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The Stage Is Set

Last Sunday, former education minister Benoît Hamon won the primaries of the Parti Socialiste, marking the end of the brief period of uncertainty opened up by François Hollande’s decision not to contest a second term. Unless there is a great upset, the principal names to feature on ballot papers in the first round of the presidential elections this April are now known.

As well as Hamon, French voters will have the choice between two other candidates with classic party structures behind them; François Fillon of the Républicains and Marine le Pen of the Front National. Moreover, there will be two candidates at the head of two distinct political movements; Emmanuel Macron of En Marche and Jean-Luc Mélenchon of La France Insoumise. Minor parties will also field candidates in the French tradition, but the plausible contenders for the Élysée are these five people.

The stage is set, and the actors are waiting in the eaves. It is therefore as good a time as any to launch this weekly column that will attempt to give insight and analysis into the presidential election as it unfolds.

Old leaders swept aside

Just a few short months ago the big name pundits in the French press were still contemplating the possibility of a replay of the 2012 election. Nicolas Sarkozy, despite declaring his withdrawal from political life following his defeat, had returned on the scene to regain control of his party — l’Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP) — and rebrand it, ready for a triumphant comeback. At the time, it was still imaginable that François Hollande would pull some feat of political agility and ride out to meet his erstwhile adversary on the battlefield.

But the primaries put paid to these imaginings and the pundits are still scratching their heads. Are they out of touch with ordinary people? This seems quite likely, but it has to be said that what is happening in France has echoes of what is happening in the other developed capitalist nations, and it is very unpredictable.

Firstly in the right wing primary, whilst the media talked up the duel between Nicolas Sarkozy and Alain Juppé, François Fillon quietly consolidated the position he had been building since losing the bloody battle for the head of the UMP in 2012. On election night, his preparations paid off. He seduced his electorate with a hardline right-wing programme, consisting of the familiar idiom of “tough medicine” in the form of a Thatcher-inspired ransacking of the public service and attacks on worker’s rights, combined with a reactionary social conservatism — although it should be noted that Fillon’s voting history isn’t actually faithful to this line.

A visibly-stunned Sarkozy was sent packing, forced to spend less time on “public passions” and more on “private” ones. Juppé scrambled to construct a response to a scenario he clearly hadn’t envisaged but it was too late; a week later Fillon confirmed expectations, and won the second round of the primaries with a strong majority.

François Hollande, deprived of the adversary he thought he would face and apparently the only one he felt able to best, was lucid enough to bow out. In a historic first for the Fifth Republic a sitting president decided not to contest a second term. It should be noted that he was vigorously encouraged to make this decision by his prime minister, Manuel Valls, who following Hollande’s announcement resigned from his position in government in order to take part in the hastily-organised primary of the Parti Socialiste and its allies.

But Valls has been carried away on the same wave that took those we have just mentioned. His socially and economically liberal programme, with a strong emphasis on national security and the struggle against radical islamist terrorism, failed to inspire as much as Hamon’s vision of hope and renewal through progressive reform and investment in green and digital technologies. Though Valls had been heralded as the heir apparent to Hollande — his ‘dauphin’ — this Sunday he was sent the same way as the rest of them, back to the edges of political life to spectate.

If these primaries have so starkly changed the make-up of the political offering, it is amusing to note that they were supposed to do just the opposite. But in both cases, attempts to manipulate the popular will were confounded. This is especially evident on the left, where the Belle alliance populaire, brainchild of socialist baron Jean-Christophe Cambadelis, was conceived as a machine to re-elect Hollande, something that it seems both Mélenchon and Macron understood as they refused to enter it — although we will better examine their individual reasons, which are more complex, at a later date.

The result of all this is that the French have a very interesting election to look forward to, with a genuine choice of different world views and ideologies from across the political spectrum. This short introduction to the current situation now complete, let us turn to that with which this column will chiefly be concerning itself. This week continues to be dominated by two main events; the Penelope Fillon scandal, and Hamon’s election.

#PenelopeGate

The accusations levelled at François Fillon and his wife Penelope by le Canard Enchainé and Mediapart continue to gain momentum. In its most recent edition, le Canard revised its estimation of the sums that Mrs Fillon was fraudulently paid for a fake job as a parliamentary assistant upwards to almost 900 000 euros in gross income. They also reveal that the period where the allegations took place has been expanded to include 1988–1990, dates for which public prosecutors claim they have not been given information. Mediapart for its part has unveiled the shady practices that went on during Mr Fillon’s time at the Senate, where some 20 000 euros of public funds found their way into his private account.

