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Why France could be the next country to reject existing political order

(L-R) Francois Fillon; Marine le Pen; Alain Juppe - Credit: Archant

After Brexit and Trump’s election, the world’s eyes have turned to France: which path will it choose?

2016 has seen radical shifts in politics across the West, not least in Britain and the US. Next year is likely to see France continue the trend of electorates thumbing their noses at conventional wisdom – but not necessarily in the same direction as elsewhere.

While the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States indicates a retreat from the global stage toward economic protectionism at home – or so he and his team claim at any rate – France’s 2017 general election sees the county poised on a knife edge. Change is in the air, but when voters ‘go to the urns’ – as the French describe it, after the ancient custom of chucking pebbles in urns to cast a vote – will they vote for the ‘Poujadism’ of the National Front or will they tear-up decades of social protection by choosing a free market future?

The question arose following shock results in the primary election held to choose the next leader of the centre-right Republican party. The fact that former president Nicolas Sarkozy lost is not particularly surprising – even if the drastic scale of his humiliation was – but the expected champion, centrist Alain Juppé, came a poor second to his fellow former prime minister Francois Fillon, whose victory has left many outside France asking: ‘who?’.

Fillon came out of nowhere to win the first round of the primary, and so this apparent also-ran is now not only likely to face down Marine Le Pen in next year’s general election, but has already pulled off the coup of ending the political career of his former boss, Sarkozy.

Though he hasn’t quite clinched his party’s nomination just yet – a second round of voting will be held on November 27 – many now feel his strong performance, capturing 44.2 percent of the vote, means he will defeat Juppé to become the Republican candidate for the 2017 presidential election.

Dismissed as a rank outsider, Fillon was virtually ignored by the press, and didn’t figure significantly in the polls until a couple of weeks before he won his party’s primary election; sound familiar?

Despite his former outsider status in the race, Fillon could not be more unlike Trump in one important respect: Fillon is about as establishment as he could be without actually turning into his opponent, Alain Juppé.

Mildly euro-critical, Fillon doesn’t want France to leave the EU and, like all establishment figures in France, favours some degree of further EU integration, though he did campaign against the formation of the euro currency as well as on the No side in the failed 2005 European constitution referendum.

Where Fillon does represent a decisive break with the status quo it is – mostly – in the opposite direction of Trump: born again as an economic liberal, Fillon wants to revitalise France’s stagnant economy with a dose of harsh, capitalist medicine.

Top among his manifesto pledges is to cut 500,000 civil servant jobs – radical stuff in a country where more than a fifth of the workforce works for the government. In addition he plans to make reductions in welfare payments and promises 40 billion euros in corporate tax cuts.

Where Trump came to power on a wave of, among other things, demands that Americans are protected from the winds of free trade, Fillon wants to subject France to more competition. In their own ways, then, both are espousing politics that represent a break from decades of prevailing wisdom.

One aspect of Fillon’s politics do come close to those of Trump – and possibly UKIP – though: he is, at least by the standards of a typical western European politician, pro-Russian.

Facing the National Front

Fillon’s rise has already set the territory for the 2017 battle. Unlike the staid Juppé, Fillion is a divisive figure: some love his plans for market reforms, while others loathe him for precisely the same reason.

The Socialist Party (PS) under president François Hollande is in tatters, with his satisfaction rating among voters at a shockingly low four percent. Leading a country buffeted by Islamist terror attacks and economic stagnation, Hollande looks an increasingly hapless figure, and if he stands in his own party’s primary in January is likely to be roundly defeated. A fresher leader may not be enough to save his party at the polls, though, and most observers believe the PS will be ejected in the first round of the presidential election, with the second round becoming a contest between the Republicans and the National Front (FN).

The FN had a brief proto-‘Thatcherite’ period but in the 1970s, but has since returned to a statist orientation and is now firmly back in the ‘dirigiste’ mainstream of French politics, with party leader Le Pen hitting out at ‘social dumping’ in the EU (wage restraint and unemployment caused by intra-EU migration).

Today, viewed on a left-right axis, the FN’s economic policy is well to the left of most European social democratic parties. Of course, there is a long history of state intervention in the economy on the political right that has been obscured in recent decades; for instance, fascist politicians in the 1930s advocated ‘corporatism’, a doctrine that saw the nation as a body that must be protected both from the internationalism of communists as well as that of capitalists.

Responding to Fillon’s first round victory, the FN’s deputy leader Florian Philippot described him as an ‘ultra-liberal, clearly out for austerity’. In a country with such a longstanding commitment to state intervention in the economy these are fighting words.

