Jean-Vincent Placé is a French junior minister and a former Green senator. In June, he declared in the weekly newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche that he was absolutely convinced that François Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy, the two rivals way back in the second round of the 2012 presidential election, would face off again in 2017. Six months later, we saw Sarkozy fail to win the new-fangled primary election for Les Républicains (LRs), the right-wing party, and Hollande give up on a second term.
For this Frenchman, France is dangerously uncertain, challenged and threatened. Under a surface of pomp and democratic decency lies a vicious malaise. The EU, at least, may see that this is a once cuddly dog that may bite.
For the right, people were expecting Alain Juppé, a former Prime Minister (1995-1997), once convicted, to win the primary election and be the liberal candidate. The very cynical media review Acrimed even did a collection of press covers from the past two years: “Juppémania”, “why not him?”, “the best of us”, etc. Needless to say, then, that François Fillon’s victory was a big surprise for everyone, including himself. He blasted his opponent, gathering more than 66% of voters. Fillon is popular, despite his Droopy-face, his large grey eyebrows and his many mocking nicknames, such as Mr Pee due to his frequent unexplained absences from Parliament during important votes.
Supported by Christian fundamentalists, including traditional pro-life and pro-family movements like La Manif pour Tous (who demonstrated against same-sex marriage in 2013), Fillon definitely has conservative social and liberal economic ideas, teed up for uncertain France in 2017.
His Policy is to strip back the State: a €100bn savings programme on public spending, and the elimination of 500,000 public-servant jobs. Corporate taxes would fall, and the richest would certainly be pleased that Fillon wants to cut the main tax on personal wealth (ISF). He revels in attacking the main social advances engineered by the left: the 35-hour week, and the retirement age of 65 years – important legacies of socialists, François Mitterrand and Martine Aubry.
Fillon has ideas about social issues too: he wants immigration quotas (as did Juppé), to cut social welfare (including healthcare) for refugees, and to fight terrorism by stripping jihadists of their citizenship, which is actually impossible for those born in France. Despite his strong support for pro-life groups (and his personal opposition to abortion), he does not propose to abolish the law on same-sex marriage or to do anything to stop free abortion. However, he will put more obstacles in the way of homosexual couples adopting a child. While they would be able to adopt they could not pass on their citizenship or rights of inheritance.
By choosing Fillon, the Republican electorate clearly signalled its yearning for a more liberal and conservative axis, closer to the far-right Marine Le Pen and the Front National (FN) than centre-right democrats. Lefties, have a look at Fillon’s advisors and you might shiver: people come from Occident, a former Euro-supremacist organisation, or the GUD, a far-right racist and antisemitic student syndicate. Fillon made references during his campaign that he was born in the countryside from a “peasant’s family” (although he’s a deputy of… Paris), and a Catholic. The night of his victory, his spokeswoman was seen on TV… wearing a cross.
Jesus Christ, what have they done with laicism?
For Marine Le Pen, whom everybody is resigned to see in the second round of the election, it’s difficult to know if Fillon’s run is a good or a bad thing. Overtaking by the right wing is forbidden in France… but that’s exactly what the “Right with no complex” (according to former corrupt leader Jean-François Copé) is trying to do. Stealing the electorate of people who share Le Pen’s idea but are bothered by the smell of it. On the contrary, the Front national of Marine Le Pen has engaged in a process of “de-devilisation” of her party, based on the fact that they are against the establishment (cheers Donald Trump!). That’s probably why the party is not that worried that Fillon, a former Prime minister (under Sarkozy, 2007-2012) born and raised in it, might sink it.
On the left wing, things do not move as fast. The PS, like the Labour Party in Britain, sees itself as much a force for ethical progressivism as a political party hungry for power. Early December saw two big events: ‘Flamby’ (‘Pudding’) Hollande, the only politician in the world who could make jumping on a scooter to see your nubile mistress, unsexy, became the first President in sixty years to declare he would not seek re-election, and his Prime minister Manuel Valls announced his participation in the primary élection for the Left, in January. Valls is nicknamed the ‘lefty Sarko’ and unloved by the socialist electorate. When Hollande was elected, he became Minister of the Interior (just like Sarkozy had been) and directed a repressive policy on the Roma people, migrants and demonstrators.
After he became Prime Minister in 2014, he had to suffer several motions of no confidence from Parliament, and had to use the most anti-democratic articles of the French constitution to pass authoritarian and deregulatory laws. From the still-active state of emergency to the fractious clampdown on the Islamic burkini, and the El Khomri law on precarious work and employment, which generated street protests last March, ‘popularity’ is not Manuel Valls’ primary driver, at least for the moment.
