By Fredrik Thorslund

On April 23rd, the French round up to vote in the first round of the presidential election.
Of course, with the political scene of the free world seemingly having turned into a vau de ville, it is highly understandable to want to keep a cognitive distance from these types of events. The election, however, will be of symbolic value and might set a prejudice for upcoming elections in other European countries where far-right nationalist tendencies or radical left-wing populism is on the rise. This makes the French election a good one to keep an eye on – if not just for the sheer excitement of following the micro-movements of election polls.

There are currently four candidates left to take over the presidency from the incumbent president Hollande (not counting underdog Jean-Luc Mélenchon): François Fillon of Les Républicains, Marine Le Pen of Front National, Benoît Hamon of Parti Socialiste and Emmanuel Macron of En Marche! Let’s get to know the candidates.

FRANÇOIS FILLON (LES RÉPUBLICAINS)

Arguably, the presidential candidate scoring the highest on an imaginary Trump-o-meter would not be Marine Le Pen, but centre right candidate François Fillon of Les Républicains. In the wake of last years Républicains primaries, news broke that Fillon was under investigation for embezzlement. According to a report published by French satire magazine Le Canard Enchaîné, Fillon had paid his wife over 500 000 euros from public funds for a phony employment. Fillon, who is otherwise known to have a near Thatcheresque approach to the labour market, denounced any culpability and dismissed the Canard reports, calling them everything in between misogynist, a “press campaign” and “stink bombs” (sic). He has since refused to give up his candidature, albeit still awaiting formal embezzlement charges to be pressed.

“I see the stink bomb season has started. I’m outraged by the contempt and misogyny of this article.”

The corruption scandal has very much come to overshadow Fillon’s politics in the media coverage. Fillon’s economic policy is liberal, more aggressively so than that of his party colleague Alain Juppé, runner up in the Républicians primaries. Fillon wants to cut down the public sector by large, cut down on labour legislation, cut down unemployment benefits and cut corporation taxes. He is a Catholic and a social conservative, making him popular amongst the Christian Catholic population. Fillon himself has taken a stance against both same sex marriage and abortion, but has said he would not impose any bans if elected president.

MARINE LE PEN (FRONT NATIONAL)

Le Pen assumed the position as leader of the far-right nationalist party Front National in 2011. The FN has traditionally been a party promoting mainly questions of law and order, particularly hardcore anti-immigration policies – but Le Pen has instead chosen to tweak the party’s rhetoric towards a more politically benign standard, focusing instead on EU-contrarianism and welfare state politics. She has also been driving a toilsome process of “de-demonising” the party, culminating in a true patricide in 2015 when she barred the party’s founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, her father, from the party in response to his repeated anti-semitic remarks. The reforms landed her a third place in the 2012 presidential election, with more than 17,90 per cent of the votes. That number has since risen to at least 25 per cent.

Marine Le Pen, 2014

Although Le Pen has steered the FN away from the more radical politics and rhetoric of its past, her proposals are far from being uncontroversial. She wants France out of the EU, and has promised a referendum on the Union membership if elected president. She has also promoted a referendum on re-implementing the death penalty, following the series of terror attacks in France since Charlie Hebdo. This, however, does not seem to have made it into her election programme. Her views on immigration are blatantly xenophobic. The wants to reduce the annual legal immigration to a nominal sum of 10 000 and abolish the droit du sol, which grants citizenship anyone born within French borders. Her programme dedicates five points to the battle against Islamic terrorism, another ten to “defending the French national identity” and four more to “create respect for France” through military intensification. This certainly makes Marine Le Pen stand out as a candidate.

BENOÎT HAMON (PARTI SOCIALISTE)

It’s hard to judge whether the outcome of the French socialist party primaries – where far-left candidate Benoît Hamon defeated ex prime minister Manuel Valls in what could almost be described as a landslide victory – should have come off as a surprise. Framed as a revival of utopian socialism in Western Europe, it might. Framed instead as a coup of frustration against the status quo in the socialist party, incarnated by Valls, maybe not so much.

Valls, together with Hollande, have been accused of implementing right wing economic policies and allowing French factory jobs to move abroad. Hamon, however, has been one of those making the accusations. In 2014, he left his position as Minister of Education in the Hollande government, in objection to what he considered a betrayal of socialist ideals. He represents the traditional, radical left within the socialist party, but has adjusted his rhetoric to fit a modern context. Some of his more controversial proposals includes implementing a general citizen’s income of € 750 a month, which would be partially financed by introducing a punitive tax on robots (on the presumption that robots steal jobs).

Some have concluded that the victory of Hamon partially stems from centre-left voters casting tactical votes for Hamon in favour of the independent centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron. However the case, support for Hamon is robust, especially with unionists and young environmentalists. A small but significant token of his popularity within the left might be the multitude of parallels drawn between him and the US presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, in a country where socialism is not entirely synonymous with bread queues.

EMMANUEL MACRON (EN MARCHE!)

Whereas Benoît Hamon denounced the new centrist movements within the socialist party, Emmanuel Macron was one of those pushing it. Once minister of economy under president Hollande, the 39-year-old pretty boy, former Rothchild investment banker and “pro-business technocrat” decided to bail out on his government late last year to start his own movement, En Marche! (roughly translating to “On our way!”). If Hamon is the Bernie Sanders of the French left, Macron would be Justin Trudeau.

Posters for and against Macron 2017. Photo by Max Karpefors

Lacking corruption scandals, rabid party colleagues or radical propositions, the Achilles heel of Macron’s campaign has been that it is fragmented and shapeless. An exile from the socialist party, Macron has explicitly distanced himself from the traditional left-right scale in politics – but has been ascribed both labels himself throughout his short political career. His politics have been criticised for lacking substance – but also for being too hands-on, lacking an ideological framework.
What can be stated with certainty about Macron is that he is a progressivist and a globalist, ultimately positioning himself at the far end from the conservative extreme right fronted by Le Pen. He promotes environmentalism, an open society, and better education. Amongst his concrete proposals is an effort to moralize the public life and reduce nepotism by forbidding members of parliament to hire their own family members (which, coincidentally, happens to tie in to the Fillon scandal).

WHO’LL WIN?

At first, it looked as if though the election would come down to a stand-off between François Fillon and Marine Le Pen, with Fillon ultimately landing the presidential post. After the largely unpopular Hollande-government, few believed the socialist party to have a standing chance to remain at power, let alone with a radical candidate such as Benoît Hamon leading the party.

After the uncovering of the corruption scandals, however, Fillons campaign took a critical hit. Now, it seems that the candidate most likely to come up against Marine Le Pen after the first election round could be Emmanuel Macron, the independent runner. Vis à vis Le Pen in the second round, it is likely that Macron will have a fair chance to win.

Recent polls put Macron in the lead for the first election round (26 %), tightly followed by Le Pen (25 %), with Fillon (18 %) and Hamon (11 %) falling further and further behind. In the second round, Macron is expected to beat Le Pen with between 60-65 % of the votes. Likewise, the betting markets will reward a bet on Macron to become the next president of France with 1.27 times the money back. The same odds are 3.75 for Le Pen, 7.00 for Fillon and more than 100 for Hamon.

By Fredrik Thorslund

Photos from Wikipedia Commons

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