The presidential election in France — an election like no other


By Murray Smith 

April 7, 2017 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — What is happening in France this spring is much more than an election, or a series of elections, presidential and legislative. The two great poles of French political life, the Socialist Party (PS) and the Republicans (LR, right), are in crisis. In the case of the PS, the crisis could prove to be terminal. The far right and the radical left occupy considerable spaces in the campaign and in the polls. And the campaign has been marked by so many twists and turns that everything still seems possible. We are witnessing an unprecedented political crisis of the Fifth Republic which will not be resolved so quickly, regardless of the results of these elections. Since 1965, presidential elections have followed a regular pattern. Whatever happened in the first round, in the second round the representatives of the big parties and alliances of the right and the left confronted each other. With two exceptions: in 1969 the old socialist party, the SFIO, was not yet dead, although with 5 per cent in the first round it was in intensive care; and the new Socialist Party, whose leader would be François Mitterrand, was not yet born. The second round was thus between the Gaullist Pompidou and the veteran centrist Alain Poher. The second exception is more recent. In 2002 Jean-Marie Le Pen of the National Front qualified for the second round against Jacques Chirac, surpassing the Socialist candidate and Prime Minister Lionel Jospin in the first round. Against a backdrop of massive demonstrations against the National Front, Chirac won the second round of the election with 82 per cent of the vote. The danger was therefore avoided - temporarily, as we will see.

The rise of the National Front

The first striking feature of the 2017 presidential election is the position of strength with which Marine Le Pen began the campaign. In 2002 her father won 16.86 per cent in the first round, with 4.8 million votes. In 2012 she got 17.9 per cent and 6.4 million votes. With one per cent more, 2.4 million more votes. The explanation is simple: in 2002 the level of abstention in the first round was 28.4 per cent; Le Pen gained only 300,000 votes compared to his 1995 result. So there was no real breakthrough: he owed his success to the poor score of Jospin. Socialist voters had deserted their candidate in large numbers, though they would return in the second round to beat Le Pen. In 2012 Marine Le Pen won 2.8 million more votes than her father had in the 2007 election, in which Sarkozy had won over part of the electorate of the FN by taking on part of its programme. The FN confirmed and expanded its breakthrough in the 2014 European elections, with 24.86 per cent of the votes, and the regional ones of 2015, with 27.73 per cent. And it was with a starting point of 25 per cent that Marine Le Pen began her campaign in 2017. We therefore have a situation as ironic as it is worrying. It is a candidate outside the traditional institutional framework who represents an element of relative stability - a stability that comes from the fact that a large part of the FN vote today is no longer essentially a protest vote but a positive vote for its policies. Meanwhile the Socialist Party is disintegrating, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the left-wing outsider, is making progress and the official candidate of the PS, Benoît Hamon, is losing on his left to Mélenchon and on his right to Emmanuel Macron. As for Francois Fillon, candidate of the Right, he is providing a graphic illustration of the corruption of the French elites and is also seeing some of his supporters shifting to Macron. Just to underline the fact that no one party has a monopoly on corrupt practices, on March 21st Socialist Minister of the Interior Bruno Le Roux resigned after it had been revealed that he had been employing as parliamentary assistants, or at least paying out of public funds, his two daughters, who were minors at the time. Le Roux was the fifth Socialist minister to resign over finance-related questions since 2012. Let us see how things got to the present point. On the right, Nicolas Sarkozy was president from 2007 to 2012, before being beaten by François Hollande in 2012. He had never abandoned the hope of taking his revenge in 2017. Despite being mired in a series of scandals and judicial affairs, most of which involved large sums of money, he stood in the primary of his party, LR. Among the other competitors, there were two former prime ministers, Alain Juppé and François Fillon. Juppé represented the relatively moderate, centre-right current of the party and was favourite to win the nomination. Fillon defended an ultra-liberal policy on socio-economic issues. In fact, he is trying to be the French Thatcher (he is not the first one to try...) with what that implies in terms of confrontation with the workers' movement and the social movements. He wants to renegotiate the Schengen agreements, in a way that would limit freedom of movement. On societal issues he stands on Catholic-conservative ground. He has maintained a somewhat critical position with regard to the European institutions: back in 1992 he had campaigned alongside Philippe Séguin against the Maastricht Treaty. In the first round of the primaries, Sarkozy was eliminated and Fillon outstripped Juppe. The second round confirmed Fillon's victory. A priori, with the discrediting of the Socialist Party, Fillon could have been relatively sure of arriving first or second in the first round and beating Marine Le Pen in the second. Unfortunately for him, a scandal broke out that was quickly named the Penelopegate. It appeared that his wife had been employed as a parliamentary attaché of her husband and that she had pocketed nearly a million euros over the years for a job which, it seems, she never in fact did. Subsequently, it was learned that Fillon’s two daughters benefited in the same way. Then it became known that Fillon had received a loan of 50,000 euros, undeclared and interest-free, from a wealthy businessman: the same one who had hired and paid Penelope Fillon for journalistic work as dubious as her parliamentary activities. Finally, it emerged that Fillon had received as a gift two suits worth 13,000 euros, from a rich lawyer. Fillon proclaimed his innocence and promised that if he was formally placed under investigation he would withdraw from the race for the Elysée Palace. He was, and he refused to withdraw. Now Penelope Fillon has also been placed under investigation. The effect of this series of revelations brought Fillon down in the polls, from about 25 per cent to 17 per cent. Pressed by the majority of the leaders of his party to withdraw, he resisted. At bay, he called for a rally in Paris to support him. Although the response was not as great as Fillon claimed, he proved capable of mobilizing tens of thousands. Faced with his obstinacy and without having a credible and consensus-building alternative candidate, the LR party machine, followed by the centrists of the UDI, had to resign itself to supporting Fillon.

