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So, what’s going on in France?

Outsiders, scandals and the French Donald Trump

Written by Jack Eustace | View this authors Twitter page and posted in news

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You’d be forgiven for having election fatigue after last year’s bitterly contested and deeply surprising US election. But you don’t have to look too far from home to see another presidential contest full of scandals, turnarounds and a cast of political outsiders moving into the mainstream.

France, the second-largest country in the EU and birthplace of the ideals of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity is gearing up for a highly unpredictable election this spring. Here’s the story so far…

The rebel and the president

The current French President is François Hollande of the Socialist Party. Elected in 2011 on a platform of taxing the rich, Hollande struggled to implement much of his original left-wing agenda. Facing unprecedented levels of unpopularity, Hollande opted not to re-run for the presidency leaving the field wide open for new challengers.

Many had expected that the Socialists would choose an ally of Mr Hollande to lead the embattled party into the next election. However the ordinary members of the party had a different idea. They selected left-wing critic of the president and former education minister Benoît Hamon, who some have dubbed the French Bernie Sanders.

Hamon’s plans include a number of radical proposals, such as taxing robots and replacing welfare with a universal income for all. However the Socialists face a very steep uphill battle to hold onto the presidency given the party’s low levels of support after five years in power.

A scandal-ridden frontrunner

Along with the Socialists, the right-wing Republicans are the second traditional party of French politics. On paper this election should be highly winnable for them, but recent weeks have brought up a number of unwelcome revelations about their candidate François Fillon.  

Fillon, like Hamon, was not the expected choice to lead his party into this election. Last year he pulled off a remarkable victory in beating former President Nicolas Sarkozy to be chosen as the Republican candidate. Fillon’s views are unconventional for a French politician: he favours major layoffs of public servants as a way of boosting the country’s economic competitiveness.

Fillon was considered the most likely candidate to enter the Elysée Palace (residence of the French president) after Mr Hollande. But this has been brought into doubt as his reputation as a clean reformer was shaken by “Penelope-gate“. Allegations are flying that Fillon set up his wife Penelope and two of their children with fake jobs using public money: a potentially damning revelation for someone who says he wants to cut waste in the public sector.

Europe’s most dangerous woman

As in America, the crisis of traditional politics has led to an opening for candidates long considered beyond the pale. Marine Le Pen, the leader of the ultra-right wing National Front, is a prime example. She’s running on an anti-immigrant, Eurosceptic message that she hopes will inflame racial tensions and appeal to those who feel left behind in modern France.

An outspoken supporter of Donald Trump’s refugee travel ban, Le Pen is currently leading in polls with around a quarter of the total vote. The National Front has long been on the fringes of French politics, but Le Pen’s recent strategy has been to slightly soften the party’s racist image and focus more on the issue of jobs (for white French people, anyway).

Under the French system however, the two most successful candidates in this election will face off against each other in a head-to-head second round two weeks later. Should Le Pen win the first round, the expectation is that most voters will rally against her in the second. However as we’ve learned from Trump and Brexit, now is a time where anything can happen.

The insider’s outsider

Given the present unpopularity of the Socialists, many had expected the all-important second round to be a straight contest between the Republicans and the National Front. But as it turns out, Marine Le Pen is not the only one to benefit from voters’ frustrations.

Few expected Emmanuel Macron, a former investment banker and economy minister under François Hollande, to make much of an impact when he left the Socialists to launch his own long-shot bid for the presidency. But like so many other figures in this race, he has exceeded expectations. Most polls now place him third after Le Pen and Fillon, and with a high chance of beating both should he make it into the second round.

Macron is an unusual candidate, running both as an outsider to the political system and a staunch defender of some of its key elements. A political centrist and strong supporter of the European Union, Macron will hope to win support both from both traditionally left-wing and conservative voters.

The French elections will take place on the 23 April and 7 May 2017.

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Published February 6th, 2017
Last updated February 19th, 2018
Tags politics elections eu eu hub
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