The French presidential elections will settle whether or not the Brexit-Trump phenomenon is contagious

By Professor Peter McPhee AM. University of Melbourne

After the shock Brexit result in Britain in June 2016 and Donald Trump’s unexpected triumph a few months later, in November, what are the chances of the right-wing Front National’s Marine Le Pen completing a populist trifecta in the French presidential elections?

She certainly thinks her chances are strong, although she has dropped her explicit enthusiasm for Trump, if not for his policies.

Eleven candidates will contest the first round of the elections on 23 April. If no-one wins a majority (that is virtually impossible), the two front-runners will face off a fortnight later on 7 May.

Only four candidates have a strong chance of being in the run-off. In the weeks leading up to the first round of voting, opinion polls had the independent, centrist Emmanuel Macron and Le Pen both at around 22-24%, the conservative Les Républicains party François Fillon on 19-20% and the hard left France Insoumise (‘Rebellious France’) Jean-Luc Mélenchon rising to about the same figure as Fillon late in the race. The candidate of current President François Hollande’s Parti Socialiste, Benoît Hamon, languishes well behind.

While all the polls have Le Pen losing clearly in the second round to any of the other three, even Mélenchon, the final results are difficult to predict with confidence. One reason for that is that voting is voluntary in France and opinion polls are therefore less accurate than in Australia. Much depends on voter turn-out, although it is usually as high as 80-85%. A second reason is that, as with supporters of Brexit and Trump, supporters of Le Pen are more likely to avoid answering frankly in opinion polls because of hesitation about appearing ‘racist’ or ‘deplorable’.

Marine Le Pen 

Marine Le Pen

Le Pen is an articulate, powerful orator whose programme has pushed the same buttons as Trump’s: secure borders against asylum seekers and unauthorised migrants, national economic interests against globalisation, tougher policing, and hostility to perceived threats to cultural identity. One major problem is her historical baggage. While she has steadily distanced herself from her father’s alleged anti-semitism (‘the holocaust was just a detail of history’), her recent pronouncement that France should not feel guilt for the deportation of Jews during World War II has wounded her.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon

Jean-Luc Melanchon

Another problem for Le Pen is that, while she seeks to appeal (again like Trump) to the white working-class made vulnerable by the decline of manufacturing and mining, many working-class families remain supportive of the left. The most recent polls have seen a surge of support for hard-left candidate Mélenchon, with his mix of economic protectionism, promises to lower retirement age, higher taxes on the wealthy, and opposition to US air strikes in Syria. Should the Parti Socialiste candidate Hamon finally back Mélenchon, which is unlikely, the latter would have a fair chance of being the next President of France.

Emmanuel Macron

Emanuel Macron

France’s role in Europe is at the heart of the election. While Mélenchon paradoxically echoes Le Pen in his hostility to globalisation and the Europe of ‘elites’, the centrist Emmanuel Macron has made it plain that he stands for a stronger Europe. As a former banker and minister in a Socialist, pro-Europe government, Macron is a choice target for Le Pen: he personifies the ‘insiders’ and ‘elites’ blamed for France’s economic and social uncertainties. She describes him as ‘unFrench’. But Le Pen’s problem is that three-quarters of French people want to stay in Europe, even if they are profoundly cynical about ‘Brussels’ and what it represents. So Le Pen has been targeting the euro and talking of bringing back the franc and ‘economic independence’, without clarity on whether this will end in a ‘Frexit’. Her proposed referendum on Europe would require parliamentary approval in any case.

François Fillon

Francois Fillon

It is difficult to see Fillon progressing past the first round, so tainted has he been by a protracted and continuing scandal whereby it is alleged that his wife – who had long insisted that she was not directly involved in her husband’s political career – had nevertheless been paid about $100,000 annually over fifteen years from the public purse for ill-defined electoral work. This sits uncomfortably with Fillon’s proposed solution to France’s huge budget deficit, the cutting of up to 500,000 public sector positions.  

Most important, none of these candidates inspire confidence about their capacity to resolve the most fundamental problems that France – like many other European nations – faces: seemingly intractable levels of unemployment, especially among young people; large numbers of disaffected first- and second-generation migrants, particularly from North Africa; and a widespread sense of insecurity and uncertainty about the future. It is striking that two of the four front-runners – Le Pen and Mélenchon – are stridently against ‘the system’.

These challenges are exacerbated in France by the rigidities of employment and social security regulation which, while offering unparalleled protection to their beneficiaries, exclude those struggling for stable employment. As a minister in the Hollande government, Macron tried but failed to implement workplace reform; neither he nor the others look able to do so now.

While the most likely result of the 23 April first round is that Macron and Le Pen will advance to face off on 7 May, there are many uncertainties in these elections.

As in any voluntary voting system, the ability of candidates to motivate their supporters to vote will be crucial. The winner will then need to turn attention immediately to parliamentary elections for 577 constituencies (also over two rounds, on 4 and 18 June). A victorious Marine Le Pen would almost certainly fail to have anything like a majority of seats for the Front National; as for Emmanuel Macron, his newly-launched party En Marche (‘Moving Forward’) doesn’t even have a full slate of candidates.

The French presidential elections will settle the question of whether the Brexit-Trump phenomenon is really contagious, but it will do little to dispel the gloom of the electorate.  

This article has been co-published with the Age.

Banner image credit: Marine Le Pen's official Twitter account

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