A Socialist Party in disorder

The Socialist Party confronted the presidential campaign in a disordered state, a disorder that did not start yesterday. Francois Hollande was elected president in 2012 on a left discourse, declaring in particular, "my adversary is finance". He also pledged to challenge the policy of European austerity and to defend a policy of economic stimulus, but was soon brought into line by Angela Merkel. Hollande’s term of office was the latest in a depressing series: Mitterrand, 1981-86 and again 1988-93, Jospin 1997-2002. After Mitterrand’s about-turn in 1983 and the adoption of the policies of what was then called “rigour”, the sequence was always the same: after a period when the Right was in government, the PS came to power full of promises, then implemented policies in continuity with those of the right. The sequel was foreseeable: in 1986, 1993 and 2002 the right returned in force. The series of alternating governments of left and right from 1983 gradually led to a disillusionment with politics and a crisis of credibility of the parties, as right and left followed each other with essentially the same policies, known variously as rigour, the strong franc, austerity, “structural reforms". However the effect on the Socialist Party (and sometimes its Communist allies, as in 2002) was worse, since the gap between the aspirations of left-wing voters and the electoral promises of the Left on the one hand, and on the other government policy, was greater. In addition, both right and left acted within the framework of, and with the help of a European Union that became less and less popular. Mitterrand's about-turn in 1983 and the policy of rigour coincided with the relaunch of the EU on a neo-liberal basis, leading to the Single Act in 1986 and the Maastricht Treaty in 1992. What would later be referred to as the political elites narrowly won the referendum on Maastricht. In 2005 they lost the one on the projected European Constitutional Treaty.

The turning point of 2008

There was, however, a turning point in the aftermath of the 2008 crisis. Across Europe, governments of right and left imposed harsh austerity policies and structural reforms, associated for the eurozone countries with binding measures, such as the fiscal pact. This policy, implemented by Sarkozy, cost him the presidential election in 2012. When, after some hesitations, Hollande came into line, he met with resistance. Under Jospin in 1997-2002 there were strikes and demonstrations against the policy of the government; but the big movements of 1995, 2003 and 2010 were all directed against right-wing governments. This time it was different. The first half of 2016 was marked by a massive movement of strikes and demonstrations against the El-Khomri Act, which dismantled an important part of the Labour Code. The government resorted to repression on a larger scale than any government of right or left-had done for decades, even using the state of emergency in force since the November 2015 terrorist attacks to put some of the most active militants under house arrest. The movement in the streets was accompanied by heated debates in the Assembly, with the unheard-of spectacle of socialist deputies tabling a motion of censure, in an attempt that was not far from succeeding to blocking the use of article 49.3 of the Constitution, which allowed the government to pass the Khomri law without a parliamentary majority. This unprecedented movement under a left government and its repression had unprecedented political repercussions. In April 2016 the popularity rating of Hollande was 14 per cent; In November it plummeted to an unheard-of 4 per cent. On 1 December 2016 François Hollande became the first president of the Fifth Republic to announce that he would not be seeking a second term of office.

