On 49 BC, the great Roman general Julius Caesar faced a choice, cross the river Rubicon and march on Rome or not. He chose to cross the Rubicon with the full knowledge that his action would provoke a civil war in the Roman world.
The French electorate face a similar moment in their country’s history on April and May 2017 when the two rounds of the presidential elections are held. The centre-left and centre-right political parties are deeply divided on how to overcome the multiple challenges facing the French state; a serious domestic Islamist terrorist insurgency, a stagnating economy with shocking levels of unemployment and the decline in the power and international influence of the nation in the EU and the world.
Nicholas Sarkozy, the divisive and unpopular former president, has formally declared his intention to run for the presidency again. Sarkozy has moved to the hard right with ultra-hawkish positions on how to deal with the rising jihadi threat. The Republican Party candidate has proposed the indefinite internment of known extremists, the shutting down of mosques and the ending of the EU rule of family unification for migrants who have settled in France.
Sarkozy enjoys the support of the right-wing faithful in the conservative opposition and has clearly gambled that a Trumpist campaign based on identity, security and the cultivation of a “strongman” image will secure victory in the Republican primaries race. Sarkozy has expressed Eurosceptic sympathies with a specific focus on restoring migration controls but is committed to the euro. Sarkozy’s rival, Alain Juppe, is a popular, technocratic and centrist establishment figure who is considered more likeable by the population according to opinion polls. Juppe, a former Prime Minister, belongs to a rapidly shrinking political centre in France but is perceived to be part of the ancien régime.
The outsider and anti-establishment candidate, the National Front leader Marine Le Pen, is expected to get to the second round of the presidential elections. The National Front (“NF”) was an openly fascistic party under the previous leader and father of Marine, Jean-Marie Le Pen. Marine Le Pen has expelled her anti-Semitic father from the party and moved the NF to the populist right-wing and nationalistic political ground. After the horrifying “summer of terror” attacks, Sarkozy and Le Pen exist on a similar hard-right political space when it comes to Islamism.
Le Pen has championed a French withdrawal from the euro and the EU, Frexit, as a key signature policy of the NF manifesto. The French populace have historically favored a strongly statist and protectionist approach to French industry and the NF have captured the bulk of the working class vote with their protectionist economic policies. Polls show the French public have become deeply disillusioned with the European project and only a narrow majority would vote to stay within the EU.
I consider the presidential elections a critical juncture, not only for the French but for the rest of Europe, as the implications of a shock victory by Marine Le Pen will shake Europe to its foundations. For those readers who wish to read my forecasting prediction on the outcome of the French presidential elections, they will have to wait to the beginning of 2017. However, my indicative thoughts are that Sarkozy is in a strong position to win the Republican primaries in November on a full blooded promise of total war on jihadi extremism and become the next president of France.
Alternatively, Marine Le Pen could succeed in defeating her second round opponent by linking the core issue of security with the wider sovereignty questions which comes from being a member of the euro zone and of the EU. A NF campaign of “taking back control” from Brussels on industrial strategy, protectionism and border security could be a compelling cocktail for a frightened, angry and disillusioned French electorate. Marine Le Pen’s best chances of entering the Elysee palace is by connecting in the minds of the ordinary French voter that regaining sovereignty from Brussels is indispensable to successfully crushing the threat posed by militant Islam.
Much can happen between now and the presidential elections in spring 2017. Further jihadi terror attacks in Europe or the election of Donald Trump on 8 November 2016, both predicted by me at the beginning of the year, could strengthen the forces of the hard right. The French electorate may prefer the experienced ex-president Nicholas Sarkozy to the untested Marine Le Pen with a still toxic fascistic and anti-Semitic legacy.
My gut instinct is that the key voters who will swing the election are older French voters who are terrified of the future and are desperately looking for a leader who can save their country from a looming civil war. Should sufficient numbers of these voters turn to Marine le Pen than the self-styled Joan of Arc of France could narrowly defeat her opponent in the second round of elections.
The world awaits whether the French will cross their Rubicon next year.