We are getting closer to one of the most important elections in Europe for quiet some time and Europa United will be putting the spotlight on the 2017 French presidential Elections and we start with Brian Milne assessing the performance of the contenders.

Round one

The first round of the 2017 French presidential election will be held on 23 April 2017. If no single candidate wins a majority, there is a second round election between the top two on 7 May. The chances of any candidate winning the first round outright in this election are small. Initially 10 candidates for their respective parties stand, without a clear majority eight will be eliminated, thus the two leading candidates go on to the May round. According to early opinion polls, François Fillon of the Republicains and Marine Le Pen of Front National led during 2016 and into early 2017. By late January, Emmanuel Macron of the new movement En Marche! was predicted to reach the second round. Recent polls for the second round suggest either Fillon or Macron would beat Le Pen and that if Le Pen is eliminated Macron would beat Fillon. Fillon has slipped after the ‘Penelopegate’ scandal and further revelations, thus a runoff between Le Pen and Macron looks most likely.

So far there is only a taste of real campaigning. Every commune, town and city has boards exclusively used for political party posters. Even the smallest village has a single board. By the middle of January the first signs had appeared. There are no big slogans; the French have little time for that. Instead one sees a quite small, perhaps A3 size, posters proclaiming ‘Vote X’ – the names of candidates and their party. That is all.

Fancy footwork

At first the candidates circle like heavyweight boxers, their gloves oscillating, jabs and half strength punches. Hard blows will be delivered later. The first heavy punches are struck opportunistically to try to catch the opponent unawares, the knock their wind out, thus weaken them so they will drop their guard, attempt to strike back which means dropping their guard in a moment of attack. Those blows are countered then the real exchange begins. The blows get heavier and faster until the KO or win on points. The difference is the ring has several contenders at first, right now five of them. There is also no referee. Three will be weakened before round one is over, they will be eliminated, round two is the decider. Victory comes on a technical knockout the way the electoral system works. For now, the footwork and early jabs are what we are watching.

French Presidential election 2017

L’enfant terrible, the National Front’s Marie Le Pen

In France, the primaries provided candidates for parties and surprises. Fillon rather than Alain Juppé took the Républicains’ candidature; Benoît Hamon defeated Manuel Valls for Parti Socialiste’s nomination. Jean-Luc Mélenchon of Parti de Gauche and Macron of En Marche! walked into their spots, as too Le Pen of Front National.  Yannick Jadot of Europe Écologie – Les Verts,  Nicolas Dupont-Aignan of Debout la France, Philippe Poutou of Nouveau Parti anticapitaliste, Nathalie Arthaud of Lutte Ouvrière and Jacques Cheminade of Solidarité et Progrès are more or less ‘also rans’ who will be eliminated at the first round. Fillon has already accrued far more minuses than every other candidate, thus has gone from the frontrunner to an increasingly also ran position. Le Pen has a few negatives such as her party’s repayments to the European Parliament for political misuse of expenses, but the French people do not consider things like that outside their national boundary especially important. On 22 February François Bayrou of the centrist Mouvement Démocrate offered Macron an alliance and said he would now not announce his candidature. This gives Macron a few extra points, possibly tipping the balance that will put him ahead of Fillon in the first round. Candidates for the normally two round presidential elections must be formally submitted by 17 March. That is when we see campaigning starting in earnest.