A "beautiful popular alliance"...

The primaries for selecting a socialist candidate for the presidential election were held in January 2017. Five days after Hollande’s announcement, Manuel Valls, prime minister since 2014, resigned and announced that he was a candidate. He was the favourite of Hollande and the apparatus of the PS and bore a great responsibility for the neoliberal and repressive evolution of the government. But with the same approach as in the right-wing primaries that had just taken place, those of the left were open to all those who considered "left values" to be theirs. Thus, there were 1.6 million voters in the first round of the primaries (baptized those of the "beautiful popular alliance") and 2 million in the second. To put these figures in perspective, by 2014 the PS had 60,000 members (173,000 in 2012). The three main candidates were Valls, Benoît Hamon and Arnaud de Montebourg, two former ministers who had become opponents of government policy. In the first round Hamon topped the poll, in the second round he beat Valls. He criticized the presidency of Hollande for not fulfilling its commitments. His programme envisaged an increase in public expenditure, notably on health and education, a reduction of working time, taxation of capital and wealthy people and the flagship measure, a universal minimum income of 750 euros per month. Hamon was elected by a large part of what is called in France the "people of the left". If the vote had been limited to members of the Socialist Party, he would certainly not have won. But once he won, he was not the candidate of a "beautiful popular alliance" that had never been more than a slogan: he was the candidate of the Socialist Party. A candidate who was in a minority in the party, and even more so in the parliamentary group and the apparatus. With more than a million votes in the second round, he could have conducted a broad campaign, independent of the party apparatus. But he chose to be the PS candidate stricto sensu, which led him to compromise with MPs and party leaders. He ended up losing on both sides. His message became blurred, even and especially on the minimum revenue, leaving a large space for Jean-Luc Mélenchon, candidate of the radical left, without really convincing the right of his party, for whom he would always be too far to the left. Some of them were already beginning to defect to the centrist candidacy of Emmanuel Macron, former Minister of the Economy of Holland. It is no coincidence that in the two primaries it was, contrary to all expectations, the most right-wing candidate, Fillon, and the most left-wing candidate, Hamon, who won. It was the expression within the traditional parties of a polarization represented more acutely by Le Pen and Mélenchon. On the right, the hard core of the electorate of LR wanted their party to lead a real offensive against the working class. Fillon promised to get rid of 500,000 civil servants, to repeal the law on the 35-hour week, to lower taxes on the rich and on businesses. He was widely supported by employers. On the left Hamon was chosen by those who wanted a real break with the record of Hollande and more broadly with the social-liberalism of the PS. In a reflection of the deep social crisis in France, on all sides people are looking for a break, a renewal. Each in his or her own way, the five main candidates seek to embody this break, to be the man or woman of renewal. We will come back to Le Pen and Mélenchon. Now let us look at Macron, who might even be the one who takes the prize.

