Apr. 18, 2017

Aux Armes, Citoyens!

On April 23 France will hold the first round of the 2017 Presidential election. The top two candidates will advance to a run-off election to be held on May 7. Incumbent Socialist President Francois Hollande is not running for re-election due to his extreme unpopularity (on a good day his approval ratings will reach 10%.) The election has eleven candidates, but there are only four that have a feasible path to the Élysée Palace (the office of the President.)

Before I examine these candidates, it will help to give a little context behind the current political atmosphere in France. An Ipsos poll from October 2016 found that a shockingly high 88% of French respondents felt that France was heading in the wrong direction and felt pessimistic about the future. Besides France being the birthplace of Existentialism, the French seem to feel that a sort of stagnation has taken over their nation. After the Second World War had ended, France underwent a 30-year economic boom that lasted until the 1970s. Known as Les Trente Glorieuses, or The Glorious Thirty, France underwent high economic growth as well as developing a comprehensive welfare state. French living standards, along with much of Western Europe, increased dramatically.

However, by the mid-1970s the boom years had ended. Since then, France has had low economic growth and a consistently high unemployment rate. The extensive social benefits that the French states offers its citizens have been very expensive to maintain, and services are increasingly strained by demand. While large cities such as Paris, Lyon and Bordeaux have generally prospered, provincial towns have suffered as industries closed and residents have left for larger cities. Businesses have to follow a rigid labor code that makes expansion difficult, and thus resulting in fewer jobs. Youth unemployment is quite high, such as in January 2017 at the rate of 23.6%.

While economically stagnant, France also suffers from critical social ills. Specifically, French minorities are often stuck in grim suburbs of major cities (the infamous banlieues) that in 2015 the Prime Minister admitted was in a state of “territorial, social, ethnic apartheid.” Often made up of North African Muslims, the banlieues can seem like a world apart from the prosperity of central Paris. For the young men of the banlieues, few economic opportunities arise that can lead to leaving the banlieue behind. Many of these banlieue residents have failed to integrate into French society. Discrimination against North and Sub-Saharan Africans is a major problem, along with unwillingness by these immigrants to give up the culturally conservative values of their old countries that clash with the secular values of modern France. Indeed, the state-imposed secularism of France is seen by many Muslim immigrants as hostile to their way of life.

These young men who cannot get jobs often turn to crime as a way to get ahead. Willing to use violence and angry at the French state and French society, these men often drift to radical Islamist groups that are quite popular in the banlieues. Jihadists have found France to be an extremely fertile recruiting ground for future terrorists. This has led to the multiple terror attacks that have struck France over the past several years. Unsurprisingly, many French increasingly view Muslims as a threat to their country.

All of these ills have led to the popularity of Marine Le Pen, the leader of the National Front (FN, in its French initials.) The FN is the traditional party of the French far right, founded by Marine’s father Jean-Marie Le Pen. Under Jean-Marie, the FN was a motley collection of Algerian war veterans, ultra-conservative traditionalists and Vichy supporters (the regime that collaborated with Nazi Germany during the Second World War.) Prone to anti-Semitic outbursts, Jean-Marie was a longtime gadfly on the French political scene. However, in the 2002 Presidential election, Jean-Marie stunned France by defeating the candidates of the Left and advancing to the second round of the election. While Le Pen was eventually overwhelmingly defeated by the conservative incumbent of the time (Jacques Chirac) the FN had still proven to be a key element of the French political spectrum.

Jean-Marie’s daughter Marine took over the FN in 2011 and has since become one of the most dominant politicians in France. Marine has worked to detoxify the FN of the open bigotry of her father in favor of a strong French nationalism opposed to the European Union and immigration. Marine traffics in xenophobia rather than the simple racism of her father, and presents herself as a defender of French values against Islamism and the other ills that immigrants bring. She also advocates protectionism and the protection of the welfare state (no benefits for immigrants, naturally,) sounding statist themes on economics. Marine also deeply admires Russian President Vladimir Putin as a defender of traditional values and is a strong supporter of Russian actions in Ukraine and Syria. She is generally hostile to American power, although she celebrated the election of Donald Trump.

