With the first round of the French presidential polls scheduled for April 23, it is election season in France. So far, this election is like no other before it, with a systematically strong showing by Marine Le Pen of the National Front in all polls. A far-right president is now a distinct possibility.
This particular election, with its cast of unlikely characters, its doses of scandal, police raids and judicial investigations, and a narrative that includes calumny, betrayal and suspense, resembles a political drama rather than the straightforward exercise of universal suffrage. It certainly has the French riveted. In a first for a leader of the Fifth Republic, outgoing President François Hollande decided to abstain from seeking re-election. A lucid decision, as he faced the very real prospect of losing his party’s nomination, given his dismal approval ratings and the public’s disenchantment.
By all accounts, the election was supposed to be a cakewalk for the main opposition — the centrist right party, Les Républicains. François Fillon, former prime minister and party nominee, dubbed “Mr Clean”, was a sure-shot winner, leading in all polls and in a strong position to stop the National Front in its tracks. Fillon won his party’s primary hands-down on a platform of tough measures destined to revive the economy, such as slashing France’s bloated bureaucracy and ending the much criticised 35-hour week, His surprise victory stemmed, in part, from his projection of himself as a man of “probity”.
Except, his presidential dream seems to have crashed with the disclosure by a French newspaper that he paid his wife hefty sums from public funds to act as his parliamentary assistant — a job that she allegedly did not do. A judicial probe was ordered astonishingly quickly and is currently underway.
His approval ratings plummeted after this “fake” job scandal, named “Penelope Gate” after his wife.
However, Fillon has fought back tooth and nail against what he terms an “institutional coup d’état” and a “political assassination”. His refusal to step down has forced his party members to rally round him. His chances of making it to the second round appear slim with the threat of prosecution still looming, but digging for dirt continues unabated, with new scandals involving interest-free loans and expensive custom-made suits surfacing. This suggests his candidature is still not to be taken lightly.
The main beneficiary of Fillon’s fall from favour is not the Socialist nominee — the disastrous results of Hollande’s first term cast a long shadow over the chances of his party’s candidate, Benoit Hamon, surprise winner of the socialist primary with some highly populist campaign promises like universal income for all and a 32-hour week. Normally, a shorter working week would have rallied the leisure-loving French, but the Socialist candidate is trailing in the polls.
The actual beneficiary is, in fact, the 39 year-old former investment banker, Emmanuel Macron, who left the Socialist government to create a party, “En Marche” (On the Move), and is running on a pro-business, socially liberal platform. He claims to represent neither left, nor right, but France. He has the backing of the financial oligarchy and has caught the imagination of French voters, disillusioned with both the main political parties. Though he has never held elected office, he has recently emerged as the front-runner in this election. Many socialist heavyweights, unable to identify with Hamon’s extreme positions, or acting in pure self-interest, are likely to throw their weight behind Macron. This would lead to the dismemberment of the Socialist Party.
In the meantime, Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front, running on an anti-immigration, anti-Islam, anti-Europe ticket, continues to make electoral inroads with all polls showing her making it to the second round, though eventually losing to Macron. Le Pen is also embroiled in a financial scandal involving the alleged misuse of EU funds, supposed to be supported on social media by Russia-generated bots, but somehow, she is much less under media scrutiny than Fillon. The general feeling seems to be that though Le Pen is dangerous, she can be stopped by the left and right uniting against her.
However, the threat of Le Pen winning needs to be taken seriously — pollsters can be off the mark as they were with Trump and Brexit, especially as National Front voters tend to conceal their voting intentions. Moreover, new scandals involving the other candidates could swing the election in Le Pen’s favour, as could suburban social unrest — or a terrorist attack.