By Matthew Findlay
In three months’ time, France holds its next presidential elections. The country is still on edge – it has been in a state of emergency since the Paris attacks in November 2015. Voters will have the choice between several candidates on the 23rd of April, before the two highest scoring amongst them go head-to-head in a run-off scheduled for the 7th of May. These elections differ from previous ones however, as the traditional two-party dominance of the system looks likely to be usurped.
With disapproval ratings at 75 percent, the incumbent Francois Hollande has read the national mood and opted not to run for a second term in the Elysée. The subsequent socialist party primary was won by left-wing candidate Benoit Hamon, a former education minister who resigned from Mr. Hollande’s government. Mr. Hamon’s campaign is centered around helping France adapt to a changing world. He argues that the very definition of work is evolving, but that this can be managed through various means. For instance, he advocates the taxation of robots in order to compensate for the automation of jobs. This would partly fund the main axis of his campaign: a universal income for all citizens. He claims this income would be rolled out in three stages: first he would increase the current benefits received by the poorest French citizens, before extending the basic income to all French citizens between the ages of 18 and 25. Finally this income would be rolled out to all citizens over the age of 18.
However, Mr. Hamon is in the tricky situation where he must defend the previous five years of government, while also distancing himself from its more liberal policies that alienated a large part of socialist voters.
On the right, the UMP’s Francois Fillon, who served as Prime Minister under Nicolas Sarkozy, aims to revive the French economy by liberalizing its labour market and shrinking the public sector. He advocates cutting taxes for businesses, abolishing the 35-hour week and raising the retirement age to 65. Mr. Fillon is presenting himself as the sober alternative to the other candidates, the responsible candidate who will trim France’s deficit which was 3.9 percent of GDP in 2014. Previously a favourite to win the presidency, he has become embroiled in a scandal over employing his wife as a parliamentary assistant. This practice is not in itself illegal, and has been relatively common amongst French officials. However, at a time when Mr. Fillon is openly asking voters to tighten their belts and accept that difficult times lie ahead, these revelations have been particularly damaging. Even his most ardent supporters are disappointed by the allegations against the man who was widely regarded as a clean, honest candidate.
It is looking increasingly likely that neither the socialists nor the UMP will make it into the second round.
It is looking increasingly likely that neither the socialists nor the UMP will make it into the second round. The vote on the left is split between Mr. Hamon and his more left-wing opponent Jean-Luc Mélenchon, whilst Mr. Fillon is struggling to shake off the allegations made against him.
Instead, two other candidates – Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron – are currently leading in the polls.
The former is looking to ride the wave of the rising feeling of anti-globalisation that led to Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. Mrs. Le Pen’s campaign certainly echoes Mr. Trump’s. She appeals to blue-collar workers in the North of France, who were previously staunchly socialist. She vows to protect their social security rights from Mr. Fillon, and restrict immigration to protect their jobs. As part of her efforts to reduce illegal immigration, for instance, she has voiced that France should no longer provide free education to the children of illegal immigrants.
She vows to restore monetary sovereignty to France by pulling out of the Euro, and wishes to offer an in-out membership of the European Union if her attempts to renegotiate France’s membership of the European Union fail. She has succeeded in shifting the centre of French politics rightwards on security issues, one example being the endorsement by both Mr. Hollande and his then-Prime Minister Manuel Valls of the stripping of French nationality from dual citizens convicted of terrorist offences. This proposal did not make it through parliament, but the fact that this long-lasting National Front policy was supported by major actors from both traditional parties is testament to the effect of Mrs. Le Pen’s influence on French politics.
Her campaign has struck a chord with those who feel left out by the effects of globalisation. She is campaigning “in the name of the people”, and combines an anti-free trade agenda with the promise to strictly enforce French values, for example by extending France’s ban against religious symbols in schools to all public spaces.
Apart from Mr. Fillon, her main rival now appears to be Emmanuel Macron. Mr. Macron is running as an independent for his movement En Marche! A former investment banker at Rothschild, he also served as Minister of Economy in Francois Hollande’s government. Following his resignation in August last year to found En Marche!, a movement “neither on the right, nor on the left”, he quickly garnered an enthusiastic cross-party following. He is running on a liberal, pro-European platform, supporting free trade and looser labour laws. Indeed, he was the architect behind the controversial law, known as la loi Macron, that was aimed at liberalizing the labour market.
Despite having never been elected, Mr. Macron has a real chance of becoming the next President of France in May. A recent poll suggested that of mainland France’s twelve regions, Mrs. Le Pen would come top in nine of them, and Mr. Macron would win the other three.
The irony is that both Mr. Macron and Mrs. Le Pen decry the very system of which they are both pure products. The former studied at the Ecole Nationale d’Administration, the prestigious French school which trains senior civil servants, whilst the latter is the President of a party formed by her father, and has been in politics for over thirty years.
French voters appear to be forgiving, however. After five years under Nicolas Sarkozy, and five years under Francois Hollande, there is an uneasy feeling that the country is not headed in the right direction, and that it is time for fresh blood and a change of course. Whether the mainstream parties truly will flounder at the first hurdle remains to be seen. The campaign is only just starting.