Ducking and weaving

Thus, the build up between January and the real campaigns that are about to start. The first jabs were exchanged in the middle of February when Macron spoke out about the past in a TV interview in Algiers. He said that French actions in Algeria up until independence in 1962 after eight years of war, were “genuinely barbaric, and constitute a part of our past that we have to confront by apologising”. It was a “crime against humanity”. “It’s really barbaric and is part of that past that we must face up to also by apologising to those who were hurt.” Algerian political parties have denounced the refusal of the French authorities to recognise and apologise for the human rights crimes committed by colonial France for many years. French governments have consistently been accused of being in denial about the violence of its colonial rule, which reached a peak during the Algerian war of independence. Algeria was under French rule for 132 years: now their government says the conflict killed 1.5 million of its citizens. Macron’s suggestion that France should apologise met with stern reaction from his rivals on the right. Fillon denounced what he called a “…hatred of our history, this perpetual repentance that is unworthy of a candidate for the presidency of the republic”. An FN official accused Macron of “shooting France in the back” and an ally of ex-president Sarkozy tweeted “Shame on Emmanuel Macron for insulting France while abroad”. The left remains silent. It is a tactical jab. France lays claim to the concept of human rights as in ‘la Déclaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen’ of 1789, the basis of their constitution. It is always a good punch. The right lay claims on being defenders of the revolution and constitution but tend to overlook some of the principles they lay claim to whereas the left hold their peace, they having anything but upheld it always. Le Pen is making noises, but the left is gathering behind Macron once Hamon and Mélenchon are knocked out in the first round. His next speech in mid-February in which he said that France had never had a real leader since the 1789 revolution intensely irritated the right, but again  attracted no left wing critique. However, at this early stage the ponderous sparring continued.

The first points

A poll during the middle of February placed Le Pen Le Pen seven points clear of Macron and Fillon, both on 20%, in the first round. However she would lose to either Macron or Fillon in the May runoff by margins of 16 and 12 points respectively as supporters from the left, centre and soft right switched to their preferred candidate. On the evening of 20 February police searched FN HQ as part of an official investigation into ‘fake’ jobs that involved misuse of EU funds to pay for a bodyguard and an assistant in Paris. Some CDs were apparently seized. Brussels investigators claimed that Le Pen paid her bodyguard over €41,500 during late 2011, by fallaciously claiming he was an EU parliamentary assistant. Additionally she was also accused of paying approaching €300,000 to her France based assistant between late 2010 and 2016. To qualify as a parliamentary assistant, that person needs to be physically working in one of the European parliament’s offices in Brussels, Strasbourg or Luxembourg also resident near that workplace which the assistant was not.  The European anti-fraud office insisted Le Pen repays €340,000 which she refused and is thus having deducted from her MEP salary.

fillion

François Fillon of the The Repubicans

Her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, has been ordered to repay €320,000 salary and benefits, along with Bruno Gollnisch, an ex-academic convicted of Holocaust denial, and Mylène Troszczynski, all MEPs, who have been accused of misusing funds. All three deny transgression and challenged the reimbursement on the grounds that they claim it would leave them unable to carry out their MEP duties and that the recovery of the money should go ahead. At time of the raid, Le Pen was in Lebanon to see their prime minister, Saad Hariri, who during the meeting objected to what he saw as her stigmatisation of Muslims. She is running on an anti-immigration, anti-EU platform and said that the only ‘viable and workable solution’ to the Syrian civil war was choosing between Assad and IS. In her view Assad is the most hopeful solution for France; however it was not what one might call a successful bit of diplomacy.

Strategy or footwork?

So, Le Pen and Macron are drawing the greatest attention from the outset. They are poles apart politically; however both basically agree that the defining issue is France’s membership of the Euro zone. Both are pointing out widening divergence between France and Germany’s economic performance throughout the past decade as evidence that the status quo is not sustainable. Le Pen’s argument is that they should leave the Euro, but Macron has another strategy. FN claim that the only way France can remain a member of what they are calling a ‘fixed Euro zone exchange rate regime’ is to go for internal devaluation by cutting back on social protections and driving down wages. Their alternative is to quit the Euro zone. Macron prefers France in the Euro and will campaign for changes to the country’s public sector, welfare system and labour laws. He believes those changes are required to restore competitiveness. Thus, he is advocating a more flexible welfare system and labour market that protects individuals rather than jobs and also allows employers to agree deals with individual or groups of workers at company level rather than inevitably nationally across sectors. So, whilst there is no appetite for cuts to welfare in Le Pen’s strategy, she is nonetheless arguing for a cutback on social protections and driving down wages, an apparent contradiction, but one that will see nobody better off and certainly would not ensure a reduction of unemployment. Thus, to preserve the welfare system she says it is necessary to leave the Euro zone and devalue the currency. The reality is that if France quit the Euro it would likely lead to massive capital flight, but not just in France. Macron is very aware that France’s inflexible labour laws and high levels of taxation are a drawback on competitiveness, irrespective of the currency being used. He also has his experience with Rothschild as an investment banker, first serving as the senior adviser then as economy minister in Hollande’s government until he resigned to begin his own political career. Of the two he is the experienced economist. What remains to be seen is how much of an impression his position makes during the hard, immediate pre-election campaigning.

