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Shattering ‘maximum popularity’ in France

It is a pity that in Hollande, Malta will be losing a great friend who remains on record as the first Head of the French State to visit the Island – four times – since Napoleon Bonaparte’s conquest in 1798

Charles Xuereb
7 April 2017, 8:55am
According to successive national surveys Marine Le Pen is expected to follow in her father’s 2002 steps and surprise France with a very high percentage of votes in the first round
According to successive national surveys Marine Le Pen is expected to follow in her father’s 2002 steps and surprise France with a very high percentage of votes in the first round
In the Fifth Republic, Charles de Gaulle, who holds a record in the history of French presidential elections as the candidate polling the highest votes ever in the first round (44.6%) in 1965, introduced the second round of voting in order to keep out the Communist Party from snatching the Presidency, a sort of insurance policy against extreme parties shattering the glass ceiling of maximum popularity.

In this year’s presidential election, more than half a century later, the same formula seems set to work again against anti-immigration, anti-Islam Marine le Pen’s extreme right National Front. According to successive national surveys she is expected to follow in her father’s 2002 steps and surprise France with a very high percentage of votes in the first round.

Yet the same surveys also predict that the French electorate on the second and final round on May 7 will elect upstart Emmanuel Macron, who founded a new party, En Marche! (On the move) only last year, for the presidency and reject Le Pen. 

All this hinges on the assumed accuracy of pre-election polls not on the eventual votes which, given the mercurial attitude of current electorates in Europe and elsewhere, could either decide to hang on to Le Pen and deliver a new French revolution or just compromise on Macron. Either way it will still be considered as a break from the past when selecting the highest office in the country without the backing of a proper political machine in the traditional mode. Neither Le Pen, whose party was founded in 1972, nor Macron is supported by a political organisation that would normally also win a majority in the Assemblée nationale. To say the least governance in France seems to be in for a more challenging undertaking.

This situation seems to have been brought about by a number of factors some originating in the present legislature, others perhaps caused by a sense of rebuff to the establishment represented by the two big traditional parties and their affiliation with the European Union. Many consider the outgoing presidency as having been very ill-fated in suffering several terrorist assaults – Charlie Hebdo, Bataclan, Nice and other minor attacks – leaving no less than 230 victims in the space of the last two years. As a result France today is the only European country that is going to national democratic elections with the highest emergency alert in place. This has created what many French citizens term as ‘a culture of insecurity’ losing faith not only in their representatives – François Hollande’s lowest rating went down to 4% – but also in the country’s apparent lack of leadership in the EU when compared to Germany’s perceived strong control. If polls are to be believed, more than 80% of French people think the world is getting worse. 

But there is another side to Hollande’s seemingly unfortunate relationship with the electorate. Inheriting Sarkozy’s failure to reform the economy, overhaul pensions and social security perhaps because of the financial crisis of 2007-08, Hollande had a difficult start, introducing a 75% top tax rate and insisting in 2013 on the implementation of the law making it easier on employers to hire and fire. This certainly alienated the electorate especially the young, 25% of whom are unemployed, and the strong unions. 

It is a pity that in Hollande, Malta will be losing a great friend who remains on record as the first Head of the French State to visit the Island – four times – since Napoleon Bonaparte’s conquest in 1798. Hence the temporary return of La Valette’s decorative poniard on exhibit in Valletta after 219 years.

A couple of weeks ago Europe sighed with relief when the Dutch did not rally behind the populist movement led by Geert Wilders as much as it was feared, even though his party placed second in the people’s choice. Many thought Brexit might not have had its snowball effect on other EU members and the Continent will after all hold on to its traditional values as signed sixty years ago this year in Rome and stick it out together.

But if next month, French populism wins it will not only usher in another revolution under the leadership of Le Pen whose campaign slogan – Au nom du peuple (In the name of the people) – evokes the original 1789 revolution, it will also send tremors across Europe with consequences far beyond its borders.

Following WWII, France set off to win the enemy by befriending it: it partnered with Germany in founding the EU. Few can imagine the Union without France, which together with Italy, Spain and  Greece, fully embodies the European character in culture and origins. Yet a reality check finds both Le Pen, who has been gaining momentum in the new millennium, and La Force du Peuple (The force of the people), champion of the jobless Jean-Luc Mélenchon of La France insoumise (Rebellious France), who had left the Socialists to form a stronger left, promising not only to hold a referendum on Frexit, if they are returned to power, but are also determined to take the country out of the Eurozone, Shengen and NATO.

Out of 11 candidates for the presidency, only five have polled more than 10% in surveys. With forerunners Le Pen and Macron fighting it out between them at some 26% and Mélenchon, who recently appeared in Paris and Lyon simultaneously through the projection of a futuristic hologram 3D, trailing at 14%, the established parties have fallen behind the newcomers. François Fillon, of the Republican Party, who ousted Sarkozy last year to seize the candidacy, was seen as the winner until accusations of allegedly swindling public funds to the tune of a million euros in favour of his family shrank his ratings to just or below 20%; they do not seem to be doing any better soon.

Ironically, similar allegations against Le Pen appear to have boosted her image in the eyes of her followers as she is perceived as taking back public money from the establishment to feed her rebellious movement.

Fillon also promises to cut public expenditure, remove the 35-hour working week, push up the pension age to 65 by 2022 and suppress unions’ monopolies. Immigration being a strong issue as much as the European Union in these elections, Fillon promises reduction in quotas, stricter control on Europe’s borders, the end of state medical assistance and the benefit of social services only after two years’ residence.

That leaves the Socialist party and its candidate Benoit Hamon, certainly the lamest of the five trailing at 11%. Winning the candidacy against the favourite ex-premier Manuel Valls, Hamon only days ago received a strong blow when, in a surprise and unprecedented move, the former backed Macron, throwing the Socialist party into deep crisis. With other Socialist heavyweights abandoning their own candidate for the deserter Macron, an ex-minister of economy in Valls’s own cabinet, many are forecasting a disastrous run for the Socialists, something that has recently already hit another Socialist party in the Netherlands. 

This year’s French presidential campaign has been dubbed as one without a compass. Anything can happen. Whichever way it goes, with Britain out of play, many Europeans are hoping it will strengthen France’s position in Brussels in order to balance Germany’s influence and control. Macron is proposing to bolster security in Europe, promote a European budget, create an army of 5,000 frontier guards and set up a Council for European Security. With 66% of the electorate expected to vote he seems to be holding the winning card but notwithstanding this it is difficult to predict how strong the spirit of change is running in the land of revolutions. A populist vote exists in France but you need an absolute majority to win the presidency.

Dr Charles Xuereb is a historicist

Dr Charles Xuereb is a broadcaste and historicist
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