Understanding the French Elections

UnknownThe French presidential elections to be held in two-rounds on April 23 and May 7 are unlike any France has seen since the Fifth Republic Constitution went into effect in 1959. And if polls are right, the winner of the second round will have a hostile majority in Parliament. France may well become ungovernable.  If France slips into anarchy, it could well take the European Union down with it.

There are eleven candidates running in the first round of French presidential elections to be held on April 23rd: two women and nine men. But only five really matter as the other six are not expected to get more than two-percent of the vote. As a matter of fact, the vast majority of voters could not even name the lesser candidates and many don’t even know there are more than five.

In the French system, the two candidates who get the most votes in the first round face off in a second round two weeks later.  Legislative elections will be held in June.

The conservative Les Républicains candidate and former Prime Minster under Nicolas Sarkozy, François Fillion, had been favored to win but a corruption scandal involving the fake employment of his wife and children on tax-payer money has shot him down to third place with only 18% of voter intention. The scandal led many in his party to call on him to step aside which he refused to do, insisting he had won the primaries on his program of spending cut backs, tougher immigration policies and renewed moral values. As a practicing Catholic, he has insisted on the Judéo-Christian heritage of the country, asking those who make their home here to adapt or leave.

Far right candidate Marine Le Pen of the National Front leads in the polls with as much as 27%.  She is pushing to leave the Euro and the European Union if it does not change its rules which impose criteria on member states such as fair-trade rules. She is a “France First” candidate who wants tighter border controls, a reduction in immigration, protectionist action to promote French businesses over foreign rivals and an end to French military meddling in the Middle East. Like Fillion, she is in favor of stripping duel nationals of their French citizenship if they are involved in terrorism. But unlike Fillion, she wants to do away with duel citizenship rights for non-EU members.

Fast on her heels is the former banker and Finance Minister in the Socialist government Emanuel Macron with roughly 25%.  If he were to go on to the second round, he is expected to crush Le Pen with at least 60% of the vote. But Macron has no party ticket and his ‘En Marche’ (Forward) is a loose coalition of pro-Europeans in favor of “humaine capitalism” with greater social protections for the weakest but advocates budget belt tightening.  He would reduce the number of civil servants, 20% of the work force, by 300 thousand.  Fillion plans to cut those on the state payroll by 500 thousand.  There are five-and-a-half million on government payroll.  Like Le Pen, Macron would find himself forced to govern with a hostile parliament made up of socialists and conservatives.

The rock star of these elections is the hard left candidate Jean-Luc Mélanchon.  His program is to increase spending to create jobs, increase welfare payments and the minimum wage and shut down France’s nuclear power plants which produce 80% of the country’s energy. He did very well in the first televised debate between the five leading candidates and has now passed the Socialist Party candidate to take fourth place with 14% of voter intention.

The Socialist Party (PS) candidate, Benoit Hamon, won his party’s primary but his leftist views have badly split the socialists, sending many to support Emmanuel Macron, including former Premier Vals and Defense Minister Le Drian.  Hamon says many of the same things as Mélanchon, leading a large number of those on the left to call on the two to unite in the first round.  He is down to 12% in the polls and this election could well mean the end of the PS as a major force in the country.  But unlike Mélanchon, Hamon is not willing to leave the EU, or the Euro, and favors a tough stance against Russia, French military intervention abroad and continued support for rebels trying to oust Syrian President Bashar al Assad.  He says he can force the Germans to loosen their austerity stance and invest in infrastructure to create jobs.

If Fillion can overcome French disgust with the fictitious employment of wife and kids and makes it to the second round, he is fairly sure to win as those on the left traditionally vote conservative to block the far right Le Pen, even though many on the left say they will abstain.  Macron, seen as a centrist, would attract votes from both the conservatives and socialists and go on to be president.

However, given the Gerrymandering of French Legislative elections, Macron would have to preside over, most likely, a conservative parliament.  The only hope the PS has in the legislative ballot is three-way voting in the second round. Anybody who gets more than 12% in the first round in June can go on to the second round and the National Front is sure to maintain its candidates in all constituencies where it finishes high enough, which could be most everywhere.

Traditionally, the socialists have called on their voters to vote conservative anywhere the National Front has a chance to win. Les Républicains conservatives less so. If Marine Le Pen is elected, which could happen if enough people abstain in the second round, she may get more than the two deputies she has now but not enough to govern.

A full 43% of the electorate say they still don’t know for sure who they will vote for or whether they will vote at all. Whatever happens in May and June, France looks like it is on a course to be ungovernable at a time when unemployment is high (well over 10%), the debt is unsustainable (nearly 100% of GDP), and the terrorist threat is higher than ever sparking fears of ethnic clashes and social unrest. The tremors in France will send shockwaves throughout Europe.