Will Marine Le Pen Become France’s Next President?

AP Photo/Christophe Ena

French far-right leader Marine le Pen makes a statement on the presidential election in the United States on November 9, 2016, in Nanterre, outside Paris. 

Yesterday, François Fillon won the primary of the French Republican Party (Les Républicains, known as LR). As I predicted last week, Fillon handily eliminated his lone remaining rival, Alain Juppé, by a margin of 2-1. How does this stunning victory affect the handicapping of next spring’s presidential election? The short—and perhaps surprising—answer is that it makes the election of the Front National’s Marine Le Pen more likely. I will explain why in a moment.

But first a word about Fillon. He served as France’s prime minister throughout all five years of Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidency. The two men could hardly be more different in style. Brash, flashy, and in-your-face, Sarkozy wears a watch worth tens of thousands of dollars, a gift from his supermodel wife (the third of a trio). He cusses out hecklers and threatens to cleanse neighborhoods by scouring away delinquent “scum” with a sandblaster. Fillon, by contrast, is a soft-spoken man of somber demeanor. The son of a provincial notary, he has been married to the same woman for 36 years (she is Welsh by birth). Although he races cars for a hobby, he is more likely to be taken for an insurance salesman than a daredevil.

The outward contrast between the two men is misleading, however. Fillon is the bolder politician, the fiercer infighter, the more tenacious strategist. Sarkozy courted the press and sought to create the impression of a dynamic presidency by constantly making headlines, while Fillon kept plugging away quietly behind the scenes, seeking to advance his agenda wherever he found an opening. As minister of social affairs under Jacques Chirac (2002-2004), he had already pushed to pare away French pensions. Of this effort he once boasted that nothing else would remain of Chirac’s presidency—not an unfair judgment. Under Sarkozy he continued to push hard for punitive cuts in social benefits.

And now, as a presidential candidate, he is promising to slash what remains of the “the French social model” while cutting corporate taxes by €50 billion and raising the consumption tax from 20 to 22 percent. He proposes to cut state spending by €100 billion (a full 5 points of GDP) by eliminating some 500,000 civil service jobs, raising the retirement age, and reducing medical benefits. He would increase the legal work week for state employees to 39 hours (from 35) and encourage private-sector firms to negotiate even longer hours with their employees. Worker layoffs would be facilitated.

Many French observers are calling Fillon’s program “neo-Thatcherite,” although his sackcloth-and-ashes version of neoliberalism is long on penance for alleged self-indulgence and short on ideas for jump-starting the stalled French economy. It will nevertheless impose far greater burdens on working people than the timidly reformist policies promoted by incumbent President François Hollande and his economy minister Emmanuel Macron, both of whom may find themselves pitted against Fillon in the first round of the presidential election next April 23. Yet those halting, patchwork reforms triggered massive demonstrations that disrupted the country for weeks, offering a foretaste of what a Fillon presidency might bring.

And therein lies the rub. In order to defeat Marine Le Pen, Fillon will need to persuade leftish voters to overcome their reluctance to vote for a hard-right conservative in order to prevent the candidate of the extreme right from obtaining a majority. This is how Jacques Chirac defeated her father in 2002: After the elder Le Pen narrowly edged out Socialist candidate Lionel Jospin in the first round, left-wing voters turned out en masse in the second round to ensure a Chirac victory and spare France the embarrassment of electing a man many considered a “neo-fascist.”

But a lot has changed since 2002. Marine Le Pen has worked hard to change her party’s image, not only expelling her father but also shedding his last name: Her presidential campaign logo drops the Le Pen moniker (as well as the label Front National) and features only the name “Marine” in large blue letters along with a blue rose (the rose being the symbol of the Socialist Party and a reminder that the Front National now commands more working-class votes than any other party).

Whether these changes are anything more than cosmetic remains a matter of debate, but it will be difficult to win against Marine Le Pen simply by branding her “xenophobic,” “racist,” or “fascist.” Those epithets attach far more readily to the president-elect of the United States than to the leader of the FN, who in contrast to Trump is a consummate political professional and an articulate speaker conversant with the complexities of a wide range of issues.

A canny Le Pen can thus present herself as a “welfare chauvinist”—that is, as a staunch defender of France’s welfare state but only for the “authentically” French, les Français de souche, as they like to say. Instead of the austere and austerity-minded François Fillon, who shares her suspicion of Islam and wariness of the European Union, the FN leader can emulate Donald Trump’s winning strategy by posing as an economic nationalist, the stalwart defender of French workers against a culturally alien “global elite” of capitalists and financiers.