Punches below the belt

At the beginning of February Macron had a portion of scandal thrown at him which he laughed off. He unexpectedly turned up at a local meeting of En Marche! activists in Paris and made a joke of the rumour of a gay relationship with Radio France chief executive Mathieu Gallet. He quipped that reports of a double life were not about him but his ‘hologram’, referring to another candidate, Mélenchon, using that instead of being there in person at a political meeting.  He had already dismissed previous claims he is gay, however the recent comments appear to have been reported in the Russian government controlled news site Sputnik that interviewed an MP from Fillon’s Les Républicains who said he was backed by a ‘gay lobby’. Sputnik is particularly well known for fake news, much of which has begun to be used as satirical material in west European media. Julian Assange of Wikileaks was also quoted by Izvestia in Russia saying “we have interesting information” about him that had been gleaned from Hillary Clinton’s hacked emails. Izvestia gave no further details. It is, of course, no surprise Russian media attempted a smear campaign since their favoured candidate with alleged Russian bank funding for FN is Le Pen. She is running on a ticket of leaving the EU whereas Macron is pro-EU and Russia is known to support all attempts to undermine the union. However, this was a very minor distraction that appears to have added only a few smiles rather than any serious public damage, thus more of a harmless slap on the hand than a punch.

emmanuel-macron

Independent frontrunner, Emmanuel Macron

Before the sparring ended le Pen suffered something of a setback. On 28 February the European parliament’s legal affairs committee voted to waive Le Pen’s immunity by an overwhelming majority of eighteen to three after a request from the prosecutor of Nanterre in west Paris. It allows prosecutors to take legal action against her for tweeting grisly images of killings by Islamic State militants. The prosecutor was enabled to open an inquiry under a French law banning distribution of violent images or inciting terrorism. The case will not be concluded until well after the presidential elections however it also opens up the likelihood of action on the separate investigation into her alleged misuse of EU funds. She will, of course, throughout campaigning claim those actions are intended as an unjustified slur against her and being used as propaganda by opposition parties and candidates. The next day Fillon declared his intent of continuing to stand, thus drawing attention to French political corruption, of which both Le Pen and he are accused and simultaneously snatching back a very little of her right wing support. However, the circling and jabbing continues with the only punches delivered thus far by Macron.

At the end of round one…

So now we are into March, campaigning will now step up, TV will be flooded with the election, relegating all but the most important international and most domestic news to the sidelines, other media will step up reporting and any scandals being held back will begin to be used as the floodgates of political rhetoric flows out. Polls still show Le Pen ahead of Macron by 4% although with a portion of Bayrou’s support in the bag he could now show an overall lead. At the time of writing, the most comprehensive polls offered by BFMTV that draw on around 70 polls from 10 polling agencies were nine days old and pending updates. It will be interesting to see what effect the most recent scandals are having on Le Pen whilst knowing that Fillon is already too badly damaged to hold out much chance of recovery. Whilst she has a reputation for being a ‘Teflon’ politician, right now it looks a little more like Macron is the one who is far harder to scratch with none of the dirt thrown at him sticking.

As campaigning develops I shall follow through with further reports, no doubt with more dirt being thrown at leading candidates to add some colour in this most unusual election. At present the biggest question must be how Le Pen will now ride out accusations with her immunity lifted and what kinds of campaigning strategy will that give birth to? It is very certain it will not be a clean fight.

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