If you listened to the Brexiters, particularly Nigel Farage, it wasn’t supposed to be like this. Marine Le Pen was a certain shoe-in to win the French presidential elections. He certainly made sure to let us know, and often, that this was inevitable.
France would crash out of the hated European Union just like Britain did and rejoin the circle of ‘sovereign nations’. France too, would take back control, with a proper fascist at the helm. Except, it’s not working out as planned.
There is a wild-card in this election cycle, and he is called Emanuel Macron. Macron has jumped out of the proverbial presidential race cake to everyone’s surprise, and now threatens Francois Fillon’s coronation. It was thought that none of the Socialist party candidates could win anything, even a parish council election, and that they would finish dead last, leaving the presidency in the capable hands of Fillon.
Thus Fillon was to be coronated and the Partie Socialiste would be trounced as revenge for the atrocious presidency of Francois Hollande. Then, in a runoff between National Front’s Marine Le Pen and the right-winger, the sensible voters of France would naturally flock to the mainstream conservative to keep the fascist out.
To those of us who try to follow French politics, for this reason Le Pen’s Brexiter win was always more questionable, despite Mr Farage’s assurances of the contrary. She does not have the depth of support she needs. At times it has felt like when Jill Stein was hyped up as certain to do well in the US presidential elections.
That analogy works, if you squint hard. Jill Stein’s party has a grand total of 86 elected officials in the entirety of the United States, and nearly all of them are in California, a state that overwhelmingly voted for Hillary Clinton anyway to absolutely no avail.
Le Pen has a firmer base than Stein. Front Nationale has mayors and representatives, and has a structure across France. If has two of 577 members of the national assembly, two of 348 senators, 24 of 74 MEPs, 358 of 1758 regional councillors, 61 of 4108 departement general councillors, and 1545 of 536519 municipal town and rural councillors. It’s a much more entrenched party than the Greens in America.
Jill Stein was talked up as a spoiler in the US elections along with Gary Johnson, and her presence in the media served to fuel speculation that the Greens would, like with Ralph Nader, deprive the democrats of their presidential win.
Le Pen has been talked up as a spoiler too, particularly by the so called alt-right, or fascists if you will, even though historically the mainstream left and right have united behind a candidate to stop the National Front. This was, after all, what was supposed to happen with Fillon too once the primaries were over and Fillon was the main contender against Le Pen.
But then Macron happened. Macron is young, only 39 years old, and he is inexperienced. He was a minister for a while in Hollande’s administration, but left. Now he is the leader of a new party, En Marche. Politically he is a centrist, a New Labour like figure. He refuses to concede to, or get help from, the Socialist party or the conservatives. His pitch is that he is neither left nor right, and that France needs a new approach to politics. Sound familiar?
In a Le Monde poll from last week, based on replies from over 15 thousand people, Macron’s support had grown to around 20 per cent. That’s comparable to Francois Fillon’s 25 per cent. In that poll Marine Le Pen led with 28 per cent. But, here’s the thing. Macron is practically unknown, and he’s nearly caught up with the right-wing Fillon. Macron has momentum, and is gaining. If he makes it to the second round, he’s certain to beat Le Pen. As is Fillon. For the reasons mentioned above.
But will he beat Fillon? Time will tell. But he will have been comforted by what the Socialist party is doing. In the party primaries, the voters decided to back the left-winger Benoit Hamon ahead of the dull centrist Manuel Valls and fellow left-winger Arnaud Montebourg. In the second round, we’ll see if the voters stick with that choice. Turnout in the primaries was abysmal, with no enthusiasm to go out and vote for any of the candidates on offer.
Newspapers have been full of speculations that the Socialist party is about to do a Corbyn and choose an unelectable socialist purist as their candidate. A purist who promises to tax robots to pay for a universal basic income. Interestingly enough, the C-word came up. Hamon embraced it, and Valls spit it out like a sneer, and talked about “destroying the party by becoming completely unelectable”. It was almost Tony Blair like in its revulsion for the younger competitor.
The only problem is that Benoit Hamon is not much like Jeremy Corbyn. There are no mass rallies, and no enthusiastic youth divisions who flood social media and the streets. Hamon attract the same dull small crowds as any other politician in a French election. The only similarity between Hamon and Corbyn is in where they are on the left-right scale. Hamon and Corbyn would agree on much, when it comes to policy.
Macron does have the crowds. He does have the devotion and the enthusiasm. Like both Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, he gathers large crowds and meetings where thousands of people listen to long boring policy discussions with affection for the speaker.
Previous years saw Jesus-figures rise on both the left and the right. Sanders and Trump in America. Farage in the UK. AfD in Germany. Podemos in Spain. Syriza in Greeze. Maybe in 2017 it is the centrists turn for a Corbyn-like rapture. Stranger things have happened these last few years, and Macron certainly looks and feels the part. Particularly after one of his long meetings where half the crowd has been turned away because there’s no room left.