Madame la Présidente?

Options narrow in the French election

 

As conventional wisdom would have it, Marine Le Pen will easily make it through the first round of the French presidential election in April. And then, like her father before her – beaten 82 to 18 per cent by Jacques Chirac in 2002 – will succumb in the second round in May, as right and left combine to back the remaining candidate.

But France in post-Trumpian, post-Brexit days is asking itself whether conventional wisdom still applies. Could the impossible, the unthinkable happen? Presidente Le Pen?

Over the last month markets have been adjusting to the possibility with French 10-year bond yields rising sharply, while one wealth fund has given her a 40 per cent chance of winning.

At the weekend in Lyon both Le Pen and her likely main rival, centrist Emmanuel Macron, launched their campaigns. She, to an audience of 3,000, he, to 10,000. Meanwhile, both the country’s main establishment parties whose political gene pools have shared the presidency throughout the Fifth Republic since 1958, are seeing their support in meltdown.

François Fillon, of the rightwing Les Republicains, beset by scandal over state payments to his family of up to €1 million for fictional jobs, is being urged by many in his party to pull out; Benoit Hamon, who won the Socialist Party mantle in no small measure because of his leftwing critique of unpopular President Hollande, is unable to shake off the latter’s legacy.

The likely second round contest between Macron and Le Pen will pitch against each other two populist candidates who are cut from very different cloths but are both largely untainted by party politics and the political culture of entitlement which Fillon now seems to epitomise.

Le Pen, unworried by having to court the latter’s voters, has shifted sharply to the right with a strident anti-immigrant message. She promises to free France from the related “tyrannies” of globalisation, Islamic fundamentalism and the European Union. Echoing Trump, she insists that “the divide is no longer between the left and the right, but between the patriots and the globalists.”

Economically liberal, pro-European and pro-business, a “man from nowhere”, Macron is also progressive on social issues and pledges to “reconcile the two Frances that have been growing apart for too long”.

He too rejects the “left-right” divide and would rebuild the country through innovation, cutting bureaucracy and relaxing labour laws, as well as raising the defence budget to two per cent of GDP. And, despite pushing a number of buttons that are taboo to socialists, he has swung many of the party behind his campaign.

“The people are waking – the tide of history has turned,” Le Pen declares with confidence. But it is not clear yet whether the populist, anti-establishment Trump tide is ebbing or flowing. A nervous Europe will watch France with great interest.

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