Expert Speak Atlantic Files
Published on Feb 15, 2017
Now, brace for a Frexit?

Europe is holding its breath. On April 23 and May 7 this year, France will hold its first and second round elections to elect its President. This election is first of all a battleground for the French left and right in re-modelling themselves to conform to a turbulent world order. It could be the ultimate barrier to the right-wing wind brought by Brexit and the Trump victory. It could also confirm the sentiment that elections are now best won through alternative truths and fear mongering. On the left, the social-democrat model defended by serving President Francois Hollande has reached records of unpopularity. Neighboring countries, from the United Kingdom to Greece, have chosen candidates and party leaders affirming a strong stand against such policies perceived to be too sympathetic to neo-liberal ideas. This election is unique in France because it rings the end of a two-party system, the hegemony of the centre-left Socialist Party with its candidate Benoit Hamon and the centre right The Republicans represented by François Fillon.

They are new players you cannot ignore anymore and they are all the more important, for their positions will influence the future of the European Union.  Marine Le Pen, the product of the Le Pen dynasty famous for its ties to Neo-Nazis, is a major one. Her victory would mean a Frexit, a French exit from the European Union and closer ties to Trump’s America. On the centre is Emmanuel Macron, former Minister of Economy and banker for Rothschild who has still not released any manifesto. Finally, the president maker on the left might be Jean-Luc Melenchon, previously in the Socialist Party. He decided to start his own movement distancing himself from social-democracy to incarnate traditional socialism.

The die seemed to be cast. With a divided Left and a new maverick candidate in the centre, Fillon and LePen were set to go directly from the first positions in the polls to the second round of the French presidential election. In this scenario, François Fillon, right-wing candidate for The Republicans, would have benefitted from a gathering of votes on the right and left to beat the National Front’s Marine Le Pen. Today the horizons are blurred and predictions more cautious. ‘Penelopegate’ and other scandals surrounding the favorite, Fillon, and the victory in the socialist primary of left-wing outsider Benoit Hamon are the latest unexpected developments of an increasingly unpredictable election.

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Until last week, François Fillon was battling for the first place in polls with Marine Le Pen. The candidate carefully crafted an image of countryan with a manifesto based on three pillars: economic liberalism, strong confident leadership and Christian faith. He advocates for a return to traditional family values, closer ties with Russia, Thatcher-style cuts in government jobs and funding, tax cuts for the richest and an apprehensive and pro-active role of the government in the affairs of the Muslim community.

This January, the Le Canard Enchaîné, a satirical  weekly newspaper, delivered  a strong blow to his image of irreproachable politician committed to traditional values. The newspaper revealed that his wife, Penelope Fillon, was hired as his parliamentary assistant and paid 831,440 € (around six crores) for her services. While this practice is not illegal, it seems that Mrs Fillon was never present at the Assembly and the job is therefore allegedly non-existent. Fillon was later exposed for having also hired his children as assistants whilst they were still law students. The tasks performed were “evanescent” according to the newspaper, but the remuneration generous; his daughter received 57,084 € (41 lakhs) for 15 months of work and his son 26,651 € (18 lakhs) for 6 months. These two incidents are not the isolated with new cases emerging every day, all concerning the fraudulent enrichment of his family and friends.

For many of his supporters, the scandals constitute a real blow for they contradict the core principles defended by their candidate. How could an advocate of massive savings in public spending misuse public funds himself? In the midst of the political storm, Fillon chooses to position himself as the victim of an “institutional Coup d’état” and persistently insists on his innocence in every interview, every speech. His strategy of normalisation of such a case by claiming it never happened, providing counter-truths as proofs or blaming journalists for carrying out a media lynching is not without similarities to his conservative counterpart’s dealings with scandals, Donald Trump. Nonetheless, his defense left many unconvinced; past-proponents are calling for him to step down while the press speculates on The Republicans’ “Plan B”.

The favorite has fallen. Who will benefit from his political burial? Those disappointed by Fillon have two possibilities. Voters attracted by the conservative values defended by Fillon, his attachment for the ill-defined ‘French identity’ and commitment to reduce immigration may see themselves seduced by Marine Le Pen. The anti-Europe candidate welcomed both Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, echoing his policies and sentiments. Many in France believe she can tackle the rampant threat of terrorism in the country. She is still the favorite to go to the second round of the election, despite her very own recent scandal. She is due to repay the European Union over 339,000 € for wrongly claiming the salaries of two parliamentary assistants who in fact worked mostly for her party.

Ex-Fillon partisans who were attracted to the economically liberal agenda of the candidate might turn to Emmanuel Macron. Former banker for Rothschild and briefly Economy Minister under Hollande, the maverick candidate surged in the polls after the Canard Enchaîné’s revelations. He is leading an independent campaign, refusing labels and claiming to be ‘neither left nor right’. For his opponents, his movement titled ‘Forward!’ is only marked by vagueness: despite announcing his candidacy months ago, Macron has not yet presented any manifesto. ‘Forward!’ yes, but where to? The candidate seems to have adopted a broad strategy to gather votes in pro-business center-left and center-right circles.

On the left, Benoit Hamon, representing the left-wing, close to that of Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, won the socialist primary with a large majority. His stance is a clear break from Hollande’s social-democrat presidency. He advocates notably for a reduction of working time, tax on robots and the establishment of a universal income. His victory led to divisions in his own party, with talks of important figures joining Macron instead of him. His propositions are very close to that of another left-wing candidate, Jean-Luc Melenchon, who occupied the highest position in the polls of all left-wing candidates ahead of the socialist primary. Both notably see mass investments in renewable energy as a priority and want to initiate a sixth Republic to introduce a more direct democracy that involves citizens on a daily basis.  With these two candidacies, the left-wing votes stand divided. Both candidates have talked of a possible alliance on very specific terms: while Melenchon asks for Hamon to break away completely from the Hollande-style social-democrat model, Hamon knows his own party is not ready to embrace the most left-wing of Melenchon’s propositions. The alliance, if established, could completely change the face of this election: Hollande’s unpopularity led many to declare that the Left had no chance of winning, but Melenchon and Hamon together would represent almost 30% of voters, bringing victory well within their reach.

The arrival is uncertain but the race promises to be interesting. Will Fillon abandon his sinking ship?  Who will truly benefit from his fall, LePen or Macron? Will Hamon and Melenchon unite the left and create substantial competition to the center and right?

The author is a Research Intern at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi

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