Prof Pascal Perrineau, one of France's leading political scientists, says it's 95 per cent certain that Marine Le Pen, the leader of the extreme right-wing Front National (FN), will make it to the May 2017 presidential run-off.
The FN is deeply implanted in French society, as shown by an in-depth study involving a cross-section of 18,659 people published this week by the Cevipof think tank at the Institut des Sciences Politiques.
“The influence of Marine le Pen continues to grow,” Perrineau says. “A lot of my students at Sciences Po vote FN . . . The party’s presence is significant in every milieu. There are almost no ‘islands’ that have escaped penetration. Among the most highly educated, you have Marine Le Pen at 10 per cent. Even in Brittany [traditionally left-wing Catholic], the FN represents 20 per cent. It has become a heavy structural phenomenon.”
At the same time, the French left is in freefall. “For the time being, whoever the choice, there is no possibility of a left-wing candidate making it to the second round,” says Perrineau. The left is so fractured that many supporters of far left candidates would refuse to vote for the incumbent socialist president François Hollande.
“The president of the republic is in extreme difficulty,” Perrineau says. “He’s not even the third man – he’s fourth or fifth, with around nine or 10 per cent of intended votes. For an incumbent president, that is mind-boggling.”
If Hollande's prospects have not improved by the end of the year, he may not stand for re-election, rather than face humiliation. Polls show Arnaud Montebourg, who resigned as Hollande's economy minister in 2014, in a tie with him in the socialist primary in January.
The debacle on the left means the winner of November's primary for the conservative Les Républicains (LR) party is most likely to be France's next president. The former prime minister Alain Juppé and former president Nicolas Sarkozy are far ahead of five other candidates.
French media, as well as the president’s and prime minister’s offices, seem to assume that Sarkozy will win the primary, a supposition that is contradicted by polls. “Journalists cover the one who makes the most noise,” Perrineau explains. And “Sarko” can be counted on to say something provocative every few days.
Advisers to Hollande and prime minister Manuel Valls are stuck in the Hollande v Sarkozy scenario out of wishful thinking, because they believe Hollande could defeat Sarkozy, Perrineau says.
Juppé is at least four percentage points ahead of Sarkozy in polls for the first round of the LR primary, at 37 to 33 per cent in the Cevipof study. Juppé’s advantage will grow in the second round, when support for the eliminated candidates will shift more heavily to him.
Yet Sarkozy has clearly narrowed the gap between himself and Juppé since last spring, and some commentators speculate he could overtake Juppé by the time of the November 20th and 27th primary.
Two events this week mitigate against that. On September 28th, Patrick Buisson, who was Sarkozy's "right brain", published The Cause of the People, his memoirs of the Sarkozy presidency. Buisson portrays Sarkozy as an unstable hypocrite lacking all conviction.
In a prime time television interview Wednesday night, Buisson reiterated accusations that Sarkozy, who was then interior minister, “let gangs of blacks and Arabs attack young whites at Les Invalides” during protests in 2006 in the hope of discrediting Sarkozy’s rival on the right, then prime minister Dominique de Villepin.
At a campaign rally, also Wednesday night, Sarkozy denounced Buisson’s “low, outrageous calumny”.
In another blow to Sarkozy, the Mediapart investigative website published excerpts from the handwritten notebook of Shukri Ghanem, who was Muammar Gadafy’s oil minister, recording €6.5 million in campaign donations by the Libyan regime to Sarkozy’s 2007 campaign.
“Alain Juppé can crush Marine Le Pen,” Perrineau says. “Against all other candidates, without exception, she comes first . . . When you’re at 44 per cent, as Le Pen is in some polls, nobody can be certain you won’t get to 50 per cent . . . Between rejection of Sarkozy and rejection of Le Pen, between rejection of Hollande and rejection of Le Pen, which would carry the day?”
If Donald Trump won the US presidential election, "it could liberate a Le Pen vote," Perrineau says. "If the greatest power on Earth sends Trump to the White House, people will say . . . why not us?"
Émmanuel Macron, who resigned as economy minister last month, has not officially declared his candidacy, but he is already the wild card in the campaign. Macron receives 12 to 14 per cent of the first round vote in polls. He would divert votes from all other candidates.
Though Macron’s sudden surge in popularity is impressive, it’s difficult to imagine him winning without a party machine behind him. His rise is in part explained by the “scenario horribilis” of a Hollande-Sarkozy rematch, says Perrineau. “People are ready to do anything to avoid that.”
The Cevipof study shows that although joblessness remains the leading concern of French voters, cited by 30 per cent of those polled, following jihadist attacks, security has become the main worry for 24 per cent, and immigration for 11 percent.
A survey of French Muslims conducted by Ifop for the Institut Montaigne showed that 28 per cent of Muslims, most of them young, ill-qualified, unemployed and living in the immigrant banlieues, "have adopted a system of values clearly opposed to the values of the Republic".
"In six months, the importance accorded to security questions has risen 14 points, while joblessness has fallen 21 points," Martial Foucault, the director of Cevipof wrote in Le Monde. A plurality of voters trusts the FN more than the conservatives or socialists to provide security, while a two-thirds majority believe the FN holds the solution to immigration.
If French elites don't change quickly, Perrineau predicts, "We'll soon see the FN at close to 50 per cent, like the Freedom Party in Austria."