Who will win the French presidential election? Does it even matter? Nothing in the programmes or personalities of the leading contenders gives confidence that any of them can fix the Fifth Republic and the corruption, dysfunction and stagnation that it has inflicted on the French. At Marie-Trinité’s café in the southern French village where I am an elected councillor, the mood before the voting is one of weary resignation and disgust.
Yet this election does matter, and it can make a difference, not only because all of the probable outcomes threaten to make things even worse, but because almost all of them have the potential to be particularly painful for Britain, whatever the result of our own election on June 8.
Jonathan Fenby and Aline-Florence Manent dissect France's election conundrum:
The first-round vote in France offers a smorgasbord of 11 candidates, from the bonkers through to the quixotic. Of these, the polls suggest, only four have any hope of getting through to the top-two run-off two weeks from now. For the UK, three out of the four are bad and a couple could be catastrophic. To add further confusion, more elections are to follow in June for the National Assembly, which will determine if the winner has a chance of forming a government.
There have been crowded first rounds before, but this was largely meaningless since the leading pair were always from the two main parties, the centrist UMP (now the Republicans) and the Socialist Party. The exception was in 2002 when National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen got into the second round, before being crushed by Jacques Chirac. No party has so far succeeded in reforming a country which does not let you buy aspirin in the supermarket and where dental hygienists are illegal because the dentists’ union fears competition.
This time will be different. Socialist hopes have disintegrated under the hapless presidency of François Hollande. The Republicans are in trouble too. Their own candidate, Francois Fillon, is under indictment for corruption. For French politicians, the election has become a matter of sauve qui peut — every man for himself.
Many are backing the supposed centrist, Emmanuel Macron, 39, although he has never been elected to anything. He is, inevitably, a graduate of the École nationale d’administration, the celebrated finishing school for the French elite. He then became a civil servant of the highest rank, Inspector of Finance, before moving to Rothschild & Co bank, where he made millions. A friend of mine who shared an office with Macron there describes him as ‘terrifyingly clever’.
Macron returned to the civil service as deputy secretary general of the Elysée, then as minister of the economy, before resigning to form his supposedly syncretic political movement, En Marche! How syncretic? Macron has both admitted and denied being a socialist. Hollande, who has abandoned his party’s official candidate, has told friends that Macron’s programme is his own. He is certain to endorse him if he gets to the second round. Macron remains favourite to win should he make it to round two. But will he? His superficial moderation conceals an impossible project. His manifesto resembles a box of chocolates from one of those upscale confiseries on the Rue Jacob: full of soft centres. He promises to fix the education system, which is on its knees; the health care system, which is broke; the police, who have been hopeless at confronting terrorism and rising insecurity, all the while handing out billions in new benefits and tax cuts to the young, the old and everyone in between. How he would pay for it is unclear.
The best argument thus far adduced for Macron is that he is not Marine Le Pen, but is this enough? He has seen no surge in support as the campaign has advanced and there are signs that the more the French get to know him, the less they like him. He’s just a bit weird. It would take a better expert than me to explore his fixation with older women (his book, Révolution, a treacly statement of his ambitions, is almost embarrassing in its panegyric treatment of his grandmother). Suffice to say, though, that his marriage to a woman almost 25 years his senior strikes most voters as bizarre. I have friends who were with him at Bagnères-de-Bigorre in the French Pyrenees last weekend and they said his comportment in the company of his pensioner wife, his former French teacher in high school, was that of ‘un petit garçon’.
Should he become president, it will not be good news for Britain. When he visited Theresa May in London a few weeks ago, he emerged from Downing Street not to thank her for the hospitality but to urge City bankers to move to Paris. He has pledged to put the EU at the centre of his project and to insist that single market access be restricted to its members, an unveiled threat to London.
The second disrupter is Jean-Luc Mélenchon, 65, whose politics are not unfairly compared to those of Jeremy Corbyn, though he is much more charming. He is running under the banner of La France Insoumise (France Unbowed), which channels the politics of the late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez. Mélenchon has proposed leaving the European Union and allying in a Bolivarian pact against capitalism. Not that he is himself representative of the France en bas. His declaration of patrimony reveals that he is comfortably a millionaire with property in Paris, a second home in the country and numerous bank accounts — la gauche caviar indeed.
His policies include a shutdown of nuclear power, on which France depends for 40 per cent of its energy needs; wholesale nationalisation; a 32-hour working week; six weeks’ paid holiday for everybody; 100 per cent taxes on incomes over €400,000; an outright prohibition of layoffs even for companies that are in economic difficulties, and unless Brussels bows to his demands, an exit from the EU and single currency.