Obviously, Mr Fillon is on troubled ground. His self-styled image as the “only man in town clean enough to sort out the mess the country is in” lies in tatters. Although his campaign officially presents itself as a united front, off-the-record admissions of serious concerns are surfacing with increasing frequency, to the point that Alain Juppé has been forced to declare that he would not be a back-up candidate in the case that Fillon had to pull out of the campaign.

‘There is no use talking about authority if one is not beyond criticism oneself’ — Francois Fillon

In an attempted show of strength at a rally at the Porte de Versailles this Sunday, Fillon lashed out at his enemies, his voice breaking as he declared enduring love for his wife, and unforgiving retribution for those who have “thrown him to the wolves”. A line that his supporters, who had gathered in numbers reaching 15 000, did not seem to accept entirely, despite the cheering his speech provoked. The main problem for Fillon is that he has refused to comment on the affair if not to throw criticism on the media and “forces who wish to bring him down”. In the absence of a reasonable explanation, the public is beginning to think he has none.

Where will this end? On the one hand, France has a long history of politicians failing to be toppled on anything more than a temporary basis by scandals. On the other hand, this period in French politics might have already come to an end if the recent ejections from the political sphere of Dominique Strass-Kahn (for sexual misconduct), Jêrome Cahuzac (for tax evasion), and Claude Guéant (for abuse of public funds) are indicative of a trend.

Hamon’s fragile base

Leaving Fillon to his problems, we now to turn to Benoît Hamon. In previous years, the mere fact of being the socialist candidate would have meant that Hamon was certain to be in the second round of the elections. But this was before the shock of 2002, and before this historic quinquennat that Francois Hollande has headed. Never before has a candidate turned so quickly on their heel once elected to go against everything they promised. Never before has a party destroyed its own base so completely. The party is in ruins. There are many echoes with Corbyn’s situation in the UK. The Parti Socialiste, which once even declared itself to be revolutionary, has succumbed after forty years of cleaving to the centre, adopting the neoliberal economic consensus espoused by Blair, Schröder and Clinton. Now, a radical left-wing candidate has taken control of what remains of the party and as a result it is in crisis.

Not for Hamon the faithful troops on the right, who in spite of a heated primary campaign, rallied to Fillon once he was declared victor. Immediately after his victory, Hamon has been pressed by the socialist old guard — almost all of whom were hostile to his candidacy — to recentre his campaign on ‘realistic’ policies. By this they mean scrapping anything that goes against the current status quo of budgetary austerity as promoted by the EU institutions and the German government which dominates them.

During the campaign, Valls spoke of the existence of two, “irreconcilable” left wings. The trouble for Hamon is that he is penned in on both sides by much purer definitions of these left wings than he is capable of representing. On his right is the neoliberal Macron. On his left is the alter-mondialiste, anti-liberal Mélenchon who seeks to re-found the nation by convoking a people’s assembly to form a sixth republic. If Hamon does not tilt towards the left, he will have no hope of gaining the co-operation of Mélenchon, and if he does not tilt in the other direction, the party will haemorrhage the kind of socialists who have been in power for the past five years to Macron.

Macron is a very peculiar case, something of a novelty on the French political scene in that he has absolutely nothing new to offer and yet has managed to construct a campaign based on the idea that this is not the case. In order to do it justice, we will need to dedicate more column space to examining his candidacy at a later date. The enigma of Macron is that he has modelled himself as an anti-system outsider, despite having been in power for the past five years as Hollande’s special adviser and then minister of the economy. His campaign has the support of the mainstream media, to the point of sycophancy in some quarters, and yet in general his policies positions have been vague. As time passes, he will be forced to take more concrete positions, and we will have to watch how his campaign develops at this point.

Hamon seems to have sensed that Macron can only be his adversary, and he took the opportunity in his victory speech to declare that he would seek to unite the left both within his party and outside of it, reaching out to Jean-Luc Mélenchon and also Yannick Jadot of the greens. This seems to be the best chance for the left at the moment, but whether it is realisable is a question to which there is no certain answer.

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