French Election 2017: Dramatis Personæ

Foreword

The blog, as you can likely see, has had a facelift. I was going to mention it before, but the last post I wrote this morning was after my surprise suspension, and I had to pump it out quickly before my day began. I forgot, basically, and I’d rather not go and retroactively add this foreword like I did another 100 words and the featured image.

I grew tired of the old theme, which I had chosen out of desperation because it was the first one that looked even slightly tolerable, and wanted something more clean, more dignified and with a less odd front page. Took hours and hours to sort out the various issues that arose from the switch, but I got there in the end. Block quotes also look much nicer, which is good. I had an aversion to using them before, because with the old theme they were disgustingly lumpish, and I justified and italicised the text as my own substitute. I’ve now gone back and changed most of those.


The French election edges nearer, and I’ve put off this second post for too long (a couple of days). There are eleven candidates running, of whom five are polling over 1% and three are frontrunners. Not being French, I’d heard little other than the usual trashy headlines, so I thought I’d take a proper look at everyone and go over their profile, their party, and — this is the bit that tends to be forgotten — their policies. The Frogs go to the polls for the first time on April 23.

Also, check out my first post on the French political system.

Benoit Hamon, Socialist Party:

Hamon

For the first time in the current (fifth) republic’s history, the incumbent president, in this case Francois Hollande of the Socialist Party, is not seeking re-election. Along with the Republicans, the Socialists are the political mainstream in France, and have alternated office with their rivals continuously since 1981. They are not so left-wing as their name connotes in English, but Hamon, who triumphed decisively in the primaries, is firmly on the left of the party. That said, he is struggling in the polls partially because he is haemorrhaging support to Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

Forty-nine year-old Benoit Hamon was an M.E.P. from 2004 to 2009, and became junior minister for the social economy in 2012, before being promoted to minister of national education in April 2014. That did not last, however, because he resigned in August protesting Hollade’s government was not socialist enough (I find many references to this, but no specific explanation of what his problems were beyond a “pro-business U-turn” — I speculate the Macron Law, which we’ll come to later). He returned in August 2016, and won the primary in January. The B.B.C. says he has been likened to Bernie Sanders, and given his wikipedia article I don’t struggle to see why; the citations, however, are in French, and I don’t understand them, so I don’t state the quotations as fact.

Hamon would like to phase in a universal basic income, as well as a much-ridiculed tax on wealth created by robots. He pledges to legalize both euthanasia and cannabis, and overhaul the French Constitution to have seven-year presidential terms and proportional representation voting. He is pro-Europe and supports “a eurozone assembly with powers to control decisions made by heads of state”, and is highly supportive of asylum-seeking and refugees.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon, Unsubmissive France(?):

Jean

Described as a “firebrand” with “hot-blooded language”, Mélenchon is by far and away the most left-wing of the presidential candidates running, and abandoned the Socialists in November 2008 to found the Left Party. The B.B.C. says he is running on that ticket, but this doesn’t appear to be the case. He stepped down as co-president in 2014, and now appears to be running his own loose political movement called “Unsubmissive France”. I don’t know how the B.B.C. could have missed this, yet I don’t see how I could have misunderstood.

In 2012 he bagged eleven per cent of the vote and came fourth. He has the backing of the Communist Party, and has refused to join with Hamon to unite what remains of the political left in France. His campaign has consisted mostly of fiery speeches, and he launched it with a memorable hologram appearance.

Mélenchon wishes to lower the retirement age from sixty-two to sixty, shorten working hours from thirty-five to thirty-two per week, change new rules on Sunday working, and institutionally separate corporate and investment banking. He pledges zero homelessness by the end of his term, cannabis legalization and the renationalization of utility companies. Most significantly, he wants to hold a referendum on a Sixth Republic to replace the existing constitution, with, presumably among other things, a voting age of sixteen, compulsory voting, and the enfranchisement of foreigners living in France. Most interesting is his European policy: a former supporter of the European Union, Mélenchon now says its economic liberalism has sapped its ability to deliver democratic change. He pledges to renegotiate the European treaties before putting them to a referendum, and consider outright withdrawal if it fails.

François Fillon, Republican Party:

Fillon

Fillon is the first of our frontrunners in the 2017 race. The Republican Party is the is the natural foil to the Socialists and the largest centre-right party in France. Interestingly, in this election it is highly unlikely that either will win. Also, it was previously called the Union for a Popular Movement, or Union pour un mouvement populaire, abbreviated to U.P.M. Facing a variety of scandals and controversies (which seem to have only been written about in French), Sarkozy decided in 2015 to rebrand it the Republicans. He was hoping to launch a political comeback, but was completely stomped out in the first round  of the primaries, which Fillon ultimately won.

