A Gallic dark horse emerges

The surprise emergence of the centre-right conservative candidate Francois Fillon as the victor in the Republican’s primary election has transformed the dynamics of the French presidential election. Fillon is a devout Catholic with socially conservative views who appeals to the traditional French bourgeois. These voters are alienated from the metropolitan Parisian elite and have been flirting with the National Front (“NF”) but have now discovered a champion they can identify with.

Fillon is therefore a significant threat to the NF, in particular the traditionalist Catholic strongholds in southern France most associated with the politics of Marion Marechal-Le Pen, the niece of the better known Marine Le Pen. Fillon is also advocating a free market “shock therapy” to the ailing French state with a massive cull of 500,000 public sector jobs and the gutting of workers rights including the 35 hour week, to the horror of the powerful public sector unions. Fillon’s Thatcherite politics has electrified his conservative base but have alarmed many on the Left.

Most experts consider that the most likely outcome of the first round of the presidential elections, scheduled for April 2017, will be a run-off between the centre-right Francois Fillon and Marine Le Pen, of the hard right. The Socialist Party is in a state of collapse and with multiple candidates from the left-wing political spectrum competing, it is unlikely that any of them will be able to overcome Le Pen’s base of support in the first round.

Let us assume, for the moment, that the second round contest will involve a climatic duel between Fillon and Le Pen. The battle for the future of France will be based on the core issues of security, identity and the economy. Both Fillon and Le Pen advocate harsh measures against jihadi extremists and the preachers of hate who spread hard-line Islamism within Muslim communities. The centre-right has largely deserted the “happy identity” rhetoric of the liberal establishment and has embraced the hard right terrain once exclusively occupied by the NF.

Nicholas Sarkozy led the way in the use of a “French first” nationalistic discourse during the primary campaign although he was rejected for being divisive, toxic and unpopular. Fillon has also rejected the ideology of liberal multiculturalism and has emphasized the Christian and secular values which underpin the French republic. This represents a significant shift to the right for the mainstream conservative opposition. For those on the liberal-left of French politics Fillon’s brand of politics doesn’t sound any different to the “detoxified” NF of Le Pen on the key issues of security and identity.

Historically, centrist and left-wing voters have voted for the centre-right candidate to keep out the far-right, which is what happened in 2002 when left-wing voters came out in their droves against the NF, which was led by Marine’s fascistic father Jean Marine Le Pen. However, this was over a decade ago and with both candidates occupying the same hard right political space, this assumption will be tested to destruction in 2017.

On the economy, Fillon has broken with the statist status quo of French politics and has promised massive structural reforms to the French state, which employs half the workforce in France. In contrast Le Pen has shifted NF economic policy in a more socialist direction and has advocated a mix of statism, protectionism and an aggressive defence of the public sector against the forces of globalisation. It is clear that Le Pen’s strategy will be to portray Fillon as an arch-Thatcherite, bent on the destruction of the public sector and the rust belt industries which still employ the industrial working class in the country.

Opinion polls show that 54% of the French electorate are fearful of the effects of globalisation and a significant majority, around two thirds of the electorate, are opposed to the reforms advocated by Fillon. There is a paradox in the opinion polling conducted so far. The surface polling indicates that approximately two-thirds of the electorate will vote for Fillon against Le Pen, even though, the same proportion despise Fillon’s economic policies and favour Le Pen’s brand of socialist statism.

Lurking underneath the surface polling is a huge strategic opportunity for Le Pen, which is the conversion of blue-collar socialist voters and the public sector workforce which has historically voted for the Left. If Le Pen can successfully convince these sections of the electorate that their interests are better represented under a Le Pen presidency than she can pull off a shock victory on election night. The middle class civil servant terrified of losing his plum job in the public sector under a Fillon presidency may be tempted to vote for Le Pen, even if it is a “shy vote”, as has already been seen in British and American elections.

This election will come down to a clash between interests and values. Le Pen will appeal to the hard-headed material interests of the public sector middle class and the industrial working classes whilst Fillon will draw on the lingering values-based politics of liberalism and rejection of the NF.

Time will tell whether centrist and left-wing voters can overcome their hostility to the neo-liberal and pro-austerity policies of Fillon in sufficient numbers to keep Marine Le Pen out of the Élysée Palace.

A Gallic dark horse emerges