Patrick Marnham

France’s political system is crumbling. What’s coming next looks scary

Marine Le Pen has the centre-right in her sights. And Hollande has no clue and little hope

France's political system is crumbling. What's coming next looks scary
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[/audioplayer]Last week President François Hollande, following his party’s humiliation in the European parliamentary elections (his Socialists won roughly half as many seats as the National Front), decided to cheer himself up. He left Paris and travelled to Clairefontaine to mingle with France’s World Cup football squad.

‘If you do win the World Cup final on 13 July,’ he told the millionaire players (most of whom avoid Hollande’s taxes by being paid outside France), ‘you will deserve a triumphant welcome. But we will not be able to give you the reception you will deserve, because the Champs-Elysées is already booked for the military parade of 14 July!’

Ed Miliband could hardly have put it more lamely. Having uttered his words of feeble encouragement, the least effective national leader the Fifth Republic has endured bumbled back to the scenes of economic devastation and ministerial panic that mark France’s political landscape today.

If the British recovery from the recession has been slow, in France it is nonexistent. The latest figures show that the Socialist government’s policies — almost exact replicas of the ‘two Eds’ (Miliband and Balls) approach the Labour party wants to implement in Britain — are a complete failure: economic growth in the first two years of Hollande’s administration has been 0.8 per cent, whereas the British economy has grown five times faster in the same period. The latest figures show current growth at zero per cent, and the forecast for the rest of the year is not much better.

France’s employment figures are even worse. When Hollande was elected in May 2012 on an anti-austerity ticket (‘-Another way is possible,’ he promised), he said he’d cut unemployment within 18 months. Instead, it has risen by 15 per cent to a scandalous 3.3 million. He said he’d help mend the finances by slapping a 75 per cent tax on the richest. He got his way, eventually, but figures last week show that French tax receipts are collapsing. Footballers and Gerard Depardieu are not the only ones moving abroad and declaring taxes elsewhere. Hollande is demonstrating anew that high taxes redistribute people, rather than wealth. One might think that this could be the ideal moment for France’s conservative opposition, the UMP, to lay the foundations for a right-wing victory in the presidential elections of 2017. Unfortunately, the UMP is in an even more distressed state than the government. It has no leader, it has no programme and it lacks even an agreed means of selecting its next party president. Mired in scandal and shorn of purpose, the UMP could be on the verge of breaking up.

The implosion of Hollande’s main opposition is worth studying, because it shows how France’s politics is in an even worse shape than its economy. The UMP was founded in 2002 as a means of uniting the ‘republican right’ (that is, the Gaullist RPR and the centre-right UDF) against the growing popularity of the extreme-right Front National, led by Jean-Marie Le Pen. The UMP remained in government for the next ten years until the election of François Hollande. Following that setback, the party held a ballot to elect its president and this election was won by a Sarkozy supporter, Jean-François Copé.

A savage internal battle then broke out between Mr Copé and former prime minister François Fillon, since, according to Mr Fillon, Mr Copé had rigged the ballot that won him the leadership. This struggle only ended last week when Copé, the party president and chief bruiser, was forced to announce his resignation. This had become inevitable since he had been named in a police investigation into illegal overspending during President Sarkozy’s failed re-election campaign of 2012.

Some £9 million of illicit funds had been concealed by the use of forged invoices. Questioned on national television last week, Mr Copé’s right-hand man — who had to sign all the receipts — burst into tears.

Mr Fillon is a very different personality to Mr Copé. His wife is Welsh, his brother is married to his wife’s sister (vive l’entente cordiale) and he displays every mark of the gentleman. Furthermore, despite having spent five years as Nicolas Sarkozy’s prime minister, he is seen to be honest. But sadly this may not be the fastest means of reaching the top in the Fifth Republic. And notwithstanding the fact that he has finally shafted his agile rival, Mr Fillon still faces serious competition for the leadership of the French right.

