In France, Another Stunning Election Upset

Bernard BISSON/JDD/SIPA/1505311317 (Sipa via AP Images)

Former Prime Minister François Fillon.

After the major earthquake of Brexit, 6.5 on the Richter scale, and the megaquake of Trump, at least 7.5, the results of yesterday’s “primary of the right and center” in France have to count as a minor aftershock. Yet even this small tremor is potentially an ominous sign that the tectonic plates of politics in the major Western democracies are still shifting about unpredictably, with major changes in the landscape still to come.

What happened yesterday is this: François Fillon, who served as prime minister under Nicolas Sarkozy from 2007 to 2012, defeated his former boss along with five other candidates in the first round of the primary to choose the candidate of the center-right Republican party. The upset was stunning, because for most of the campaign, polls had shown Fillon running fourth in the field behind favorite Alain Juppé, also a former prime minister (under Jacques Chirac), Sarkozy, and newcomer Bruno Le Maire.

The polls were not even particularly close until the final weeks of the campaign. Juppé’s lead seemed more than comfortable. Conventional wisdom had it that Juppé was the “safe” choice, the candidate most likely to halt the rise of Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Front, who is expected to top all other candidates in the first round of France’s two-round presidential election. Juppé was thought to be conservative enough to appeal to the base of the Republican party but centrist enough to be acceptable to many left-wing voters, who would vote for Juppé not only in the second round of the presidential race but also cross over to vote for him in the right-wing primary, which is allowed in France. The polls seemed to confirm this.

Then Sarkozy began to close the gap with Juppé, who had served for a time as his foreign minister. Perhaps it was because Juppé is old (71, compared with Sarkozy’s 61). Perhaps it was because Sarkozy had begun to talk tough, tougher even that Marine Le Pen on issues of insecurity, identity, immigration, and Islam—what blogger Arun Kapil has dubbed “the four I’s”. Or perhaps it was because Juppé’s platform seemed more rightist than centrist on economic and governance issues, disappointing left-wing voters who had hoped he would differentiate himself more from the other Republican candidates.

Then, in the last two weeks, the race seemed to tighten again in a surprising new way. Sarkozy continued to close the gap with Juppé, but now Fillon, stirring from the grave, also began to rise rapidly. The final polls conducted midweek, just before a final debate, showed a near dead-heat among Juppé, Sarkozy, and Fillon.

But the final result came as a shock even to observers aware of the last-minute Fillon surge. The candidate given up for dead only a few weeks ago won by a margin of 16 points over Juppé, while Sarkozy finished a distant third, 6 points behind Juppé.

What happened? Were the polls simply wildly wrong? As in the case of the Brexit and Trump votes, pollsters had picked up the last-minute change in the temper of the race and correctly gauged the direction of the trend toward the winning position or candidate, but in each case they made the wrong prediction, and in the case of Fillon the final lead was well beyond the usual margin of error. Of course primary polling is extremely difficult, especially when the party in question has held no previous primary, making it hard to predict which respondents are likely to vote. But poll watchers, severely chastened now three times in a row, must refrain from drawing quick conclusions.

Where does this leave the race for the Republican nomination? Having failed to predict Fillon’s victory, I should hesitate even to hazard a guess, but his lead will be difficult for Juppé to overcome. Unless, of course, it galvanizes left-wing voters, who may have stayed home in round one of the primary, to turn out in large numbers in order to put Juppé over the top. Fillon is well to Juppé’s right, so this is not impossible.

Can Fillon’s victory be put down to a “Trump effect?” Perhaps, in the sense that a Juppé-Le Pen matchup would in some ways resemble the Clinton-Trump contest. Juppé is a solid centrist technocrat, well-known after many years in politics, but linked to policies that were unpopular in the past, such as increasing the legal age of retirement. Fillon is also closely associated with retirement reform, but he is younger, and by the time he overhauled the French pension system, opposition had dwindled. Juppé’s reform effort is remembered for triggering a month-long general strike and turning the country upside down, whereas Fillon’s reform passed relatively easily. In style Fillon has nothing in common with Trump: He is soft-spoken and disarmingly mild in demeanor, though beneath the surface he is a tough and savvy political infighter. He has moved significantly to the right on key issues, however, and has expressed approval of Russia’s actions in Syria (as has Marine Le Pen).

The big question, of course, is whether Fillon, if he emerges as the candidate after next week’s run-off, can defeat Marine Le Pen. This was to have been Juppé’s role, and polls have consistently shown him as the candidate most likely to stop Le Pen—if not the only one able to do so. Because Juppé was so widely expected to win, there has been less polling regarding a Fillon-Le Pen face-off in the second round. But as yesterday’s vote showed, the polls may not be accurately reflecting the volatile mood of the electorate in any case, and the final round is still a long way off.

Meanwhile, the left is in a shambles, and no left-wing candidate seems likely to make it to the second round of the presidential election. President Francois Hollande’s approval rating has fallen into the single digits, and he is likely to be beaten if he decides to run in the upcoming Socialist primary.

There is, however, one major source of uncertainty on the left. If Juppé is knocked out by Fillon, a space opens up in the center of the political spectrum, and two men to Fillon’s left could vie for the role of center-left opponent: Prime Minister Manuel Valls and former Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron. Valls, out of loyalty to the president, has not yet declared himself a candidate, but he is chafing at the bit, especially now that Macron has thrown his hat in the ring. Macron, who has never been elected to anything, declared his candidacy in the week before the primary of the right, and this may have contributed to Juppé’s lackluster showing, as voters who might have cast their ballot for him decided that the much younger and still untarnished Macron would make a better standard bearer. Polls show Macron doing well, but once again one has to wonder what the polls are really reflecting. He has no party behind him, which will complicate a presidential run, although he has raised a substantial amount of money from both small donors and large contributors.

It would take a foolhardy prognosticator to speculate about what la France profonde is really thinking. The Front National is already the first choice of working-class voters in France and has been for some time, so it is hard to see her picking up more votes from that quarter as Trump is thought to have done in the United States. In order for Le Pen to win, she has to draw votes away from the center-right Republicans. Does the unexpectedly large margin of Fillon’s surprising win indicate a surge of anger among Republican voters, a rejection of the notion that what they really want is a staid and relatively pro-European alternative to Le Pen’s xenophobia and anti-EU rhetoric? Will they then take the next step and abandon Fillon for Le Pen when they get the chance next year? Such speculation goes too far. But Sunday’s vote is highly unsettling. It suggests that, just as in the U.K. and the U.S., something deeply troubling is roiling under the surface, perhaps ready to erupt with explosive force.

If that happens, the EU will almost surely collapse. The Western democracies will all have swung far to the right, except for Germany, where Angela Merkel has just announced that she will seek a fourth term. Matteo Renzi is about to lose a key referendum vote in Italy, which may force him to resign. Come next year, the political universe may look far different from what most observers would have imagined a year ago. The consequences of these changes would be incalculable.

And yet, and yet … this primary vote may well mean nothing. The Republican primary voters are not a good sample of the general electorate or even of the entire right-wing electorate. And one shouldn’t exaggerate the differences between Fillon and Juppé. If either is elected, it’s quite likely that the other will receive an important ministry. Their platforms are not that different. The styles of both are subdued, dignified, and correct. They are more similar to each other in manner than either is to Sarkozy, much less to Trump. So the significance of this vote, however surprising, should be kept in perspective.

One final note: Nicolas Sarkozy’s political career is probably over, and his legal problems may well land him in jail.

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