Guest Post: French Presidential Election

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“Rarely has the French Presidential Election elicited so much interest as the upcoming one in April/May this year. The non-francophone MSM interest is perked up by the recent seismic shifts in the USA and the UK, with Front National’s Marine Le Pen chances on the up and grabbing herself a status of future pariah of the liberal world. The second, yet probably the most important reason for such a high interest, is the future (or demise) of the European Union project.

The first round of the presidential elections are scheduled for 23 April 2017, in which all declared candidates will take part. If no candidate has an absolute majority in the first round (which is extremely unlikely), the second round will take place on 7 May 2017 between the two candidates with the highest score in round one.

So, who are the candidates, who or what is behind them and who is waiting to backstab them within their own ranks?

For the sake of expediency, I will not mention all ten of them, which range from Trotskyists, greens, various degrees of socialists (more on them all in a separate post) and other independent single-cause candidates.

The five main candidates, who will affect both the right vote and the left vote as to who goes into the run-off vote, are:

Jean-Luc Melenchon (Mouvement De Gauche – to the left of the mainstream PS)

Benoit Hammon (Parti Socialiste or PS – the party of the incumbent Francois Hollande)

Emmanuel Macron (ex PS and now an independent movement Macron en Marche)

Marine Le Pen (Front National)

Francois Fillon (Les Republicains)

 

Francois Fillon, Les Republicains

I struggle to recall all the names that Les Republicains used to be known as (RPR, MMP, etc) over the last decades, with each name-change as a result of some recent scandal involving either Jacques Chirac, former PM Edouard Balladur, Nicolas Sarkozy, etc. Yet, they are always there – seen as a conservative (for French standards) safe pair of hands when the economy is struggling. The challenge they have to deal with is quasi-impossibility to make the much needed reforms due to such strong position the unions have in France.

For their current reincarnation, Les Republicains have chosen Francois Fillon, after a surprising and at times rowdy primaries, with the three main candidates at the end Alain Juppe, Nicolas Sarkozy and Francois Fillon. Rowdy because every time Nicolas Sarkozy is involved, all gloves are off and backstabbing gets particularly vicious.

Some context, as briefly as possible: Juppe was a loyal Chirac man, his former Prime Minister, he even went to jail to save his man. Nicolas Sarkozy is/was a somewhat loyal Edouard Balladur man (also a former Prime Minister during the “cohabitation” period – when the socialist Francois Mitterrand was the president, yet the right won the parliamentary elections- and later a sworn enemy of Chirac. Both went on to become presidential candidates, ending their “30 year old friendship”). Somewhere in the background and quite unnoticed as a candidate was Francois Fillon, a long time senator, representing a rural constituency, openly Catholic in a very secular France and briefly Prime Minister under Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidency.

Alain Juppe represents more of a liberal and “moderate” right, when it comes to recent upheavals and terror attacks France has suffered. Detractors call him “multi-culti”, which has become an insult in recent years, while also signalling the risk of losing the traditional right votes to Front National.

Nicolas Sarkozy is seen as an authoritarian, manipulative and “extreme right-wing” candidate within the LR, though the “extreme right wing” is a calculated strategy, designed to arrest dissipation of votes to the FN and even clawing some of them back. He is regularly accused as having planted a lot of his people within the institutions, such as within the Elysee Palace, police and even the internal secret service agency, still feeding him with crucial intelligence on politicians and investigations.

Francois Fillon is somewhere in the middle of all this. Representing a traditional and rapidly disappearing rural France, openly Catholic, with tough talk on the crime and immigration, but without too much populism. Crucially, he has signalled to openly campaign on executing employment law reforms, culling state sector jobs in the hundreds of thousands and restricting unions’ influence.

As is often the case in France, some criminal investigations suddenly and coincidentally start during political campaigns and the short straw was drawn by Nicolas Sarkozy, whose name was plastered in most media relating to the financing of his previous presidential campaigns, while fighting Juppe and Fillon during the primaries. Add to that a serious tiredness of LR members of Sarkozy, he has dropped to third place, leaving Juppe and Fillon in the run-off round of their primaries.

Juppe’s camp kicked-off some premature celebrations, celebrating the “experienced” and “reformed” Juppe (after his release from prison, he went back from scratch, won the mayoralty of his hometown of Bordeaux and despite all odds, found himself at the centre of the national stage – again), even though their candidate came second with 29% of the votes. Fillon probably surprised himself with 44% of the votes in the first round, thus eliminating Sarkozy – who had a similar (yet more aggressive) platform with just under 21%.

The run-off vote sealed it for Fillon, who went on to win an impressive 66% of the votes and winning all constituencies except Juppe’s Bordeaux region and Chirac’s old stomping ground of Correze.