The candidate of finance

Emmanuel Macron is the youngest candidate and the least politically experienced. Graduating in 2004 from the prestigious ENA (National School of Administration), the breeding ground for top civil servants and most French political leaders, he was appointed Inspector of Finance. In 2008, he became an investment banker at Banque Rothschild, where he earned a total of 2.9 million euros, notably for helping Nestlé make a takeover bid. In 2010 he became an economic adviser to François Hollande, in 2012 Assistant General Secretary at the Elysée Palace, in 2014 Minister of the Economy, where he introduced in 2015 the law that bears his name and which included many concessions to the business community. Faced with the rebellion of a part of the Socialist parliamentary group, this law had to be adopted by recourse to 49.3. Macron resigned from the government in August 2016, shortly after founding his own movement, En Marche! On November 16th, he announced his candidacy for the presidency. It takes a certain nerve to present yourself as the standard-bearer of renewal when you have been one of the principal architects of Hollande’s presidency and especially of its rightward evolution. But that is how Macron has run his campaign. His programme is perfectly social-liberal. At a press conference on March1st he defended himself against accusations of being the "candidate of the financial oligarchy". He needs to defend himself, because on this ground he is eminently attackable. The European Financial Transaction Tax? "It's not the priority," he said. He wants to ease the rules imposed on banks and insurers: he wants to "reform in depth" the Wealth Tax in a way more favourable to shareholders; he proposes to reduce corporate tax from 33.3 per cent to 25 per cent and to eliminate the progressive character of the tax on capital income. On the social side - let us not forget that in "social-liberal" the noun is liberal and the adjective social – he only wants to cut the workforce of the public sector by 50,000, reduce public expenditure by 60 billion euros, put together an economic stimulus package of 50 billion euros. In another election Macron could have hoped to make a good score, perhaps arriving third, like the centrist François Bayrou in 2007, and raise his political profile. But this election is different and some factors are favourable to him. First, there is widespread volatility, a weakening of loyalties towards parties, a search for something new. Then there is the crisis of the two big parties, expressed by the candidatures of Fillon and Hamon. It is said that it could have been more difficult for Macron if the candidates opposing him were Juppé and Valls. No doubt, but it is not an accident that they are Fillon and Hamon. Finally, the scandals afflicting Fillon opened a large space for Macron. He can now present himself as the best shield against Le Pen. His programme suits the employers and the banks, although some still prefer Fillon and others worry about his lack of experience and the weakness of his movement. He is widely supported by the media in France and in Europe. But he has two weak points. First, his programme, tailored to the needs of finance, and his links with Banque Rothschild expose him to attacks, from both Le Pen and Mélenchon. Secondly, although he likes to present himself as someone new and has never been a member of the Socialist Party, he was very much responsible for Hollande’s policies. On that point, Fillon has now gone strongly on the offensive against him. The series of socialist leaders rallying to his candidacy is an expression of the crisis of the PS. But for Macron, this is a double-edged sword. On the one had it weakens Hamon - but that is no longer really necessary. On the other hand, it hinders Macron's attempt to emancipate himself from the record of Hollande’s presidency and to be, in a somewhat tired formula, "neither right nor left." Thus when Manuel Valls announced that he was going to vote for Macron, he was obviously relieved when the former prime minister added that he did not want to join his campaign and had nothing to ask of him.

The candidate to beat

For the other contenders for the Elysée, Le Pen remains the candidate to be defeated. Her base remains solid, the percentage of those polled who say they are certain to vote for her (83 per cent) exceeding that of all other candidates. But at this point she does not really seem to be making progress; in a recent poll she was on 25 per cent, against Macron on 26 per cent. The big question is how far she can broaden her electorate. Since she took over the leadership of the FN in 2011 she has made a real "social turn". She proposes to keep the 35-hour week, lower the retirement age, reduce taxes on households and increase social benefits. On the economic front, she is protectionist. But this social protectionism is for the French. Le Pen maintains the traditional policy of his party on immigration, which she wants to reduce to 10,000 per year. And although she wants to leave NATO, she also wants to increase military spending to 3% of the GDP. This “social” evolution worries the most traditional wing of FN supporters, represented in particular by her niece, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, who is more liberal on the economy, more conservative than her aunt on abortion, for example and is a practising Catholic. There is potential conflict there. But there is also a possible complementarity: Marine Le Pen and those around her can address voters on the left, her niece can more easily find an audience with those of Fillon, of whom 38 per cent say they are ready to vote Le Pen in the second round. We can be sure that once in power the social discourse would give way to the demands of the employers and the bankers. Beyond that, a victory of Le Pen would qualitatively reinforce and systematize all the tendencies towards the militarization of the police, the systematic repression, the attacks against the rights of workers and democratic rights, the racism and the xenophobia which are already present in France.