Several months ago, pundits predicted that the run-off would come down to Le Pen and the candidate of the largest conservative party, The Republicans (LR.) The LR candidate, Francois Fillon, served as Prime Minister under former President Nicolas Sarkozy before defeating Sarkozy and others to win the LR primary in late 2016. Fillon offered a free-market economic program that earned him comparisons to Margaret Thatcher, promising to reduce the size of the French states and reform the labor code. Fillon also cannily appealed to socially conservative Catholic voters that other candidates neglected. Disturbingly, Fillon also boasted of his friendship with Putin and promised warm relations with Russia, claiming that France could serve as a sort of mediator between Russia and the United States. Fillon quickly became the favorite to win the entire election, and many began to ponder what a Fillon presidency would look like.

Unfortunately for Fillon, in January 2017 allegations arose that he had placed his wife on the public payroll to act as his assistant. His wife, Penelope, did not seem to do any actual work while drawing a not unsubstantial salary from the taxpayer. Later, it was revealed that several of Fillon’s children were also given high-paying jobs while doing essentially no work. The scandal, dubbed “Penelopegate,” began to consume Fillon’s campaign. Fillon had loudly proclaimed himself to be ethically “beyond reproach” as opposed to his scandal-tainted rivals in the LR primary. Fillon was formally placed under investigation in March for a number of allegations, such as fraud, embezzlement and similar crimes.

While Fillon has suffered politically over the last few months, Emmanuel Macron has surged ahead to become the favorite to win the election. As recently as December 2016 this situation would have seemed ridiculous. Only 39 years old and never having run for office before, Macron is an unlikely candidate. He does not even belong to a political party, having left the Socialist Party as early as 2009. Macron has a quintessentially elitist background, graduating from the traditional schools of the French elite and becoming an investment banker at the Rothschild bank in France. Although an independent, he worked, as an advisor to President Hollande and in 2014 became the Economic minister under Hollande. Macron represented Hollande’s rejection of the traditional socialism that had gotten him elected, and Macron proceeded to attempt to push through free-marked economic reforms. Macron had mixed success politically, but still managed to become one of the more popular members of a deeply unpopular government.

Macron announced his candidacy in 2016 and formed a centrist movement titled En Marche (On the Move.) Socially and economically liberal (pro-free markets,) Macron is also pro-European and much more open to immigration than his rivals on the right. Often compared to center-left leaders in the English-speaking world such as Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, Macron is a highly unusual member of the French political establishment, which seems to have helped him in a country that has grown viscerally hostile to the political establishment.

Macron, while a former member of a Socialist government, is not actually a Socialist. Instead, the Socialists have nominated Benoit Hamon as their candidate for the election. Hamon was briefly a minister under Hollande before returning to the backbenches of parliament to act as a left-wing critic of Hollande’s shift towards the center. Since becoming the Socialist candidate in January 2017, Hamon has languished in the polls in a distant fifth place. Macron has attracted the support of moderate Socialists such as former Prime Minister Manuel Valls and weakened Hamon.

From the far-left, the communist-backed political veteran Jean-Luc Mélenchon has surged ahead of Hamon. French leftists do not seem to feel that Hamon can represent them better than the champion of French leftism Mélenchon, so voting for Hamon seems rather pointless for both the center-left and the far-left. Mélenchon wants to get rid of the entire Presidential system while redistributing wealth, nationalizing industries and the rest of the traditional leftist platform. Deeply anti-American but pro-Russian, Mélenchon is also opposed to the EU as a German-dominated neoliberal hegemony. Ironically, there are a number of similarities between Mélenchon on the far-left and Le Pen on the far right. Mélenchon has performed strongly in the debates between the candidates over the past few weeks and has surged ahead in the polls.

The most likely scenario after Sunday is that Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron will advance to the run-off on May 7 and Macron will be elected President. I hope this is correct, since if I were French I would cast a vote for Macron. Of course, one year ago most analysts predicted that Britain would remain in the European Union and that Hillary Clinton would be the next American President. Macron is still a largely untested politician who has stumbled at times. Le Pen is a charismatic and skilled politician with a passionate base of support who should not be underestimated. Fillon, despite his scandals, has maintained a solid core of supporters that could still cause him to advance to the run-off. Mélenchon could continue his surge in the polls as well. Thus, one could make an argument in favor of Le Pen, Fillon, Macron or Mélenchon. With French pessimism about the future, along with a disgust at much of the political class, the 2017 election has become unpredictable. The French seem to demand radical change, but do they know how radical it might be?