Mélenchon also has a passionate hostility towards Germany, France’s closest partner in the European project. His pamphlet ‘Le Hareng de Bismarck’ describes Germany as a ‘monster across the Rhine,’ and the EU as run solely in German interests. This was no youthful folly. He wrote it in 2015. Should Mélenchon win, the least of the UK’s problems will be fending off the exodus of well-heeled refugees heading for Britain. The bigger one would be the probable mother of all European financial crises. Mélenchon would sow chaos and discord in the EU, hugely weakening its Brexit negotiating solidarity, if not precipitating the meltdown of the union altogether. This might give Theresa May more room for manoeuvre around the Brexit negotiating table, but financial collapse on the continent would not be wholly beneficial for Britain.
And then there is Marine Le Pen, 48. Topping most polls for round one, the leader of the National Front is a nationalist socialist, though it is incorrect to call her a fascist or a Nazi. She has separated her party from the overtly racist discourse of her father Jean-Marie, who dismissed the Holocaust as ‘a detail of history’. She has reached out to Jews and homosexuals and insists that even Muslims are welcome if they accept French values.
Le Pen grew up in a peculiar family. Her mother once posed for Playboy in a maid’s outfit after the famously tight Jean-Marie refused to increase her housekeeping money. Marine is on fractious terms with her niece, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, who is associated with a hardline faction of the Front, which believes Marine has sold out to political correctness. Marine has expelled her own father from the party he founded for refusing to tone down his rhetoric.
Her own economic policies are not entirely different from those of Mélenchon. She advocates preservation of France’s social model, ‘intelligent’ protectionism, and a Frexit referendum on leaving the European Union and the euro, although she has lately suggested that France could use two parallel currencies; the euro and a restored franc. Though she openly admires Brexit, she has not been invited to Downing Street and continues to be regarded as toxic by mainstream politicians. The assumption in the Paris media-political bubble has been that if Le Pen makes it to the second round, she would, like her father in 2002, be defeated by a ‘republican coalition’ led by Macron, uniting left and right.
This assumption could soon be stress-tested. She never expected to win this year and her militants admit privately that if she does, she is not in a strong position to govern. The leftist media would attack her relentlessly, she faces ongoing corruption investigations by leftist magistrates, and she cannot possibly assemble a majority in the National Assembly.
Nonetheless, the super-powerful presidency would give her huge influence in the conduct of French foreign relations, even as many French diplomats say they would refuse to serve her. As with Mélenchon, European comity would be shattered immediately. The EU would certainly be unable to impose punitive terms on Brexit, or even agree on anything at all.
And then there is the Republican, François Fillon, 63, the only one of the four who qualifies as a mainstream politician. An admirer of Margaret Thatcher, he acknowledges that France needs deep structural reforms. He wants to cut 500,000 functionaries from the bloated civil service, cut the crippling social charges that make French labour uncompetitive, eliminate the 35-hour week and make a bonfire of the 3,500-page employment code, a nightmare for French industry. The vaunted French social model, he argues, has in fact been a social disaster.
His programme is coherent but his personal conduct has been careless, if not avaricious. He put his British wife, Penelope, on the parliamentary payroll for years. There is scant evidence that she did any work. His kids got jobs, too. Nevertheless, a hardcore of French voters still support him, reasoning that it is better to elect a crook than any of the available alternatives. Besides, nepotism is par for the course in France.
Although he could form an approxim-ately competent government from the ranks of Republican deputies, his ability to impose reforms is questionable, since any effort to do so will certainly provoke strikes and paralysing demonstrations.
It’s taken a while for the political-media axis to realise just how unpredictable this election has become, and the potentially dire possible consequences, even if Le Pen can be beaten. Were Le Pen and Mélenchon to go through to round two, the crisis would not wait for the result. There’s not yet a full-bore run on French bonds but money is already moving out of France and the notion that London’s banks are about to decamp to Paris now belongs to the realms of fantasy.
Nowhere, perhaps, has there been so much complacency as in the higher echelons of the EU, where it is only now dawning that the French election may render EU summits unworkable and any semblance of a unified negotiating position on Brexit impossible. This could lead to the hardest of British exits, although it might no longer be clear what Britain would be exiting from.
As for France, even if it escapes Le Pen or Mélenchon this time and ends up with Fillon or Macron, it could be another story in 2022 as the country’s intractable malaise pushes it further towards political extremes.
Vive la France? Maybe not.