Mélenchon has the wind in his sails

The candidate who is making the most progress at this moment is Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who is a consistent opponent of the neoliberal order as well as of the extreme right. Mélenchon conducted a good campaign in 2012 as candidate of the Left Front. His score of more than 11 per cent was a success in a context where there was strong pressure for a “useful vote” for François Hollande, including to make sure that Marine Le Pen did not repeat her father's feat in 2002. The Left Front no longer exists as a national force, although it still exists in some areas. We should analyze one day its strengths and weaknesses and the causes of its breakup. This is a question that does not only concern France. Mélenchon could have retreated to the Left Party, of which he was the principal leader. That is not what he did. He launched a movement called La France insoumise (“Unsubmissive France”), in which there are activists who are members of parties, the Left Party obviously, but also others, and many people, the great majority, who are not in any party. The Communist Party decided last autumn, after difficult debates, to support the candidacy of Mélenchon. Many activists and leaders of the party, including the former national secretary Marie-George Buffet, had already come out in support of him well before that. His campaign was launched in February 2016. Its program, L’Avenir en commun (“The Future in Common”), was published in December. It is worth reading. Of course, he advocates a break with austerity and neoliberal policies and the reconstruction and extension of the social state. In immediate terms, he proposes increasing the minimum wage by 15 per cent, reducing the retirement age to 60, building 200,000 units of public housing per year. There is a strong ecological dimension, which is absolutely central to the project. Also central is the proposal of a Constituent Assembly and of a Sixth Republic, with extensive democratic rights and popular intervention, including the abolition of the elective monarchy represented by the Presidency of the Republic. On Europe, or rather the European Union, Mélenchon has a radical position. The Left Party actively participates in the European initiatives of Plan B, the starting point of which is the fact that there is no point in having a programme of social, economic and political transformation, a Plan A, so to speak, if we do not have a Plan B to deal with the foreseeable opposition of the European Union. The programme proposes a democratic, social and ecological reform of the EU, which is not compatible with the present treaties, and in the event of failure, proposals for defence against the Europe of finance, transforming the euro from a single to a common currency, not excluding an exit from the EU. The other candidates also obviously have positions on Europe. Le Pen proposes, from a purely nationalist perspective, to leave the euro and hold a referendum on EU membership. The other candidates do not contest the present EU, each of them proposing further integration; on an intergovernmental basis for Fillon, with the strengthening of existing European institutions or the creation of new ones for Macron and Hamon.

The best or the worst

It would be more than risky, less than three weeks from, the first round, to predict the outcome. Let us try simply to summarize the present situation. Le Pen remains in a position of strength. If she makes it into the second round her election remains improbable, but unfortunately not impossible. It depends on factors such as the transfer of votes for the candidates eliminated in the first round, the level of abstention, the fact that more than 40 per cent of voters remain undecided and even unpredictable things that can occur during the campaign. Macron remains ahead of the other candidates, but his support seems relatively porous and he is vulnerable to attacks. It is hard to imagine Fillon bouncing back, although he has, unlike Macron, a party machine behind him. Jean-Luc Mélenchon suffered, initially, from the arrival in the campaign of Hamon, whose positions on certain issues are not too far from his own, with the important exception of Europe, which also implies a divergence on NATO, which Mélenchon proposes leaving. Yet the various attempts to achieve a common campaign, supported in particular by the Communist Party, have always been problematic, though it might have been possible if Hamon had emancipated himself from the Socialist apparatus. Mélenchon began to move up in the polls after the first big televised debate on March 20, two days after he had mobilized 130,000 supporters in Paris, and to widen the gap with Hamon. A survey published on March 31 by the magazine Le Point put Mélenchon on 16 per cent and Hamon on 8 per cent. At that point, we began to hear calls for Hamon to withdraw. In another poll published by the Journal de dimanche on April 2nd, 44 per cent of respondents thought that Mélenchon best embodied "the ideas and values of the left", against 31 per cent for Hamon and 21 per cent for Macron. The second big televised debate took place on April 4, this time with not only the ”big five”, but the other six candidates too. Philippe Poutou of the New Anticapitalist Party got some good points across against Le Pen and Fillon. But the winner was once again Mélenchon. In one poll afterwards 52.8 per cent said that Mélenchon had won; the runner-up was Fillon with 15 per cent. In another poll 25 per cent found Mélenchon the most convincing (21 per cent for Macron); 22 per cent thought he had the best plans, as against23 per cent for Macron. Fillon is currently showing at between 17 and 19 per cent in the polls. If he cannot go up and if Mélenchon maintains his progress and overtakes him, the candidate of Unsubmissive France would be in third position. From that point, everything becomes possible. One poll on April 6 showed Mélenchon on 17 per cent with Fillon on 19 per cent and Le Pen and Macron tied at 23.5 per cent. With those sort of figures it becomes impossible to say with any certainty which two candidates will be in the second round. But it is now impossible to rule Mélenchon out. For the French left as a whole, everything is already possible, the best as well as the worst. The worst thing would be if the foreseeable rout of the PS in the legislative elections and its probable fragmentation took the whole left down with it. The best would be for a substantial force of the radical left to emerge from the wreckage. It is no exaggeration to say that the future of such a force depends very much on the success or failure of Jean-Luc Mélenchon's campaign.