Tuesday 16 January 2018

France: sleepwalking its way to an election

Two weeks from tomorrow, French voters will choose their new president. Our political correspondent finds the lacklustre election campaign is based on the dangerous ­assumption that the Front ­National's Marine Le Pen will poll well - but cannot win

In the lead: Emmanuel Macron is the favourite to win the election run-off
In the lead: Emmanuel Macron is the favourite to win the election run-off
John Downing

John Downing

Back in what now seems like another lifetime I lived for a very happy 18 months in France's second largest city, Lyon.

The night François Mitterrand became the first-ever left-wing President of France to be elected by direct vote of the people, I was on Lyon's splendid Place Bellecour to witness the very exuberant celebrations which continued until dawn. In May 1981, that new dawn promised "a people-centred France," and I believed I would live in Lyon for ever.

But something called life intervened, a brief return to Ireland led through no fault of mine to a job in a local paper, and as these things happen, I have only been in Lyon a handful of times in the ensuing years. And through those decades, French politics has gone through many changes.

Just a few days ago I was back in Lyon. Seated on a café terrace and drinking from a tall glass, close to Cathedral St Jean in Lyon's 15th century splendour, as a host of submerged memories came flooding back. I watched various canvassing teams go through the motions for the presidential election which kicks off a fortnight from tomorrow.

The canvassers' low-energy approach typified a campaign which has yet to fire. On paper there are 11 candidates but realistically only five are deemed to be in any kind of contention. In practice everyone sees it as a neck-and-neck contest between the centrist Emmanuel Macron and the Front National's Marine Le Pen.

Bookmakers and financial markets are sleepwalking their way, along with the entire political and media apparatus, to an election expected to give a small jolt to the system with the one increasingly known only as "Marine" taking more than a quarter of the vote. The firm expectation is that she will lose a run-off, due a fortnight later on May 7, by roughly 60:40 to the other front-runner Emmanuel Macron.

The thing I notice is that, asking French friends how they will vote, can in many cases lead to the conversation quickly pivoting to Toulouse's failure to surprise Munster at Thomond Park in the European rugby cup. For many mainstream French voters it's not cool to admit the attractions of the Front National.

Anger at economic globalisation, worries about extremist violence and scepticism of the European Union are key political themes in France right now. And these are rich seams for Marine Le Pen.

Back in my long-time-ago Lyon idyll, her formidable father Jean-Marie Le Pen was largely a figure of fun. His far-right Front National, which he founded in 1972, was for cranks and extremists, and his dismissal of the Nazi Holocaust as a "detail of history" excluded him from the mainstream.

In the intervening four decades France has not become more intolerant.

But Marine Le Pen has tacked her party into the mainstream, tapping into the current malaise of discontent with establishment politicians prevalent in France and across the western world. She has also been helped by the near-complete collapse of the French left.

Last Tuesday, all 11 candidates, nine men and two women, faced off in a cumbersome televised debate. There were flashes of conflict between the two frontrunners.

Asked how they would create jobs in France which has had an unemployment rate of about 10pc for several years, Macron talked up his pro-free market views. Le Pen trumpeted her support for economic protectionism.

Macron pledged to cut business taxes, and unwind France's tight labour regulations. But in a France which still prizes social dialogue, he promised to facilitate cooperation between unions and employers to help create jobs.

Le Pen essentially wants France to follow Britain's example and leave the European Union. She has proposed a tax on businesses which hire foreign workers. "Without 'clever protectionism', we are going to watch jobs being destroyed one after another," she said during the television debate.

That is all very bad news for Ireland as it would spell the end of the EU as we know it. The majority of Irish politicians will hope the French establishment has no need to abandon its smug politician assumptions.

But Le Pen, now aged 48, is a seasoned political battler who took on her own father and eventually had him expelled from the party he set up. On television this week she went on the attack against Macron, who is deemed her chief rival.

He is aged just 39, and like the outgoing French President, François Hollande, has never previously even stood for elected office. Macron was President Hollande's finance minister for two years but has eschewed socialist principles in favour of free-market economics.

"You do not present yourself as new when you are using 50-year-old ideas," Le Pen told him disparagingly. And Macron hit back with a clear reference to her father's extremist heritage.

"Madame Le Pen, sorry to tell you, but you are using lies we hear for 40 years and we were hearing in your father's mouth," he retorted. Neither was he afraid to flourish his Europhile credentials saying he had the EU "in his heart".

He also laid great stress on the need for EU reform with France working the old Paris-Berlin axis. But the French people are living in a state of emergency since the first of several deadly terrorist attacks in 2015.

By now bands of armed soldiers sporadically patrolling the streets of Lyon pass without any remark from ordinary citizens.

Le Pen wants to reinstate France's national borders to prevent potential attackers from entering the country. She has pledged to boost the military budget and advocates the closing of up to 100 mosques where she believes "radical Islam" is now preached.

Macron has vowed to continue French military operations in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere. He has also promised to recruit 10,000 extra police officers to help boost security. Political ethics, or the so-called "moralisation" of French public life, is part of the election rhetoric. It is not clear how deeply this resonates with ordinary voters.

True, the original election front-runner Francois Fillon of the successor to the Gaullist grouping, these days called "Les Républicans", has been seriously harmed by corruption allegations.

He has been formally investigated for claims that he paid his wife and children vast sums of taxpayers' money for political support work they allegedly never did.

Fillon has used a lot of energy denying any wrongdoing. Polls have pushed him into third place - but with an interesting chunk of the vote around 17pc. Similar allegations against Le Pen and her National Front party about the alleged misuse of European Parliament funds have so far not carried the same political impact.

Now the focus has moved to what will Fillon's voters do in the second round. If they were to support Marine Le Pen in any numbers another dangerous political assumption could bite the dust early next month.

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