However, since winning he has faced a personal scandal that has brought his poll ratings crashing down. He is an experienced politician who has served with a variety of political positions, including prime minister under President Sarkozy. Questions have emerged, however, over parliamentary expenses. From the Guardian:

Police continued to investigate allegations that Fillon’s Welsh-born wife, Penelope, and two of his five children were paid €900,000 of public money for work they did not do. Fillon has insisted he will continue his campaign and ask supporters to hold firm until the investigation is finished.

It later transpired the figure was actually €300,000 higher. The B.B.C. covers the story. He insists that he is being unfairly slandered, and, though he has apologised, will not admit to having done anything wrong: “Never has an operation of such size been launched to try to eliminate a candidate other than by the democratic process”. There is apparently nothing illegal about employing one’s own family members to help with work, and it is not an unheard-of practice; but Penelope did not even have a work email.

He is, however, third in the polls, so we should pay attention to his policies. Fillon is widely regarded as a Thatcherite (one, two, three, and there’s many more). “My approach has been understood: France can’t bear its decline. It wants truth and it wants action”, are some of his words, which do indeed sound Margaret-esque. He’s said to be an admirer of her, and an Anglophile in general. A free-marketeer reformist, he pledges to scrap half a million public sector jobs and raise the retirement age from sixty-two to sixty-five, along with scrapping the country’s cherished thirty-five hour week. His presidency would bring a €40 billion cut to corporate taxation as well as streamlined single-payment benefits. He takes a hard line on Islamism, is overtly positive about Russia, and is both a Eurosceptic and an Anglophile, though he keeps those attitudes in check. According to the Telegraph:

Mr Fillon backs the idea of a “Europe of nations” and has voiced scepticism over the role of the European commission and EU parliament.

Regarding Britain, he has called for a “good neighbourly deal” over Brexit, but recently made it clear that if the UK refused the free movement of EU citizens, there is no “reason to leave them the European financial passport and the eurozone must take back clearing its currency”.

He also wants to return British border controls, which currently operate in Calais, to the UK.

Emmanuel Macron, On the Move:

Macron

Aged thirty-nine, Emmanuel Macron, the current poll favourite, stands a very solid chance of becoming the youngest president in the Fifth Republic’s history. A fiercely intelligent technocrat who was a member of Hollande’s government, though never elected to anything, he became a controversial figure and quit in 2016 to run for president on the ticket of his own centrist political movement, En Marche or On the Move, which in November had almost 97,000 members and had received €2.7 million in donations. He speaks impeccable English, which he has shown off to several journalists who interviewed him.

Emmanuel Macron was born in Amiens in 1977, the son of a physician and a professor of neurology, and spent most of his education at a private high school there. He fell in love with one of his teachers, twenty-four years his senior, and was sent away to Paris for his final year of schooling, but came back to marry her anyway. He has seven step-grandchildren. After studying Philosophy he went on to become an investment banker for Rothchilds, before being snapped by Hollande in 2012 and promoted — John Major style, it seems — to economy minister in 2014. He succeeded with a few deregulations and made his name with the “Macron Law“, which was hammered through the French Parliament without a vote. He is a darling with the media, and the main criticisms levelled at him are that, at only thirty-nine and with no elected experience, he is simply not ready for the presidency, and, as an investment banker, he is an elitist.

He supported the Socialist Party’s right wing while he was a member, and has been likened politically to the Third Way of Tony Blair and Bill Clinton (and Oswald Mosley — though no one ever mentions that). The Guardian describes him as “economically liberal but left-wing on social issues”. His pledges are all over the place, but his flagship policies seem to be scrapping housing tax for 80% of households, a €50bn public investment plan to cover job-training, exit from coal and a shift to renewable energy, infrastructure and modernisation, a €60 billion cut in public spending, and finally the scrapping of 122,000 public sector jobs, though he wishes to bring the joblessness rate down to 7%. He is the most Europhillic of the candidates running; in fact, Professor Robert Zaretsky seems to think he is the Union’s prophesied messiah:

Last week, in a speech at Berlin’s Humboldt University, Macron spoke in impeccable English on the imperative of giving Europe a chance.

And of giving the future a chance: Macron’s speech offered a powerful and convincing case that he is the last great French hope for a European future based on a common market and a common morality, a single currency and a singular commitment to the continent’s core values.

He is definitely a Europhile, going by this Times interview:

He recently described himself as a “hard Brexiteer”, saying, “It’s the British who will lose the most — you cannot enjoy rights in Europe if you are not a member,” and declared that Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, had “no strategic vision”. He then insisted that if Britain wants to trade with Europe, it has to choose a model, such as the Swiss, Norwegian or Canadian. Is that still his view? “Today, I think she [May] has a very difficult task,” he says carefully. “My hope is that we can bring a lot of rigour to managing Brexit, anchoring Britain in a strategic partnership — in particular in the military dimension — while allowing no weakness when it touches on matters affecting the integrity of the union or the durability of the project.”