There was finally a candidate for the LR, expected to take the presidency “easily”, using his transparency/squeaky clean image, and his traditionalist message, where even being openly Catholic is not seen any more as an obstacle, but an asset in France that has experienced first fear and now open hostility towards radical Islam (and let’s be brutally honest, Islam in general) and religion is now suddenly seen as a “force resistante”. His more moderate message to the one presented by Front National’s Marine Le Pen, no matter how “reformed” or reformed, was seen as more acceptable, safe, there was hope that France can make it with the much needed reforms and after 5 years of utter shambles under Francois Hollande.

And then, the unimaginable happened.

You have to go back several decades to the days of Jacques Chirac’s mayoralty of Paris, when “the occult financing” of political parties started by employing fictitious people to real jobs in the City of Paris or employing real people to fictitious jobs – all with the same goal: take the supposed salary money to finance a party or their campaigns, at the expense of the taxpayer. Mayors have changed, but the practice remained, though occasionally an investigation would be started, usually after a revelation in Le Canard Enchaine (a satirical weekly in France with a great track record of uncovering dodgy politicians of all ideologies), some would get in trouble and many would later go to jail.

1 February 2017, Le Canard Enchaine comes out with their investigation – Francois Fillon’s wife has received tens of thousands of euros for her job as her husband’s assistant in the Senate, then for her husband’s replacement senator and another fictitious job in a magazine, privately held by her husband’s supporter. French law does not forbid politicians employing their family members as their assistants, a good chunk do that quite openly. What the law does not allow is employing someone who does not do any work, yet still pocketing that money.

Fillon responded aggressively in the media within hours, threatening to sue Le Canard Enchaine and bizarrely coming up himself in a televised interview that he has employed his children as legal assistants for a period of time, presumably trying to pre-empt the next round of revelations by the weekly. Unfortunately for him, checking the timelines showed that his children did not even graduate during those years, his explanations on the sums collected by his wife did not match and threatening to sue Le Canard Enchaine never eventuated – a reminder that the paper, staunchly independent and with zero advertising revenue – has never lost a single lawsuit in over 100 year long history.

Fillon continues to deny any wrong doing, glossing over his transparency promises and squeaky clean image projection, and blames political assassination from the left. Many politicians, on both left and right, have fallen after French unions have taken their aim at, after they would announce some overdue employment law reforms – just ask the socialist Prime Minister under Hollande, Manuel Vals, who didn’t even win the nomination of his own party for the Presidential elections. It isn’t inconceivable that Fillon has suffered the same fate – dirt digging in order to discredit him and prevent reforms. But my money is on Nicolas Sarkozy.

Fillon has tumbled down in the opinion polls from being a favourite to win the second round against Marine Le Pen to not even making it to the run-off vote. It is the most unprecedented and stunning possibility that for the first time ever in the history of the 5th Republic (modern France), neither of the “big two” parties will make it to the run-off vote, with Parti Socialiste being totally written off with their Corbyn-like candidate, Benoit Hammon, and the fate of Francois Fillon nearly sealed.

Although most of his lieutenants have stood by him, blaming “dirty politics” against their candidate, the panic bells have started ringing amongst his ranks, as well as the entire Les Republicains party. Fillon has resisted and probably will manage (somehow) to resist all calls for him to withdraw. LR doesn’t have a process in place on how to deal with a similar situation. They cannot force him to withdraw and if he was to do so, it would be a tacit admission of guilt on his part – the man is cornered completely and his only chance of survival is to rough it out and hope to survive, not necessarily politically, but probably to remain out of jail and in the process incriminate his wife.

Only a few days ago, Fillon has called on his supporters to give him their public support in one of Paris’ main public places, managing to assemble a huge crowd under torrential rain (200,000 according to organisers – 30,000 according to police, with the true number probably somewhere in the middle). The day after, Alain Juppe has made his first public comment on the matter, surprisingly ruling himself out of contention, should he be asked to be a stand-in candidate. Possibly quite wise from Juppe, given that he would not have a slightest chance against Le Pen, should he reach round two, but he also said that he doesn’t want to be seen as being part of the “Fillon political assassination” team, because Fillon has claimed innocence and has blamed his political opponents for these leaks.

Should Fillon crumble, and just today a mere few hours ago, Le Canard Enchaine has made more revelations of an undeclared 50,000 euro “loan” from a “businessman friend”, who would fancy his chances of being able to defeat Marine Le Pen at her own game? Look no further than Mr Sarkozy. If Fillon remains a candidate, he has almost zero chances of reaching the second round – and I am predicting that the contest will be between the independent and left of centre Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen. The traditional Catholic France, the silent majority, will NEVER vote for a socialist, no matter how he calls himself or herself, and will side with Marine Le Pen. Should Fillon remain the candidate, you can read it here first, Marine Le Pen will be France’s new President.

In my next few posts, I will write more about other candidates and try to paint you a clear landscape of political upheavals in France, past and present.”