France’s fascinating fight

A few months after Brexit and Trump , France is witnessing its very own political drama series.

For a long time conventional wisdom had it that in this year’s presidential election, far right candidate Marine Le Pen would be pitted in the final round against a well-known politician from France’s traditional Left or Right.

Well, Le Pen is still there, but the position of her main challenger has passed from a – prematurely celebrated – Alain Juppé on to François Fillon and now, it appears, Emmanuel Macron.

Whilst “Penelopegate” still dominates the news, what are we to make of the chances of the various candidates to replace François Hollande in the Elysée after the two rounds of the election taking place on 23 April and 7 May?

Let’s assume Francois Fillon hangs on, as he seems to intend.

If he manages to come 2nd in the 1st round – a result which mainstream opinion polls suggest is unlikely at the moment – how many people from the centre and left will rally to him, so he can then beat Le Pen on 7 May?

Fillon was already a bogyman to the Left; the scandal about him supposedly paying his wife to do a fictitious job from public funds has made it even more unlikely he can attract their votes. Supporters of Jean-Luc Mélenchon or Benoît Hamon could stay at home, thus increasing Le Pen’s chances.

If Fillon ends up in 3rd place , will that ensure Macron’s victory in the run-off? A Macron-Le Pen race could be a lot tighter than the 65-35% currently predicted by the opinion polls.

Macron will find it difficult to appeal to voters both from his left and right. Some of those preferring Fillon in Round 1 could turn to Le Pen whereas many on the Left see Macron as too much of an economic liberal and won’t support him either. The biggest danger could also come from those abstaining.

And if Fillon bows out, after all?

Alain Juppé has ruled out becoming the figurehead of “Plan B” – but would he hold firm if the party called on him? Juppé could be an attractive candidate for those Macron supporters who flocked to the independent candidate only after Juppé was knocked out of the race in the Républicain’s primary. That would be bad news for Macron. Conversely, Juppé appeals much less to conservative voters. His candidacy could thus leave him fighting for second place with Macron whilst boosting Le Pen’s electorate.

In a stand-off against Le Pen, would the centre-right Juppé – who stands for solid experience – have a better chance than centre-left Emmanuel Macron who represents a new “élan” but is untested? Difficult to tell.

Macron could still stumble.

One week is a long time in politics, 10 weeks is an eternity. A lot could happen before 23 April. Who knows what – true or false – allegations will still surface about the various candidates. Macron is clearly the one who has most to lose from any “scandal”.

In order not to alienate his supporters, he has to maintain a careful distance from the established parties. That is a difficult course to stay when he’s increasingly pressed to spell out his position on the major issues. And Macron must also build a team of candidates for the ensuing legislative elections in June that is seen as coherent, competent and still different from what the traditional parties offer.

Macron would also be in trouble if François Bayrou decided to throw his hat into the ring. The seemingly wear-free leader of the French centrists has a habit of descending into the arena every five years, playing killjoy to better placed candidate that he’s ideologically close to, thus scuppering their chances without gaining anything for himself. Will he do it again?

The Left continues to be seriously divided.

The Left is currently split between the Socialist Party’s candidate Benoît Hamon, Jean-Luc Mélenchon from the “Parti de gauche”, a couple of other hard left pretenders and MEP Yannick Jadot from the Green Party.

Without that schism, a candidate of the Left would be in the running for the second round of the elections and – if facing off Le Pen there – might even stand a chance of inheriting Hollande’s job, despite the dismal record of the latter. But that looks unlikely to happen.

For a start Hamon would have to convince the supporters of his left-wing rivals that their vote would be “wasted” unless they pick him. And even then he would still be far from the Elysée. It will be interesting to see whether these divisions can be overcome in the June legislative elections. Otherwise the Left will be marginalised in the next Parliament.

A field of (too) many candidates.

With more than 10 names on the ballot of the first round, this fragmentation is good news only for the one leading the pack – Le Pen.

For the others it will likely mean the second place decided by a very thin margin.

Memories return of the 2002 campaign when President Chirac emerged from Round 1 with less than 20% of the vote, and Jean-Marie Le Pen beat the Socialist Lionel Jospin for second place by a very slim margin. Chirac went on to trounce Le Pen handsomely with around 82% in the second round.

Some take comfort in remembering what happened 15 years ago. But the last 12 months have shown us that politics is more unpredictable than ever. We may still be in for a surprise.