With just over a year to go until the next French presidential elections, Antony Tucker appraises the likely candidates and their chances of winning.
Whilst many eyes are turned to the bizarre ups and downs of this year’s presidential race in the USA, next year will also see the emergence of the candidates for the presidency of the French Republic. Seperated from us by a twenty-one mile “sleeve” (as they call it), the political goings-on of our neighbour have a profound effect on us and the rest of Europe. With so much at stake, it is worth reflecting on who the next inhabitant of the Palais de l’Élysée might be.
First, a note on method: France’s presidents (less powerful than in the USA but with a much bigger executive role than in Germany) are elected by a two-round ballot. Any candidate with a sufficient number of nominations runs to gain a mandate by popular suffrage. The top two candidates are then entered in a runoff election one week later, the winner of which gains the presidency for five years. Normally, these final figures are drawn from the two main parties, PS (Parti Socialiste) for the left and Les Republicains on the right (formerly the UMP, l’Union pour un Mouvement Populaire). Other candidates generally fall at the first hurdle: in 2012 this included the far-right Front National, the hard-left Front de Gauche, the centrist MoDem group and the pro-Europe ecological party the EELV.
However, this is not always the case. An uninspiring and complacent campaign by the left in 2002 resulted in many voters staying at home for the first round, causing the PS to come third. With a runoff between the UMP and FN, and the far-right just one step from power, the apathy evaporated and President Jacques Chirac was returned to power with a large majority. It is not impossible that this might happen again; whilst the FN is unlikely to win power, its presence in the runoff would cause such a wave of disgust as to hand victory to the other candidate.
So who might it be? In the FN’s case, there is no competition: Marine Le Pen is the undisputed ruler of her party, all the more so after expelling her father (the group’s founder) in 2015 for Holocaust denial. The far-right, anti-European and often deeply racist organisation polled top in six out of twelve regions during the first round of last year’s elections, a testament to both the electorate’s hatred of immigration and Ms Le Pen’s sucessful policy of dédiabolisation. By sanitising her party’s image and by focusing its predjudice on immigrants and the EU, she has made significant progress amongst the public. Only tactical voting prevented the FN winning any regions, as it may well prevent them winning the presidency.
For Les Republicains, a three-horse race is developing. Alain Juppé, the elder statesman of the right’s possible candidates is proving popular; having served as prime minister under Chirac in the 1990s, he has enjoyed a renaissance as a respected and trusted figure from the centre-right, aiming to build a broad coalition of support behind his party. His age (70) is not a handicap – France likes its presidents to be older than in the USA – but his previous conviction for corruption might be. Nonetheless, of the two declared runners he is the favourite, with only the possibility of a return by Nicolas Sarkozy posing a serious challege to his ambitions. Although he has not declared his candidacy, a second go at the top job is expected from the victor of the 2007 election. Currently chair of Les Republicains, Sarkozy has the organisational and media clout to be a serious contender once more. François Fillon, Prime Minister from 2007 to 2012 is also running; well-known and experienced, he is nonetheless a divisive figure who has launched bitter attacks on his party leader, and was defeated in a discreditable and fiercely fought leadership election in 2012.
The choice for PS is a much starker one. Currently, President François Hollande is deeply unpopular with the public; despite modest increases in approval for his handling of foreign policy and security issues, many may see him as a liability for the left, outweighing the benefits of incumbency. Whilst figures such as Martine Aubry (the Mayor of Lille), Emmanuel Macron (ex-businessman and current Minister of the Economy) and Jean-Luc Mélenchon (the far-left candidate that did surpisingly well in 2012) all have some support, the only person with the standing and image who could do better than Hollande is his Prime Minister, Manuel Valls. A moderate, Blair-like politician, Valls is more popular than his president and, provided Hollande declined to run and avoided a divisive face-off, he might be the right man to save the left from the possibility of a re-run of 2002.
What does this mean for the presidential race? Le Pen’s image, personal popularity and platform are unlikely to change between now and next spring; whether or not she gets into the second-round depends largely on who the other two parties select as candidates. If Hollande runs again, he may not get past the first round, a truly humiliating and unprecedented occurrence, caused by losses in working class support to the FN and the Front de Gauche. For the sake of the left (and all of France) a Valls candidacy is the best option; a dynamic reformer, he should be able to prevent an FN/LR battle for the keys to the Élysée Palace.
The choice for the Les Republicains is more difficult. Sarkozy, further to the right than Juppé or Fillon on key issues like immigration and taxation, would do well against the Front National. Should Valls run for the left, Sarkozy might suceed in winning enough votes from the far-right to condemn Le Pen to the bronze medal whilst still marshalling enough broad support through his abilities with the media, although the second round would then be extremely close. Likewise, a Hollande candidacy might make victory easy for Juppé: by proposing moderate, centre-right policies and appearing as the elder statesman of the contest, he could both show himself to be more competent than Hollande and a less divisive, more experienced leader than Le Pen.
But twenty-four hours is a long time in politics – and anything could happen between now and next spring. Another spree of terrorist murders might hand Le Pen a real chance at victory; equally, an improving economy might boost Hollande’s ratings enough to allow him to fend off any challenges. The only thing that is certain is that nothing is certain – “events, dear boy” – as Harold MacMillan called them – will decide who will run and who will win in 2017.