Since my last post on France’s presidential election, much has happened in the campaign. The Socialist party picked a candidate, Benoit Hamon, though his odds remain slim. There has also been the stunning rise of Emmanuel Macron, and equally dramatic fall of Francois Fillon. Marine Le Pen has, ironically, been one of the only constants in this campaign. Le Pen is also the only candidate pretty much guaranteed a spot in the second round. First, lets discuss the Socialist Party.
The Socialist Party, as I discussed last November, is deeply unpopular as a result of President Hollande’s legacy. The Left also features more independent candidates crowding the field then does the Right, which may make is difficult for them to reach the second round. Further, the Socialist Party candidate, Benoit Hamon, is from the hard left of the party. This at a time when electorates around the world, and particularly in France, are moving to the right. Hamon promises more government spending and more social welfare, all at a time when most in France recognize the need for cuts (though they may not like it). Hamon best shot at winning the election is to mobilize enough of his party’s member to eke out a first round win, and hope that in the second round the traditional “Republican Front” holds against Le Pen. (The “Republican Front” is the custom of French voters, right and left, to rally together to block the National Front from winning elections in the second round.) This is quite the gamble however, given the general unpredictability of global politics at the moment.
Francois Fillon, the candidate of the center-right Republican party, has seen himself go from the clear favorite to having his candidacy itself in question. It has emerged, allegedly, that Fillon paid his wife a state salary for a job she did not perform. Whatever the truth of the matter, the damage is already done. The scandal paints Fillon as just another corrupt bureaucrat, one of the out-of-touch elites. Fillon poll numbers have collapsed and his party is seriously discussing replacing him in the election. Replacing Fillon, however, would only divide the Republican party and leave the new candidate little time to make their case to the French electorate. Fillon may be able to pull himself together by the first round, again hoping for the “Republican Front” to hold in the second round, but with each passing day his odds look increasingly slim.
Into the vacuum left by Fillon and Hamon has stepped Emmanuel Macron. Macron is now polling essentially even with Marine Le Pen, an impressive accomplishment to be sure. Like the National Front itself Macron has fused traditional right and left policies, opting instead for a “third way.” Unlike the National Front however, Macron left-right blend is flipped compared to historic “third way” parties. Traditionally, such parties adopt left-wing economics and right-wing social policies. Macron has adopted right-wing economics and left-wing social policies. He is a free-market socialist. The trouble for Macron is that the French are loath to weaken the welfare system, no matter the necessity, and are increasingly becoming more conservative on social issues. But Macron’s biggest challenge comes from his lack of a party base. He may poll well, as the polls are conducted by newspapers with their own logistical reach, but when it comes to mobilizing voters he has little ability to do anything. But if he can make it to the second round, perhaps the “Republican Front” will hold for him as well. But what then? Without a party, how does he expect to pass any legislation? French voters are bound to be asking themselves this same question.
Again, looming over all this, is Marine Le Pen and the National Front. The National Front’s primary goal in this election is to break the “Republican Front.” Their strategy to do so appears to be quite simple: be ourselves. The National Front argument is thus: you’ve blocked us out for years, and look where you are, give us a chance! By focusing on a clearly defined, consistent core message the National Front is able to present themselves as the only party with a plan. The Socialists’ promises are just more of the same, while the Republicans promise little new except not being Hollande. Macron is the only other candidate whose policies represent real change, but so far he has been quite vague on specifics, and again, has not party to support him. Marine Le Pen has a well defined, and increasingly popular, platform: French nationalism, anti-globalization, anti-Europe. She also has a strong, well organized party to mobilize voters and disseminate that message. And while the National Front still has almost no parliamentary seats, parliamentary elections are just a few weeks after the presidential elections. Should Le Pen win the presidency, her party would be well poised to sweep into the National Assembly. It becomes increasingly likely that Marine Le Pen will win France’s election.
France’s election boils down to one question: who offers the best chance for real change? The two main parties, the Socialists and the Republicans, are deeply divided and easily presented as corrupt elites concerned only with maintaining power. Macron promises change but his ability to deliver is in doubt. Marine Le Pen too promises change, but with a far greater ability to make good on those promises. France is at a crossroads. How far are they willing to go to for change? How strong is discontent with the establishment and status quo? Enough to break the “Republican Front”? The National Front seems poised to finally sweep into power, for good or for ill.