And here is the video, timestamped, if you wanted to watch it.

Marine Le Pen, National Front:

Le Pen

Oh yes — I made you wait until the end.

To understand Marine Le Pen, it is essential to understand the political party built by her farther, Jean-Marie — what it is seen as, what it once was, and what she has since made it, or not made it. Jean-Marie will be eighty-nine this year, and the party is is — he is technically its president still. From its 1972 formation it was fragrantly nationalistic and anti-semetic, a product of imperial nostalgia, if I dare to guess. Jean-Marie fought in the last colonial wars in the 1950s. Algeria, for him, was the “final straw”. In September 1987 le détail shocked the voting public. Jean-Marie was interviewed on the subject of a notorious Holocaust denier, and asked what he thought of the man’s views. He said:

I do not say that the gas chambers did not exist. I never personally saw them. I have never particularly studied the issue, but I believe they are a point of detail in the history of World War Two.

Did he downplay the Holocaust? He insists he did not, but characteristically responded by digging his heels in, making more controversial statements, and gathering fifteen court convictions. The party has been scarred by that moment. Until Marine Le Pen supposedly overhauled it, that is. She became leader in 2011, and in 2015 two extraordinary things happened: Jean-Marie repeated le détail precisely, shattering any argument he misspoke, and Marine disassociated herself from him. She continued to insist that the party would be “normalised”, and proved her commitment by suspending and then expelling him. They rarely talk anymore; in fact even when they were living on the same estate in 2014 — before the controversy — a few hundred metres from each other, they communicated with intermediaries. She moved out because one his dogs killed her cat.

Marine Le Pen trained as a lawyer, but struggled to find work because of her family name, eventually working solely for the party. She was bullied in school, she alleges, even by teachers. When she was eight the family’s Paris home was bombed — at a time when the National Front was just a far-right fringe party filled with anti-semites — and she realised “a cordon sanitaire was created around us — don’t go near the Le Pens”. When she was sixteen her mother left without explanation for fifteen years.

Today, racial comments are outlawed and people who make them are chased away. She has said Islam is not incompatible with Western democracy, and, extremely significantly, refused to join the movement against gay marriage in 2013; she even has gay advisers (she is doing rather well among gay voters), notably Florian Philippot. Then again, Jean-Marie’s long-standing personal assistant is also a gay man. She angrily defends abortion, which she sees, according to Hugh Schofield, as a “sad necessity”, and is twice divorced. Not the makings of a neo-Nazi totalitarian, if I do say so. “Even her enemies — or most of them”, Schofield writes, “stop short of saying she is personally racist”. She belittled racism as something for “people with small brains”.

Is the process of dédiabolisation now complete? Maybe. A shadow lingers over the name of the party still, and in 2010 Le Pen did compare seeing Muslims praying in the street to German occupation, for which she went on trial and was eventually cleared. Her secularism has been attacked as a veil for bigotry against Muslims. “Rejection of Muslims has wide support, especially among the working class”, according to Cecile Cornudet of Les Echos newspaper. So she uses secularism, or laïcité, and defence of women, as a way of being anti-Islam”. The National Front, it cannot be forgotten, has strong ties with the Dutch Freedom Party (PVV), Austrian Freedom Party (FPOe), Belgian Flemish Interest (VB), Alternative for Germany (AfD) and the Italian Northern League (LN). In the words of Peter Hitchens,  regarding Jean-Marie, “he founded it, he’s still alive (as are many of his original supporters) and his family dominates it”.

In any case, what many people forget is that the National Front is a real, credible party, regardless of to what extent it has shaken off its past, and it is undoubtably now in the mainstream. One thing that Britons particularly tend to forget is that it is a proper, well-organized political party running a proper, well-organized election campaign with a proper manifesto. The importance of this is hard to over-stress.

So we should take a look at its policies. Le Pen pledges to reduce income tax for the lowest earners, introduce proportional representation, promote nuclear power and a retirement age fixed at sixty. She would close “extremist” mosques, deport illegal immigrants and cut legal immigration to 10,000 per year. There would be “national priority” to French people in jobs, housing and welfare, to be written into the constitution after a referendum. State medical aid for foreigners is to be scrapped, and a two-year waiting list introduced for state education. Her European stance is the centrepiece of her campaign, and it is extreme: she would leave both Schengen and the Euro, renegotiate membership, and then hold an in/out referendum. She would also take down all E.U. flags outside public buildings and fly French ones.

I leave you with the final words from that ever-informative Schofield biography:

The FN has no experience when it comes to taking on the task of government. And Marine has no allies, which makes election success all the harder.

The cordon sanitaire remains in place.

But her father knows a thing or two. Watch for les évènements, he says. Things happen. Rivals crash out. Corruption scandals erupt. Bombs explode.

Or as he might have put it: “Events, mon cher ami, events.”

Main Sources:

THE END

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