The French believe in the rule of 3s. The domino effect that led to Brexit and Donald Trump’s victory in the US has boomeranged towards Europe – with its strongest echoes audible in France, as time inches closer to the Spring 2017 Presidential elections. After Britain and the United States, France could be the third major power to experience a once-inconceivable shock election stoked over grievances over economy, culture and ethnoracial identity.
Should the third pin fall, it would be no small cause of concern. The French president has more vested powers than any other European leader. Should the conflagration of populism prevail in France, it could seriously threaten the existence of the EU, which is unlikely to survive a “Frexit” – a booming demand and election promise of the France’s center and far right. With President Francois Hollande’s ailing ratings and the ranks of his ruling socialists in turmoil, the current opinion polls show that Far Right candidate, Marine Le Pen, will likely face a final showdown with the Republican primary race winner, Francois Fillon.
Le Pen, leader and presidential candidate of the far-right, nationalist, populist and anti-immigrant National Front party, is widely expected to make it to the final round of the Presidential race. Under her leadership, National Front softened its “demonised” image and took a few, significant steps away from its dark, 20th century chapters to cultivate a broader electorate. Meanwhile, Francois Fillon, right-wing hardliner and a former Prime Minister under President Sarkozy has resoundingly won the popular vote to lead France’s center-right Les Républicains in the Presidential elections. He, who was perceived as an irrelevant longshot when he announced his candidacy in April 2015, beat his more moderate competitor Alan Juppe by a wide 33-point margin.
Notably, he is leading almost all current polls ahead of Le Pen’s FN and the incumbent center-left socialists. What is most remarkable is that Fillon’s credo can hardly be distinguished from Le Pen on three key subjects of this election: Islam, immigration and Foreign Policy. Not unlike Le Pen, he vows to “conquer Islamic totalitarianism”, write immigration restrictionism into the constitution and cultivate stronger ties with Russia. He is a personal friend of Vladimir Putin (Le Pen is interestingly Pro-Putin as she sees him as a good Islamist killer). “By French standards, he’s a radical — a stance covered up by his establishmentarian past and relatively quiet manner.”, writes Zack Beauchamp in the Vox. If Fillon wins, France is likely to see a slashing of its generous welfare state, clampdown on immigration, restrictions on gay couples’ right to adopt and a lean-in towards Putin’s Russia on issues of Ukraine and Syria.
Fillon’s victory is a cause of concern of French citizens who are wary of Trump’s victory in the US and about the tack towards a political right. His popularity points towards the contemporary trend of center-right parties espousing elements of far-right, and in process, mainstreaming them. The rise of right in France has been concurrent with a lot of French citizens feeling victimized by globalization and immigration. Anxiety has been rife over ongoing mass unemployment, especially among the youth. The recent refugee crisis has further strained France’s relationship with its Muslim population, especially in the wake of prominent terrorist attacks in the last two years. In this tussle over French identity and the place of Islam within it, it has been easy for politicians to charge scapegoats and rouse nostalgic sentiments of an imaginary, idyllic French past. Under these circumstances, the resurgent Christian right which dislikes diversity and opposes progressive social developments such as gay marriage has been steadily gaining ground. One way or another, the upcoming political climate is likely to bring a lot of work for the protesters and activists in France.