Friday 24 February 2017

Decisions by France's centre right could have huge effect on Europe

Mary Fitzgerald

Francois Fillon
Francois Fillon

Tomorrow, France's Republican Party will select its candidate for the presidential election due to take place next year, a crucial choice at a turbulent time which will have serious ramifications not only for the French, but Europe as a whole. Given the centre-right Republican candidate is most likely to be the main challenger to far-right populist Marine Le Pen, much is at stake.

After Brexit and Trump's victory in the US, a Le Pen win might no longer be considered such a far-fetched idea. The Republican primaries have already produced a shock in the early exit of former president Nicolas Sarkozy. Given the turmoil of the past year in France - with the country pummelled by terrorist attacks, widespread strikes and a rise in support for Le Pen's Front National - little can be taken for granted. France has not been immune to the anti-establishment mood that has swept Europe and further afield, bolstering populist parties and candidates like Trump. The question of whether Le Pen could be elected president next year is much disputed. Impossible, insist some, arguing that the Front National's support will never go above a certain level.

Others are not so sure, pointing to how the polls failed to predict Brexit and Trump's win. There are too many unknowns in the current climate, they argue.

Tomorrow's vote then will be as much about keeping Le Pen at bay as anything else, given that support for the Socialist Party has all but collapsed: President François Hollande's approval rating is a pitiful 4pc. That means either François Fillon, whose routing of Sarkozy in the first round of the primaries last week surprised many, or Alain Juppé, no longer considered the strongest contender after Fillon's surge, will be likely up against Le Pen when the French go to the polls to elect a new president next April.

It appears the Front National would prefer to see Juppé as the Republican candidate. "Fillon is the most difficult scenario for Marine," one Front National official told 'Le Monde' newspaper this week.

With many expecting the election campaign to reflect current anxieties about questions of security and identity, Le Pen might find Fillon (below) employing similar rhetoric if he is chosen tomorrow.

Marine Le Pen
Marine Le Pen

A conservative Catholic opposed to gay marriage, he also has strong views on the place of Islam in France, home to Europe's largest Muslim population. He has said he favours a total ban on the so-called burkini, the all-covering swimwear that was controversially outlawed in some French towns during the summer.

But Fillon's economic plan - often described as a Thatcherite, he was featured this week on the front page of left-wing newspaper 'Liberation' with a Thatcher-style wig - could play to Le Pen's advantage. Fillon wants to implement a dramatic reform programme that would result in savings of €110bn over five years, through raising the retirement age to 65, filleting 500,000 civil service posts, abolishing the 35-hour week and introducing €40bn of tax cuts for big business.

Fillon also has France's powerful unions in his sights - he wants to reduce their influence and change many of the country's labour laws.

Le Pen, whose increased popularity is partly due to her strategy of presenting herself as a protectionist crusader against globalisation and free trade, could find much in Fillon's plans to cast him as an out-of-touch establishment figure - he served as prime minister under Sarkozy - bent on harsh reforms that will hurt those already squeezed by an ailing economy.

"Can you really imagine the workers going out to vote for Fillon en masse?" asked a member of Le Pen's campaign team in an interview with 'L'Express' magazine this week.

It has traditionally been the case in France that left-wing voters, if their preferred candidates have been defeated, vote tactically in second-round run-offs to keep the Front National out.

That is what happened during regional elections last year where Le Pen's party made unprecedented gains in the first round but ended up with no seats. The question is whether the left could hold its nose and vote for Fillon in such a scenario despite his self-described 'shock therapy' economic vision.

Whoever is selected as the Republican candidate, it is difficult to gauge whether anti-establishment sentiment in France might be strong enough next April to make a Le Pen presidency a serious prospect.

There is no doubt Le Pen will borrow from the Trump playbook - indeed within days of his election victory, Front National apparatchiks said his aides had been in touch to discuss collaboration - in casting herself as challenger to tired establishment candidates.

Then there is her animus towards the EU: Le Pen cheered Britain's vote to leave the union as the first step in unravelling the entire project, which she dismissed as "a total failure."

A Le Pen victory would shake not just France, but the entire continent.

Irish Independent

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