The two front-runners in the French presidential race thus represent, as one wag has put it, “the far right and the farther right.” In theory, such a contest should open up a large space for a challenger from the center and left of the political spectrum. And there is in fact no shortage of contestants seeking the honor. The problem is that there is little prospect of uniting the various factions behind a single candidate.

Start with the incumbent president. François Hollande still has not announced whether he will be a candidate for re-election. With his popularity plummeting toward the single digits, few believe that he stands a chance, but the president himself seems to be heeding ethereal voices from on high, which apparently have assured him of an immaculate December rebirth in advance of a full resurrection next spring. In any case, he must make up his mind by December 15.

Claude Bartolone, the president of the National Assembly, has been listening to different voices, however: most notably, the voice of the president himself, relayed by two journalists in a book of astonishingly candid presidential indiscretions, which revealed that Hollande saw his friend of 40 years as a man lacking “the stature” and “charisma” to become prime minister. Whether in a fit of pique or an effort to restore some semblance of order to the increasingly surreal scramble for the anointment of the left, Bartolone recently called for a broad primary of the entire left and center, including not only his own Socialist Party but also the Greens, the parties of the far left, and anyone else who can be persuaded to join a “popular front” aimed at preventing both Fillon and Le Pen from reaching the Elysée.

The problem is that several efforts to organize such a popular front had already failed. Economist Thomas Piketty tried to launch a movement last January, but it went nowhere. Then Socialist Party chief Jean-Christophe Cambadélis concocted the sonorously-named Belle Alliance Populaire. Among the numerous candidates who have already thrown their hats into this primary ring are two former ministers, Arnaud Montebourg and Benoît Hamon. Prime Minister Manuel Valls might also get in if Hollande decides not to run—and there are signs that Valls might go for it even if Hollande does run.

As if this were not enough confusion on the left, two of the strongest potential candidates have refused to participate in the Belle Alliance. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a deft matador who taunts his former Socialist comrades with a swirling cape of flaming red rhetoric, might well draw more first-round votes than Hollande. And Macron, the former economy minister, has somehow transcended his intimate role in crafting the policies responsible for the president’s unpopularity to emerge as the darling of the media—le candidat people, as they say in France, if not necessarily the people’s candidate. Macron is young, good-looking—“everyone’s ideal son-in-law”—and committed to “change” in a rather grandly unspecified way. Programs are meaningless, he says, hoping that enough voters will be persuaded by his likeable demeanor and reputation for “brilliance.”

And then, finally, there is the old warhorse of the center, François Bayrou, the mayor of Pau. Like the cicadas of southern France, Bayrou emerges at regular intervals, whenever there is a presidential election, prepared to be acclaimed as the voice of moderation, the consensus choice of a people tired of ideological extremes and clamoring for good government. Unfortunately, as François Mitterrand once said, “The center in France is like the Bermuda triangle: You can stray into it, but you will never come out.”

So where does this leave the presidential race? Marine Le Pen is expected to top all other candidates in the first round. Fillon will have a unified Republican party behind him. The left has no chance of making the second round unless it can unite around one candidate and somehow edge out Fillon. But the winner of the Belle Alliance Populaire primary will have to contend with Mélenchon, Macron, and possibly Bayrou, who will remain in the running. It is not inconceivable, as the race evolves, that some of these contenders will read the handwriting on the wall and drop out. But there is no guarantee of this, and Mélenchon, a stubborn infighter with a grudge against the Socialists and the support of the Communist Party, will likely fight on to the bitter end. Hence Fillon is very likely to face Le Pen in round two.

In that case, everything depends on what left-wing voters will do then. I do not believe that Fillon has a lock on their loyalty in round two. On the contrary, to many he will seem a more formidable menace than Le Pen, with his threats to cut their retirement and health benefits and make them work longer hours for less money. If, somehow, Fillon is eliminated, the only other candidates who have a realistic shot at winning are, in order of probability, Macron, Valls, and Bayrou. Macron is untested, and his candidacy may collapse like a punctured soufflé. Valls is tainted by his long and loyal association with Hollande. Bayrou is a decent fellow but uninspiring, unlikely to emerge as the savior on a white charger.

Having been no more successful than any other pundit in predicting the strange twists and turns of this most extraordinary of political years, however, I should close by saying that, honestly, I have no idea what’s going to happen. And neither does anyone else.

This article has been updated.

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