A week ago the Elysée Palace published its official summary of the achievements of the Presidency of François Hollande. It is a substantial document, running to over 70 pages, and the successes it lists are not insignificant. This is especially so in the fields of foreign policy and diplomacy where France has repeatedly been prepared to deploy its armed forces against Islamist threats. Growth has returned to the French economy and, at long last, unemployment has started to come down. Even the state of France’s public finances has started to improve.
Yet running through this document is a deep sense of hurt pride. Hollande is a man who feels misjudged and badly treated by his fellow citizens, by the press and especially by his own party. Having announced last December that he would not stand again, he can do no more than voice his mounting displeasure at the tenor of a presidential election that threatens to propel France (and possibly the EU) into a deep political crisis. Only after this forthcoming weekend’s first ballot will Hollande express his own voting intentions.
In that first contest one outcome is already abundantly clear. Hollande’s Socialist Party will be subject to a crushing and humiliating defeat. Its lacklustre candidate, Benoît Hamon, is expected to receive less than 10% of the vote. A party that five years ago held not only the Presidency but also a majority in the National Assembly and controlled most regional and local government can now aspire to an orderly retreat at best. It is by no means certain that the party will survive the legislative elections due this summer.
Little else in what has now become a four horse race can be predicted. What we know is that a large proportion of the French electorate have yet to make up their minds about how they will vote. Traditionally, French electors vote with their hearts in the first ballot and their heads in the second. This time around this could be a very dangerous strategy. We also know that large numbers will abstain, especially among young people where antipathy towards politics and politicians is widespread. Of the 18-24 year olds who do vote, the highest proportion will vote for Marine Le Pen.
The surprise has been the surge in popularity of leftist firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Here is left-wing populism in its pure form. His speeches attack the rich, the powerful, the worlds of corporate business and finance, political elites and anyone else he can associate with the “uberisation of society”. He wants France out of NATO and the EU, the closure of France’s nuclear power industry, and an end to what he dismisses as the “presidential monarchy” of the Fifth Republic. Not a word of criticism about Russian involvement in Syria crosses his lips. To his critics, Mélenchon’s is a Marxism for children. If so, there are a lot of children among the French electorate.
One safe bet looks to be that Marine Le Pen will safely make it into the second ballot in early May. But even this looks less secure than it did a few weeks ago. For months, Le Pen has been ahead in the polls and she has carefully moderated her party’s message and broadened its appeal. But her recent much-publicised meeting with Vladimir Putin seems to have done her little good and she now finds herself having to denounce the actions of a man she so recently praised: Donald Trump. Her tone and that of her supporters has become noticeably more strident of late. Sounding just like her father, in a television interview Marine Le Pen needlessly denied the responsibility of France for the deportation of Jews during the Second World War.
So will a faltering Le Pen allow François Fillon, candidate of the centre-right, to sneak ahead? Fillon’s difficulties are too well-known to need recounting. But let us remember that, only a few months ago, he looked to be a certain winner. Will the support that so quickly evaporated now return? Fillon certainly thinks so. And he might be right. If there is a safe pair of hands, Fillon has them. If enough of the French electorate smell danger, he might surprise us all.
Where does this leave the boy wonder and former investment banker Emmanuel Macron? Somehow or other he has been able to convince sizable numbers of people that he represents something new. Many socialist voters, including former Prime Minister Manuel Valls, are ready to support him.
If Macron faces Le Pen in the second round, he will be the clear winner. Against either Fillon or Mélenchon, he should still win. But what if it is a contest between Fillon and Mélenchon? Which way will centre-left voters jump? Worse still, what if the two candidates left standing are Le Pen and Mélenchon? Then we have the situation that Hollande and his fellow EU leaders most fear. We should fear it too, for out of this no good will come. Whatever the outcome, this Presidential election will undoubtedly redraw the French political map in ways scarcely imagined less than a year ago.