2017 French Presidential Election

One of the most significant trends of post-GFC Europe has been the electoral decline of the establishment Left. Facing tough economic reforms and high levels of immigration, traditionally socially conservative blue-collar workers are beginning to abandon social democratic parties in favour of populist right-wing ones. Left-wing metropolitan voters, seeking a more radical alternative, are also opting for more progressive and anti-establishment parties, squeezing the Old Left from both the left and the right. With a divided opposition, the primary beneficiary of this has so far been the centre-right, which has adopted stronger stances on immigration and on economic liberalisation to ward off threats from the right.

This tactic has so far been successful. In Britain, after a resurgent Jeremy Corbyn defeated an attempted leadership coup against him, the Labour Party is sinking to 30-year lows in the opinion polls, while the Conservatives are reaching highs not seen since they were in opposition during the 2008 recession. In Spain, conservative Mariano Rajoy defied expectations and cast the Socialists into chaos by forming government late this year, despite strong opposition by the anti-austerity Podemos alliance. In Austria, the Netherlands, Poland, Italy and Switzerland, establishment Left parties are suffering similar fates, as disillusioned voters move away from traditional social democratic parties.

This trend is certainly observable in France. François Hollande, the incumbent Socialist President, has decided not to seek a second term following a tumultuous and vague presidency. With a single-digit approval rating, it was always unlikely that M. Hollande would have been competitive in the first round of the presidential election in April. Several terrorist attacks, unpopular ­­­labour reforms and changes to the pension have shrunk the Socialist Party’s base, which has suffered egregious defeats in local and regional elections throughout his term, and in the 2014 European Elections where the Socialists were pushed into third. The areas where the Socialist party once dominated, particularly in the south-east and north are increasingly strongholds of the National Front. In the centre, west and north-east, the Republicans pushed out the Socialists as the dominant party, while Paris remains dominated by the Socialists. Winning these areas in the first round will be critical for the Republicans to secure either first or second place, which cannot be taken for granted in an especially volatile electorate such as France.

The initial frontrunner for the Republican candidacy was the conservative Nicholas Sarkozy, former President and minister in the Chirac administration. Following the Bastille Day attack in Nice, Sarkozy made it clear that he would favour nation-wide bans on the ‘burkini’ and a tougher stance on immigration. Determined to win back the presidency from Hollande, he announced in August that he would run once again. While his tough stance on national security and Islamic immigration initially seemed to place him in the lead, he suffered a shock defeat to the centre-right François Fillon, and the more centrist Alain Juppé, Prime Minister in the 1990s. In the second round of the primary, Fillon humiliated Juppé in a decisive victory. It was always unlikely that Juppé, an older candidate who struck a more centrist tone, would defeat the more conservative figure of Fillon, whose views on immigration seemed more attuned to the general attitude on the right.   François Fillon, a conservative Catholic, economic liberal and a fan of Margaret Thatcher, seems an unlikely fit for France. But he has built a strong lead in early opinion polls (29% to Le Pen’s 25%), and voters seems reluctant to hand over power to the National Front, a party with a very disreputable past. If he is to win, Fillon must stay true to his principles on economics while also satisfying the voters disenchanted with France’s high levels of immigration.

Once in the second round, Fillon cannot assume voters will make the same choice they made in 2002, when the Socialists urged their voters to rally around ‘the crook’ Jacques Chirac to defeat ‘the fascist’ Jean-Marie Le Pen (Marine’s more radical father). In contrast to Fillon’s economic liberalism, Le Pen, if she enters the second round, will likely run to the left and oppose Fillon’s extensive labour reforms. She is already preparing to do this, adopting a blue rose as her party’s symbol (appropriating the traditional red rose of social democracy). Le Pen is also making inroads in the public service, especially in the police and the military, among whom she won more than half of in the 2015 regional elections. These voters will likely unite around Le Pen’s opposition to public service cuts and Fillon’s plan to end France’s 35-hour work week. The National Front may also attempt to contrast Fillon’s strong Catholicism with France’s secular character, the defence of which is a pillar of the National Front’s plan to deal with Islamic extremism.

With the unpopular Hollande stepping aside, the most likely Socialist nominee is Manuel Valls, Prime Minister from 2014 to early December this year, and a self-described ‘Blairite’. Valls’ weakness on national security (notable for saying after the Nice attacks that ‘France is going to have to live with terrorism’) and on immigration will push more socially conservative voters in the south-east away, while his perceived centrism on economic matters will sway left-wing voters towards Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a former communist running under the democratic socialist banner. An outsider who may well surpass the Socialists in the first round is an independent, Emmaneul Macron, a former minster under Hollande and the youngest candidate (at 38) in the race.

Whoever wins the second round in May will face significant challenges in their five-year term. Economic stagnation in Western Europe continues, and political instability in Portugal and Italy may engender further uncertainty in the Eurozone. The death of aging Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who is wheelchair-bound following a stroke in 2013, would likely cause a political vacuum that would plunge France’s southern African neighbour into chaos. If a third front in the Migrant crisis were to open, the pressure on the Schengen area may simply be too much, and the very existence of the European Union would be threatened.

The establishment Left has proved itself incapable of manoeuvring and reforming in the face of threats on the left and right. The European centre-right must succeed where its ideological counterpart did not, and adjust its message to the concerns of voters while staying true to conservative principles. The right, however, cannot afford to put the interests of the European Union ahead of the interests of its own respective citizens.

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