France and Populism

“It underscores the need for tighter border controls in Europe,” was the predictable response of Martine Le Pen, leader of the French National Front (FN) and presidential candidate to the brutal Islamic terrorist attack on March 22, 2017 near the British Parliament in London that killed four and injured more than 30. The attack, by the new form of low-cost terrorism by rented vehicles and kitchen knives, was a reminder of terrorist attacks in France that since 2015 have killed 86 people in Nice, and more than 230 people altogether. France knows, as President Francois Hollande remarked, the pain the British people are enduring.

Central to that pain is anguish that immigration has brought too many problems for British society and that multiculturalism has failed. The London attack is likely to have an impact on France, that has experienced even more problems, in the French presidential election, the first round of which is on April 23, 2017, and the second on May 7.

The result may help answer the question of whether the advance of populism in Europe and in the U.S. has reached its limit. The populist tide seemed to be rolling with Brexit in the UK and the victory of Donald Trump, but it appeared to have been stalled if not checked by the failure of Geert Wilders to come first and thus win a populist victory in the Netherlands election on March 15, 2017 where the poll was 81%. Is it likely the tide will resume in France and in Germany with the increasing support for the AfD party, an ally of FN?

Prediction in politics and on the likely effect of an election in one county on others is difficult. After all, Iceland, ranked no. 34, unexpectedly defeated England 2-1 in the European soccer championship in June 2016. Expression of populism may vary from one country to another, but the two concepts common to all are opposition to the existing elites, the Establishment, and ending or limiting immigration and closure of national borders. 

France differs from other counties for a number of reasons. There is a larger number of Muslim immigrants than other European countries. Memories of a bitter decolonization process through defeats in Indonesia and Algeria still linger, as do the disputes about behavior in the Vichy regime. Terrorist attacks in France have struck a nerve making the issue of security dominant. But other factors, familiar and unexpected, are at play, the competing and divided political parties, the rather poor quality and untested nature of some of the presidential candidates, and the evidence of corruption.

French politics has been unusually fascinating with its periods of change, even of revolution, and of immobilisme, and alternations of Right and Left in power.  However, the forthcoming elections show unusual features. At the moment, in a context of only 27% praise by people of the French democratic system, and the belief that the political class is self-serving, there are five candidates with possible chances. For the first time since the Fifth Republic began in 1958 the two major parties of Right and Left, both socialist and communist, have no candidate with any chance to win, and both of the parties are divided, unable to unite behind a single candidate.

One understandable event is that President Hollande is not running for a second term because of low approval ratings, the first incumbent president not to do so. This is not surprising in view of the fact that the economy has been disappointing, with the state absorbing 57% of GDP, a high rate of youth unemployment at 25% and 10% in general, and the three large terrorist attacks in 18 months. The contribution of the Left in limiting the working week, generous maternity leaves, collaboration with the important unions, and maintenance of the welfare state, have not altered the negative view.

The French political swamp of expected candidates is being drained. Noticeably, Hollande, former President Nicolas Sarkozy, and former prime ministers Manuel Valls and Alain Juppe are not running. Now five are left: Francois Fillon, who refused to withdraw in spite of corruption allegations against him; Benoit Hamon, the 49-year-old “French Bernie Sanders,” left-wing candidate and ecologist; Jean-Luc Melenchon, La France Insoumise (Unsubmissive France), the far-left candidate, supported by the Communist Party now as he was in 2012; the 39-year-old Emmanuel Macron, leader of a group En Marche, (On the Move) he founded only a year ago, a former investment banker and former minister of the economy in the Socialist government, though not a member of Parliament and without a party other than his own group; and Marine Le Pen.    

The center-right, conservative republican (Les Republicains) candidate Francois Fillon, once a leader in public opinion polls, had called for the abolition of the 35-hour working week and to raise the retirement age from 62 to 65. However, he has slipped because of “Penelopegate,” allegations he had paid his Welsh wife and two children almost a million euros for fake, no-show jobs. He had promised to cut 500,000 jobs from state payrolls, but not his own, and lives in palatial fashion in La Sarthe.

Members of the French Parliament are allowed to employ relatives for real jobs, but not for fictitious ones. Though Fillon has accused opponents of “political assassination,” he stands accused of accepting gifts of luxury clothing worth more than 50,000 euros, aggravated fraud, forgery, and use of forgery to justify the earnings of his wife Penelope. Also, judging by the problems caused by allegations of Russian meddling in U.S. electoral politics 2016, he may not have been helped by the statement by Vladimir Putin that he had a good personal relationship with Fillon.

Macron claims to be the opposition candidate, perhaps the closest to a French liberal position, with his stance of pro free-trade and competition, pro-EU, and pro-immigration. He appears to favor globalization, but he is not clear on precise policies. His platform is ambiguous: he proclaims he is a “not right, not left, third-way candidate.” In a debate between the candidates, when Macron was asked whether he supported allowing Muslim women to wear the burkini, the Islamic full body cover at the beach, in France, he did not give a definite answer.

There is no lack of clarity about Le Pen, the 48-year-old charismatic leader of the National Front, FN. Indeed, the contrast with Macron was illustrated in the debate between the candidates on March 20, 2017. Le Pen, a strong opponent of Islamic fundamentalism, supported the ban on the burkini as a way of responding to what she said were the pressures and incessant demands of Muslims concerning food and clothing.

Her main political points are constant; identity politics, anti-immigration, secularism, anti-establishment, anti-globalization, anti-Muslim. She favors closing mosques with apparent links to terrorism, and would revoke French nationality of those with more than one passport.

Unlike her competitors, she has loyal devoted supporters. The election may depend on turnout, and if it is high, she will do well.

Interestingly, Le Pen has been keen in acting to renounce anti-Semitism, a conviction that was important to her father Jean-Marie Le Pen, the founder of FN and a political extremist. Marine Le Pen excluded her father from the party in 2015 for his unacceptable remarks about concentration camps. And in March 2017 the head of the FN party in Nice, Benoit Loeuillet, was suspended from the party for denying mass killings in the Holocaust, and saying, "I don't think there were that many deaths during the Shoah.”

Le Pen has cultivated relations with the Union of French Jewish Patriots, a group founded by Michel Thooris, a half-Jewish nationalist. Le Pen claims the FN is the best shield for Jews against the true enemy, Islamic fundamentalism. She personally also supports the League of Jewish Defense, a right- wing, violence-prone organization, but her party base is not similarly supportive of Jewish presence, and does not regard Jews as truly French.

The French populism of Le Pen is similar to that in other countries, concerned with immigration, fear of job losses through automation, distrust of elites, and spreading information through social media.  To a considerable degree Le Pen’s support correlates with education as in the cases of Brexit and Donald Trump. And like Trump she is popular in former prosperous industrial towns, the rust belts of France, in peripheral areas, the outskirts of cities, isolated areas, and those with a sense of abandonment. Again like Trump, Le Pen speaks to the populace in simple language and "in the name of the people."                                                                                                                                       

The main choice in the election appears to be between Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron. Public opinion polls tell us that Le Pen will lead in the first round, which requires an absolute majority to win, on April 23, 2017 just ahead of Macron, each getting about 25% of the vote, but will be beaten on the runoff second round on May 7.

The normal expectation in former French elections, is that the divided groups of moderate parties of the establishment close ranks on the second ballot to defeat the extreme candidate, in this case Le Pen. But this election is unpredictable in view of the importance of the immigration factor and the fear of more terrorist activity, as in London, and the failures of both left and center right political groups, and divisions between them. Le Pen remains a long shot in this extraordinary election.