Valls will be the candidate of power, facing other socialist candidates who represent the deceived and the angry. And if he actually wins, it is not clear the extent to which he will be supported by all those who spat on him for months. No bookmaker can really imagine the fractured and dysfunctional PS in the second round of the election, having eliminated either the LR or the FN.
As to the proto-fascist Marine Le Pen, France’s Trump – though if not more tolerant she is at least much more careful with language, she is facing internal, indeed familial, dissent on topics like abortion from the radical wing of her party, and especially her niece, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen. As a populist and nationalist of course many elements of her Platform are actually quite left-wing. She is anti-globalism, secular and sees a primary role for the government in health care, education, transportation, banking and energy.
The far-right electorate will probably be torn between Le Pen and Fillon, but we will have to wait for the beginning of their actual campaign to see how it will end.
In fact, French people are sick of politics. Or, to be more precise, sick of their politicians. Considering that, there are two possibilities: either people will vote for a moderate solution, between corrupt establishment and extremist bigots, or they will choose a more radical one.
Moderation could come from Emmanuel Macron,the very-nice-golden-boy-with-perfect-teeth, who stayed two years as Minister of Economy in a left government, despite “not being socialist”. A former banker at Rothschild’s, he is charismatic: after giving photos of his love story with his former teacher to tabloids, he resigned from the government in a very “Love Boat”-ish set up. In the end he left office in a yacht.
Macron could really make the difference, despite having been a member of the government of the despised Hollande to whom he is related. He’s open-minded, liberal, with a strong vision. He spent two days in the beginning of December in New York, visiting bilingual excellence schools and start-up hubs. His political movement is called ‘En marche! (On the march!), and he claims not to be right or left. Which is, to many people from the Left, a sign that you are from the Right. Underneath his image as ”sympathetic and close to the people”, he has often stumbled and revealed that he really is a man of the bourgeoisie and that he looks down on the proletariat. Calling working women “illiterate”, arguing that entrepreneurs have a harder life than employees and scornfully replying to strikers that “the best way to afford a smoking is to work”. Not a good way to seduce the voters from the middle and poor classes but dating back to Mitterrand (not to mention Strauss-Kahn with his pumping and indiscriminate loins), France has form in socialist hauteur.
However, he recently took a “humanist” turn, arguing that he wishes not to add more hours to the working week but to allow companies to decide the wage for extra hours. In the same spirit, he defended public servants, and claimed that he will bring back the neighbourhood policing that was abolished by Sarkozy in 2005 and that he will lower charges for the poor and the unemployed.
Let’s face it: France is not about to undergo a fourth Revolution, no matter what the young leaders of Nuit Debout, a movement established in March 2016 with the aim of “overthrowing the El Khomri bill and the world it represents”, may think. But today’s France grumbles against the establishment is definitely willing to change it, whatever the street protesters imagine. One mature path would be to change the way political France works: the Constitution. And that’s what Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leader of the Parti de Gauche (literally, the Left Party) promises if elected, since he began to run for president in 2012. He ensures that he will not stay as president for more than a day, summoning a popular Assembly to determine a new Constitution made by the people for the people. Of course, it’s radical and risky. The current Constitution has been working since 1958 when it was introduced by Charles De Gaulle. But for Mélenchon and many left voters, this Constitution is anti-democratic, making France one of the only Western countries where people directly elect the head of government, one who also has more power than the Parliament. A recipe for stablility indeed majesty but not for engagement or accessibility.
Mélenchon’s strategy to be close to the people – including his own funky Youtube Channel is bearing fruit: he’s one of the most popular politicians (or at least, the least hated). His ideas are all filtered by his supporters, La France Insoumise (Insubordinate France), and would provide for an energetic transition, the re-negotiation of EU treaties, and the guarantee of the right to abortion. But critics on the far left hold against him the fact that he didn’t wait for their approval to announce his campaign, behaviour that doesn’t, they claim, fit the ideas he supports. In the same way, he attracted the wrath of feminist activists for endorsing an infamous racist and misogynist forum that claimed to support him.
Perhaps the best we can do is not to make suppositions or assumptions, to avoid being in the situation of the ridiculous Jean-Vincent Placé, or indeed the Hillary and anti-Brexit prognosticators. At least, we can watch it like a good old soap opera. Even if peace and prosperity may be in the mix.
By Paul Verdeau