but more at ease with itself. The FN, finally has real competition in the market-place for renewal. In no way do we under-estimate the FN’s capacity to mobilise – it is a threat, and should they be able to make good on this threat, we know the kind ‘ungovernability’ that this would give rise (though it must be said that the spectacle of Trump is not something that will appeal to the softer FN support—which Le Pen needs and which explains in part her latest declarations on climate change, designed to signal her difference from Trump); but as things stand, what looks to be on the cards for France is renewal – especially under Macron.

Despite Fillon’s early courting of Angela Merkel, it is probably Macron who would do most for to stabilise the Franco-German partnership Merkel’s support for Fillon has been discreet, their deep differences over Russian sanctions and his track-record under Sarkozy seem to have made her lukewarm. Macron’s bold evocation of a European sovereignty, his placing of the Franco German couple at the heart of Europe, his willingness to entertain treaty change and to reform the Euro should reassure investors. Should Schultz play a prominent role in German politics, Macron is also well placed to build on their relationship, since his is the pragmatic Europeanism of a new generation.

A final note – the outlook for France is perhaps brighter than anyone would have thought a few months ago.  Despite the ups and downs, the scandals, and the horrendous attacks that France faced in 2016.  But one difficulty does remain: the make up of the National Assembly after the presidential elections.  Not necessarily because of the presence of the FN, but simply because cohabitation (an Assembly dominated by a party opposed to that of the President – a situation that arose between 1986-1988; 1993-1995, and 1997-2002) is not out of the question.  Such a situation tends to spell indecision and blockage as executive and legislative branches tend to be at logger-heads.  This depends in part on the size of the legislative majority–and here we could see some strange alliances between protectionists of the hard left and protectionists of the hard right to block things like labour market reform or trade union reform. However, the French executive can be strong if it chooses to be – and it certainly has leeway in foreign policy matters and thus European matters.  Let’s hope the genuine appetite for change over-rides the quirks of the 5th Republic.

This could mean reform, and a renewed role on the world and European stage, and possibly, a safe port in Europe for investors.

Catherine Fieschi is the Director of Counterpoint


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