Primaries Over: Let the French Presidential Campaign Begin
January 30, 2017
“…And if Europe comes undone, France will come undone too.”—Vincent Peillon, former French Socialist presidential candidate’s campaign manifesto
With all due respect to Mr. Peillon, it is the other way around: If France comes undone, Europe comes undone.
For France, 2016 was, without a doubt, an incredibly difficult year. Tragic terrorist events and a deep sense of malaise weighed heavily on the country, as well as President François Hollande’s incredibly low popularity (it hovers around 3 percent), fueling feelings of rejection of “elites,” the political system, and an interconnected world in general. An ongoing state of emergency since November 2015, as well as anger and frustration against the government, were compounded by a barely noticeable economic recovery: French gross domestic product (GDP) grew by only 0.2 percent in the third quarter compared to the three previous months (1.1 percent year-on-year) after a -0.1 percent dip in the second quarter; unemployment hovers around 10 percent (a 0.1 percent increase compared to the second quarter); and the budget deficit is still above the 3 percent of GDP (projected to be 3.3 percent in 2016), a requirement of the increasingly ignored EU Stability and Growth Pact. It is against this backdrop that the race for France’s next president begins with the first round slated for April 23 and the decisive second round on May 7.
It goes without saying that the forces of opposition in France have been substantially bolstered. On the right, Les Républicains (LR) have selected former prime minister François Fillon as their presidential candidate in a surprising primary where he defeated centrist frontrunner Alain Juppé and his former boss, former French president Nicolas Sarkozy. Fillon’s economic platform is traditional center-right: a €100 billion reduction in public spending over five years, tax cuts worth about €40 billion for businesses, and raising the retirement age to 65. He also plans to do away with France’s sacrosanct 35-hour work week, both in the private and public sectors. LR maintains a practical and pragmatic approach toward the European Union and recognizes the need for France to implement reforms to become a stronger counterpart to Germany on the European stage. Yet his foreign and security policy, as well as social agenda, are strongly conservative as he campaigns for more positive relations with Russia, increased spending on internal security, and socially conservative causes such as repealing lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender adoption.
Fillon’s victory symbolized the elevation of the very conservative and traditional spectrum of the party and an erosion of France’s political center. Fillon’s views are now more closely aligned with the more extreme and populist tendencies and discourse represented by the far-right National Front (FN) party and its leader, Marine Le Pen. Because his socially conservative platform appeals to and is viewed in similar light to that of FN voters, Fillon’s primary victory had the unintended result of disincentivizing France’s left-leaning voters to support Fillon in a hypothetical second presidential round that pits Fillon against Le Pen.
As an establishment candidate, Fillon is not considered a change agent, and his candidacy could be a devastating reminder to the French electorate of the seemingly perpetually scandal- and corruption-plagued center-right party (former president Sarkozy remains under investigation). Although presenting himself as the “honest candidate,” it was recently reported that Mr. Fillon’s wife and two children received generous salaries for working in his parliamentary office (Mrs. Fillon received €500,000), although it is unclear what, if any, tangible work his wife and children performed. Known as “Penelopegate” (Mrs. Fillon’s first name), these allegations have prompted the public prosecutor’s office to open a preliminary investigation. Ironically, Fillon argued during his primary that any presidential candidate under active investigation should not be allowed to run. Fillon may have jeopardized his own campaign by announcing in a televised interview that he would withdraw from the race were a judge to conclude that a formal and active investigation is warranted. The scandal has already seen Fillon’s approval ratings slide by 4 points in a matter of days.
On the far right stands FN, which holds very different views on the European Union and NATO. Although softening her rhetoric recently, Ms. Le Pen has stated that she will hold a French referendum on France’s continued participation in the European monetary union. She also does not support France’s integration into NATO’s military command structure (which occurred in 2008), and although she has not officially advocated for France to exit NATO, Le Pen had adopted a “wait and see” approach regarding possible changes President Donald Trump might take regarding NATO. FN largely rejects globalization, supports stronger ties with Russia, and has repeatedly called for greater trade protectionist measures, similar to the extreme elements of the Socialist and far-left parties. Uncertainty still surrounds the party’s full platform, which will be unveiled in February. Although the FN has had strong showings in local elections and has focused on growing its grassroots base, it has struggled to win in runoffs for higher offices and faces ongoing internal divisions between its “economic” and “identity” wings.
On the other side of the political spectrum, following its first ever primary and President Hollande’s decision to not seek a second term, the candidate who will lead the French Socialist party is the relatively unknown former education minister Benoît Hamon. Hamon’s victory over former prime minister Manuel Valls is a clear rejection of Hollande’s fairly tepid attempts at economic reform and a reaffirmation of the French Socialist party’s turn to a more extreme left agenda. Hamon supports a living wage (€750 per month, or about $805), a 32-hour work week (even below the current 35-hour work week), and a tax on automation—the “robot tax.”
Now that both the Socialist party and LR have selected candidates who are at the ideological extremes for both parties, France’s political center is wide open, making way for Emmanuel Macron, the 39-year-old former investment banker and former economics minister, who left the Hollande government in August 2016 to form his own political movement, En Marche or Onward. Macron currently has the highest favorable opinion ratings of all presidential contenders (45 percent), and his campaign rallies have drawn surprisingly large crowds. He has also announced that he would field candidates for all districts in the June legislative elections, which could consolidate his political movement, in an attempt to bring change to a static, two-party system. Macron’s political platform has not yet been detailed, but he is perceived as economically liberal and against economic protectionism. He is one of the few European politicians still campaigning on a strongly pro-EU platform.
And now the race begins in earnest to determine the top two candidates in the first round. A poll released on Sunday shows that Le Pen would receive 25 percent of the vote, Macron and Fillon are statistically tied at 21 percent and 22 percent respectively, and Hamon would receive 15 percent in the first round. Far-left party candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon receives 10 percent. Events—such as additional terrorist attacks, greater global and European economic uncertainty, and the continued success of populists—over the course of the next three months will shape the electoral picture. Will voters make a decisive break from France’s current political and economic stagnation, or will the slate of candidates dissuade voters from participating in the vote? Which candidate best captures this particular political moment?
Whomever is ultimately selected, he or she will not only determine the future of France but also the future contours of Europe. All eyes are on France as we inch closer to April 23.
Heather A. Conley is senior vice president for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic and director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Donatienne Ruy is a research associate with the CSIS Europe Program.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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