First there is Alain Juppé, also a former prime minister. Juppé is a veteran Gaullist, one of the long-standing ‘barons’ of French politics. But ten years ago, his political career suffered something of a setback when he received a 14-month suspended prison sentence for misuse of public money. On being convicted, Mr Juppé resigned as mayor of Bordeaux, but his ever-forgiving voters re-elected him two years later. In his defence, it was said at the time that he had simply been carrying the can for Jacques Chirac’s corrupt system of financing his own political career.

The other candidate hoping to save France is of course the former president Nicolas Sarkozy. Despite his constant denials, Mr Sarkozy is still very much a player in the political game. Some might think that with his one-time campaign manager under police investigation for illegal use of electoral funds, Mr Sarkozy, too, might be under a bit of a cloud. But his supporters scoff at the idea. In France, it is the presidential campaign managers who do the dirty work, and whatever it is they do, it should never be traceable to their principals. A recent opinion poll showed that, for two thirds of voters, the 2017 candidature of Nicolas Sarkozy is both ‘undesirable’ and ‘probable’.

Currently, Mr Sarkozy and his close associates are under investigation in no fewer than five other criminal matters, the most serious of which concerns the selling or trafficking of public office, contracts or honours. In this case, it is believed to centre around allegations of either threatening or bribing judges, including members of France’s Supreme Court. As part of their inquiries, the investigating authorities have tapped Mr Sarkozy’s telephones and grilled his senior staff members for weeks on end.

Even that may not be Sarkozy’s biggest problem. In March, he discovered to his horror that one of his closest associates, Patrick Buisson, had been secretly recording their private meetings during his five years in the Elysée. Buisson may have hours of recorded conversations, covering everything from base political manoeuvring to state secrets. Meanwhile, Sarko’s allies are doing everything they can to block the possibility that either Mr Fillon or Mr Juppé could become the UMP’s presidential candidate in 2017.

For French voters looking for signs that a more effective government might be on the horizon, the disintegration of the UMP must be deeply depressing. It leaves Marine Le Pen’s National Front as the only successful political formation currently in good order. Her victory in the European parliamentary elections, when her party quadrupled its score in comparison with the 2009 European elections and topped the poll with 25 per cent of the vote, was very much a personal triumph. Under her leadership, the party has changed tack, downplaying the racism that characterised her father’s era and emphasising policies that are designed to attract traditional left-wing voters.

It is an error to regard Marine Le Pen’s party as being right-wing — and somehow repugnant to left-wing voters. Le Pen rails against globalisation and free trade, against ‘American tax-dodging multinationals’ and the French employers’ association. She wants a high minimum wage, tariff barriers, and a preference in employment, housing and social benefits for French citizens over European or international immigrants. Were such policies ever introduced, France would cut its links with the developed world and drift off into some imaginary national paradise of its own invention.

But that is not how matters are viewed by people trapped in the depths of a recession with no apparent way out. This is why the National Front picked up an astonishing 43 per cent of the working-class vote, against the Socialist government’s figure of 6 per cent. Marine Le Pen has said that she will now make the dissolution of the UMP her top priority, and if she keeps up her momentum she will make it to the final round of the 2017 French presidential election.

All this has implications far beyond the borders of France. The 24 MEPs (one third of the French contingent) that Le Pen is sending to Brussels are mandated to leave both the euro and the European Union. Her triumph would dismantle the Franco--German axis, the historical motor of the EU. The German chancellor has already said that her chief concern for the future of Europe is the state of France. And little wonder: France is at a crossroads. If it cannot emerge from its economic doldrums, France will join the dysfunctional Club Med countries — leaving Germany alone to hold the EU together. This would be a task even beyond Frau Merkel’s abilities.

France is no stranger to such crises. The Fifth Republic was founded in 1958 by Charles de Gaulle when France was threatened with a military coup and was on the verge of civil war over the decolonisation of Algeria. It is a measure of the current desperate state of French politics — a failed government, a corrupt and squabbling opposition and a rampant National Front — that the public debate now includes a growing discussion of a new constitution, the abolition of an executive presidency and the forced revival of parliamentary democracy. The abolition, in other words, of the Fifth Republic itself.