France: Anyone but LePen?

Commentary No. 448, May 1, 2017

France is about to have the second round of its presidential election. The two candidates are Emmanuel Macron, the En Marche! candidate and, with slightly less votes on the first round, Marine LePen, the candidate of the Front National (FN). Now a week in advance of the election, it looks like Macron will win but, as we have learned, nothing is less sure than the predictions of pollsters and politicians.

This has been a wild fluctuating campaign, in which the first round’s outcome seemed almost impossible to predict. The principal reason was the enormous number of persons who were unsure how they would vote. There were persons, many persons, who were not sure as they entered the poll booth whom they would choose.

Let us review the ups and downs. At the start of the campaign, most people anticipated that the two traditional center-right and center-left parties, Les Républicains (LR) and Le Parti Socialiste (PS) would choose respectively Alain Juppé and Manuel Valls. But they were both surprisingly eliminated in the Right and Left primaries.

Instead, the LR chose a further right candidate, François Fillon, and the PS chose a further left candidate, Benoit Hamon. The splits in the two traditional parties seemed to strengthen the hand of the far-right FN candidate. The polls showed at first a three-way voter split that left the situation unclear.

At this point, Macron sought support as a candidate neither left nor right nor even centrist. He presented himself as the one who could stop LePen, support Europe, and promote a multicultural policy. His stock began to rise steadily but so did that of Fillon. It was the PS that seemed most grievously wounded.

Suddenly, scandals engulfed Fillon, accused of dubious self-enrichment. LePen also was accused of misappropriating funds to fund her party. Fillon’s support began to sink significantly. Le Pen’s support seemed to stagnate.

Meanwhile, on the left, there was a different drama. Hamon of the PS was competing with Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the candidate of the far-left La France Insoumise (Unbowed France) to corral left votes so that they could seriously challenge both Macron and LePen as different versions of the right. Mélenchon began to win out, eclipsing Hamon. Hamon was simultaneously weakened by desertions of the right wing of the PS to Macron, who was far closer to their own views on both internal and external issues.

Fillon now fought back. Essentially he admitted guilt and then argued that LR voters had to support him anyway or find themselves without a candidate. He succeeded in rallying support and rose again. With the return of Fillon and the rise of Mélenchon, the week or so before the first round of the presidential elections, the polls showed a four-way split between Macron, LePen, Fillon, and Mélenchon.

They were all close enough to each other so that the outcome was essentially unpredictable. One now has to add in the other candidates. Hamon remained on the ballot with about 5% of the predicted vote. Philippe Poutou of the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste (NPA) had about 2 percent. They both pledged to support Mélenchon on the second round (but not the first). There was a far-right candidate who was also strongly anti-LePen, Nicolas Dupont-Aignan. He said he was opposed to her as a Gaullist. His party Debout La France (Stand-up, France) seemed to be in the vicinity of 4–5 percent.

In the last week before the first round, as it seemed quite probable that LePen would be in the second round, everyone else spent their energy attacking each other in order to be the second person on the second-round ballot. Macron’s claim that he should benefit from the vote utile (the useful vote) paid off and he came in first on the first round. He was the victor of the anyone but LePen vote.

The very first poll after the elections showed him winning the second round with 61% of the vote. This suggests that Mélenchon probably could have beaten LePen as well, if by a smaller margin. Now we are into the question of who will switch votes where and who will simply abstain.

The LR voters are largely turning towards Macron, encouraged by the leaders of all the factions. Hamon and Poutou voters seem to be choosing Macron, but in smaller percentages. Mélenchon voters have been urged not to vote for LePen but Mélenchon has refused to choose between a Macron vote and abstentions, which will probably be significantly large. These voters are facing the same kind of disappointment and anger as Bernie Sanders voters did in facing the choice between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

In this interval, LePen has been suddenly strengthened by an announced deal between her and Dupont-Aignan, in which he has been promised the Prime Minister’s post if LePen wins the presidency. Once more, the quest for political power is taking priority over ideology.

There will be parliamentary elections on June 11 and 18. The winner of the presidential election hopes to obtain a parliament with more of their supporters. This means there will be local and regional electoral battles all over France. Those with party structures throughout the country can be expected to do better. Here is Macron’s real weakness. He has no party. However, whether Macron or LePen is the winner, the new parliament will be scattered, and political compromises will be the order of the day.

If LePen wins, how much of her program will she be able to implement? We have seen with Trump the difference between campaign rhetoric and promises and the capacity to implement a program. Because of the powers of the French president, LePen would no doubt do better than Trump, but how much better?

If Macron wins, his capacity to rule may be even less. In particular, how much of his neoliberal austerity will he be able to put into practice? I suspect not too much at all. If Resist seems strong in the United States, wait until a resistance movement plays out on the French scene, a country with a long tradition of such movements.

Does it sound as if I’m saying that it makes less difference than everyone is predicting who wins the second round? I do think it will make some difference, but not all that much. A Mélenchon government or even a Hamon government would have signaled real change. In France, as in the United States and many other countries, real change may be coming, but it will require some more years of struggle for that.