The French Presidential Elections – 2017
Vote with your head, then vote with your heart. For almost 200 years, this has been the guiding principle behind France’s 2-round election system. If there is no clear majority in the first round of elections, then the two most popular candidates go through to a straight run-off two weeks later. The system was designed to limit the potential for violent swings in political sentiment during elections. A barrier of sorts, to keep the hot-heads and agitators from any real source of power.
Although the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen looks set to secure a position in a second-round run-off in May, many have written off her chances due to the innate ability of the French people to rally against a radical candidate that has managed to slip through the net of the first-round. The 2002 elections speak to this. Although Jean-Marie Le Pen surprisingly made it to a second-round run-off, he and the National Front were comfortably beaten by an 82% majority in favour of Jacques Chirac.
Many predict a repeat of this in May. However, the circumstances surrounding this year’s election are in stark contrast to those that have surrounded any recent French presidential election. From the British decision to leave the EU, the election of Donald Drumpf to President of the U.S., to a wave of terrorist attacks across France in the past 2 years.
Throughout the past 6 years since Marine Le Pen took over from her father as the leader of the National Front (FN), she has worked tirelessly to transform the image of the party, from that of a radical anti-Republican fringe group, to that of a bastion of traditional French values that sees itself as the only guarding force against France’s existential threats. Although the language used by the FN has matured in recent years, the threats that it sees to France have remained the same, be it Islam, the EU or globalism. Her appeal to many is driven by a sense that only a radical change in direction can solve France’s most chronic problems. Border security, mass unemployment, low economic growth and failed integration are all heavily linked to this.
The British decision to leave the EU has become a powerful weapon in Le Pen’s arsenal. She has persistently used it as an example of a French alternative to the shackles of the EU that have constrained French development for decades. If the British can do it, then we can do it, so goes the reasoning. In an interview with PGW, Thierry Arnaud, a political correspondent with BFMTV added that, “in the past she has suffered from a lack of credibility that has inevitably held her back. These events are being used to show the French public that voting for her is not as radical position as it once was.”
This promise of an independent France will be difficult to deliver however. For France to leave the EU it would require approval in both the National Assembly and the Senate. From this, it would either be put to a vote in a national referendum or would require further approval from 3/5 of the whole of Congress. This is where the 2-round barrier comes into play again. Although the FN secured 13% of the popular vote in the 2012 legislative election there are only 4 far-right lawmakers out of nearly 900. This innate ability to form a unifying force against a radical candidate or party was again shown in the 2015 regional elections, where despite topping voting nationally in the first round, the FN failed to secure a single region. In controversial seats in the north and the south where Marine Le Pen and her niece Marion Maréchal-Le Pen looked favourites to win, it was the foresight of the left-wing candidates who pulled out and urged supporters to vote for centre-right candidates that ultimately blocked a Le Pen victory.
Le Pen would then be faced with the barrier of holding a referendum. Following the British decision to leave the EU in June 2016, Paris/iTELE found that only 35% of those polled supported a similar French exit from the EU, another poll from TNS found the figure to be even lower.
Feelings and sentiments can, however, change as we have seen in the past year and a half, the polls can often tell a different story. When comparing a British exit from the EU with that of a possible French one it is important to distinguish the levels of identity that each feel towards the EU. France, as a whole is more invested in the European project than that of her British counter-parts. This is evident at both a political/diplomatic and a societal level. As a founding member of the union who shares a physical border with 5 other EU nations, France’s commitment to the EU’s development has fostered a sense of Europeanism within much of its population. Despite the rise of Le Pen and recent events, a French exit from the EU is highly unlikely, and almost logistically impossible.
Her rival in the second-round run-off looks set to be Emmanuel Macron, baring a significant comeback by François Fillon. The former economics minister under François Hollande, is running as an independent under his own party En Marche! Macron is the polar opposite of Le Pen, a staunch globalist that espouses the virtues of the free movement of labour and capital, with his political message wedded to that of the EU. His rise is coupled with that of the demise of conservative candidate, François Fillon. The former Prime Minister under Nicholas Sarkozy continues to be embroiled in a scandal over payments he made to his wife, Penelope Fillon, for work that she apparently did not do.
The details of ‘Penelopegate’ look as if they may continue to drip through until election day, but it is not the actual scandal that we are concerned with, it is the timing. Fillon’s almost bemusement that these revelations were made public now, speaks to the sad truth that nepotism is not unusual in French politics. In fact, it is rather common for a politician to employ a member of their family. The payments in question stretch over many years through to when he was Prime Minister. So why then, have these revelations only just been uncovered?
The timing of the Fillon scandal mirrors that of the email fiasco that strangled Hillary Clinton’s campaign in the immediate run-up to the U.S. presidential election. The leaking of such damning information fits into the DGSE’s assessments that Russia may be playing a role in trying to dictate the outcome of the French election, as it was deemed to have done in the U.S. elections last year.
A U.S. congressional intelligence committee, that investigated these claims, concluded that ‘Moscow will apply lessons learned from its Putin-ordered campaign aimed at the US presidential election to the future influence efforts worldwide, including US allies and their election processes.’ This is expected to take the form of thousands of ‘bots’ flooding the internet with positive messages of support for Le Pen, negative messages surrounding her rivals, and the strategic leaking of information about her rivals. It has also been suggested that Drumpf supporters in the U.S. have been setting up fake social media accounts that look to manipulate French users into believing that Marine Le Pen is the most legitimate voice in France.
There is no evidence to suggest that the Russians leaked the information to Le Canard Enchaîné who broke the story, however, a cache of documents released by WikiLeaks that contain information on Emmanuel Macron does suggest that the DGSE’s fears over foreign influence in the election could be true. The Russian state-owned broadcaster, Sputnik, who recently set up a French language service, also ran a ‘fake news’ story that suggested Macron could be a U.S. agent that is looking to lobby the interests of American banks.
A clearer link between Le Pen and Russia however, can be drawn from her request for a $30 million loan to help finance her campaign from a Russian bank that has close ties to the Kremlin. This association between the First Czech Russian Bank (FCRB) in Moscow and the Kremlin was publicly acknowledged by the FN, but was justified on the grounds that French banks were unwilling to support her campaign.
However, there is nothing illegal in seeking funds from foreign-owned banks in French presidential elections and there is little evidence to support the claims that Moscow is actively seeking to undermine Le Pen’s rivals in favour of the FN. Even if it were true, its impact would be marginal at best. Nevertheless, a continued campaign of slander aimed at Macron and Fillon could help to amplify Le Pen’s message further.
With the far-right firebrand, Geert Wilders, looking set to win the Dutch elections in mid-March it is looking increasingly likely that Le Pen will make it to a second-round run-off comfortably. The momentum that began with the British decision to leave the EU last year and that will continue to grow with a Wilders win, plays directly into the hands of Le Pen. Coupled with the demise of her closest rival and the fact that any threats to France’s security between now and April will only strengthen her message, it is not impossible that Marine Le Pen may become the next President of France. The shooting on the Champs-Élysées that occurred on the 20th April may just tip the balance in favour of Le Pen.
For this to happen, however, the FN would need 2.5 times more votes than they have ever got in a single election. A challenge that seems insurmountable to most. There is, however, a growing feeling in French and European politics that anything can happen. ‘From 1974 to the present day – with the exception of 2002 – you could make a confident judgement on who would be in the second round. This election, however, is atypical in its relations to others. The only thing that is sure is that one, or perhaps both of the main parties will not make it to the second round.’
Alistair Pyle is a partner and director at PGW.
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