Fillon’s rise has rattled the FN, which is widely believed to have hoped to face former president Nicolas Sarkozy. Sarkozy, despite his attempts to claw back into the political scene with belligerent rhetoric around Islam, is widely unpopular in France, perceived as being too ‘bling-bling’, and is facing legal troubles that already threatened to undermine his credibility.

If Juppé wins the FN will attack him as being soft on Islam, too in favour of multiculturalism, and for being too pro-EU. Juppé has had his own legal troubles, too: in 2004 the 71-year-old former PM was given a suspended sentence, having been convicted of misuse of public funds.

With Fillon at the helm, the FN’s strategy will go heavy on protecting France from what Le Pen called ‘mondialisation sauvage’ (savage globalisation), a vote winner with older former supporters of the left if not with young, chic ‘bobo’ hipsters repulsed by the FN.

Even if Le Pen can continue to woo disgruntled former Socialist party and Communist party voters – the same kind of old traditional working class voters that moved from Labour to UKIP in the UK – Fillon’s policies outside the realm of economics could do a lot to win back those disgruntled right wingers also tempted to vote for the FN: he is concerned about a ‘problem linked to Islam’, opposed gay marriage, demands immigrants integrate and wants to impose stricter controls on non-EU immigration.

In other words, apart from economic issues the two only have matters of degree to argue with each other on, not principle, and while Le Pen has worked hard to remove the stench of accusations of fascism and revanchism from her party, her success in doing so should not be mistaken for an endorsement from the majority of people in France.

Fillion will be more palatable for many and if they can be persuaded to ignore his economic policy even the centre left may weigh-in behind him in the second round of the 2017 presidential election simply to keep out the FN, as happened when Jacques Chirac faced Jean-Marie Le Pen in 2002.

Looking east

So, can Le Pen and the FN win? It seems unlikely: France’s two-round run off election system was designed by General De Gaulle to ensure that the president enjoyed the support of the majority of the country and could almost have been designed to keep the FN at bay.

And yet, never say never. 2016 has already been a year of shocks, and with Italy voting in a constitutional referendum in early December – one that many are planning on using to slap the current government and EU – there could be more in store even before France votes in 2017. As in many other countries these days, all bets are off in French politics.

While both history and the electoral system mitigate against it, electorates elsewhere have already proved willing to vote for change, possibly any change, as long as it means upsetting the applecart. Whether that sense of breaking free from stasis can be better tapped by the free-marketer Fillon or the calculated nostalgia offered by Le Pen remains to be seen.

In a poll published by Ipsos on November 20, Le Pen came out as the most popular politician in France with 29 percent support – at least when the scenario was her facing the now retired Sarkozy.

Whether Fillon or Le Pen wins there will be changes in France’s international relations – subtly if it is the former, radically if it is the latter.

American sniggering about French military prowess aside, France is, along with Britain, one of Europe’s two leading military powers and has, since the 1990s, been involved in conflicts in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Ivory Coast, Somalia, Chad, the Central African Republic, Mali, Libya and Iraq to name but a few, along with bombing Isis in Syria.

It is also a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.

Le Pen has described NATO as ‘unbearable’ and a ‘tool for making sure countries that are part of it comply with the will of the United States’, clearly indicating that the EU is not the only transnational organisation she wants France to leave.

Fillon’s ambitions are less radical. While cool on the alliance, he is unlikely to call for France to leave NATO. He will seek rapprochement with Russian president Vladimir Putin, however. Speaking to journalists in July, Fillon said ‘We [the West] partly provoked the situation’ with Russia. He also called on the EU to lift its sanctions on Russia and hailed the country’s military attacks on Isis in Syria, whereas most Western politicians condemned them as a fig-leaf giving cover to the propping-up of the Bashar Al-Assad regime.

And then there’s the ever-thorny issue of Europe. While French euroscepticism has cooled somewhat since the Brexit vote, France is not quite the pro-EU country many in the UK imagine it to be. Not only do voices on the fringes of left and right alike call for an exit, but there is much grumbling from the public as a whole, primarily around economic issues with the EU cast in the role of forcing unwanted change down Gallic throats.

Assuming Juppé doesn’t pull off a surprise win on November 27, both Fillon and Le Pen candidates will seek to redefine France’s relationship with Russia, but only Le Pen, the self-styled ‘Madame Frexit’, will seek to pull the country of the EU.

Fillon, on the other hand, is committed to French membership of the EU. On Brexit, he is something of a hardliner, though, and, unlike Sarkozy, will be no ally to Theresa May and her team. He has said that Brexit must be ‘serene’ but also ‘fast’ and has already argued that British MEPs should lose their voting rights in the EU parliament.

Whatever happens, one thing is for sure interesting days are ahead in French – and European – politics.

Jason Walsh is a reporter based in Paris

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