Brexit, Donald Trump and now France. Will la Francaise perform an ‘encore’ in 2017?

The French elections are slated to be held in two phases in April and May. Before going on to what the likely results are going to be, one needs to look at what happened in the primaries and who the candidates are. As far as the conservative party (the Republicans) is concerned, Francois Fillon scored convincing victories over his rivals Nicholas Sarkozy initially and in the later round over Alain Juppe. In the contest against Alain Juppe, Fillon received 66.5 per cent of the votes to Juppe’s 30 plus per cent.

Until a few weeks before the primaries, Alain Juppe had been the favourite to win the polls. However, to everyone’s surprise, Fillon came out the winner. This was the first time that France had an open primary for the Republicans where any citizen, irrespective of his / her party affiliation, was allowed to vote after paying 2 Euros and signing a charter saying that they agreed with the Republican values of the centre and the right. Fillon’s convincing win in the primaries came as a result of reassuring performances during the primaries. The Socialist Party would conduct its primaries in one or possibly two phases depending on how the outcome shapes up.

Coming to the Presidential elections, the French use a two-round system to decide their President. If a candidate does not obtain a majority vote in the first round, the top two contenders would face off in the second round to determine the winner. The most likely scenario is that Francois Fillon and Marine Le Pen (from the National Front) will contest in the second round. The radical National Front portrays itself to be extremely nationalistic and aims to pull a ‘Frexit’. Also it is known for its anti-immigration stance, anti-established parties and anti-globalisation stances.

A mention will also have to be made about Emmanuel Macron simply because he seems to be the only contender who could beat Marine Le Pen to set up a second round contest with Francois Fillon. He is contesting as a maverick candidate. Till now, Macron is in a distant third position behind Francois Fillon and Marine Le Pen. In the first round, recent opinion polls show that Fillon would top the election by winning between 26 and 29 per cent of the vote with Marine Le Pen coming in second by getting between 24 and 25 per cent. Macron would be coming in third between 13 and 18 per cent of the votes. Obviously, this means that the ruling socialist party is all set for an historic drubbing. If not the most unpopular president, Francois Holland is believed to be one of the all-time unpopular presidents.

There has been a spurt of far right parties in Europe right from Germany (The Alternative for Germany) to Holland (The Party for Freedom) to Italy (The 5 Star Movement) to Greece (The Golden Dawn). The important question is with Brexit and an astounding Trump victory, is France all set for a Marine Le Pen victory? Most of the political analysts went wrong in the previous two instances. This time the pundits are careful by saying that even though the opinion polls show Francois Fillon winning, one should not discount a Marine Le Pen win.

Many of the European countries have a centre right party, a centre left party and a far right party. In France, in 2002, to most people’s surprise, Jean-Marie Le Pen (Marine Le Pen’s father and founder of the National Front) went on to win the first round by pushing Lionel Jospin of the Socialist Party to the third place. Jacques Chirac finished first and hence Jacques Chirac and Jean-Marie Le Pen contested in the second round. Almost all of the political parties came together and called out to their support base to vote against Le Pen. As a result, Jacques Chirac scored a huge victory. More recently, in 2015, the Republicans and the Socialists came together again to defeat the National Front.

A similar scenario is expected to happen again in 2017. That apart, a case can be made out to say that Francois Fillon is more reformist than Marine Le Pen, at least in the economy. He is an ardent admirer of Margaret Thatcher. Thatcher, as most are aware, tamed the trade union during her tenure. At one point of time, in the late 1970s, the unions in Great Britain went on strike and refused to even clear the litter that was lying on the streets. By defeating the miners’ strike in 1985, Thatcher demoralised millions of union members. According to the BBC, Union membership fell from a peak of 12 million in the late 70s to almost half of that in the late 1980s. Much of the credit has to be given to Margaret Thatcher.

Coming to Francois Fillon, his plans include slashing public funding by 100 million Euros, scrapping a tax for the wealthy, cutting down social security, pushing the retirement age to 65, doing away with the 35 work hour week and also increasing VAT sales tax. Fillon has also asked for closer ties with Russia (so has Le Pen), a strategic alliance with Assad in Syria to defeat the Islamic State and deportation of illegal immigrants. Even if he is able to implement a part of what he has planned to do, that would augur well for France. It looks like France is getting geared up for a reset of relations with Russia.

Under Marine Le Pen, the National Front has shifted from an economically liberal pro-small business party to one that assures a lower retirement age and a continuation of France’s welfare schemes. Le Pen is socially liberal, supports gay rights and abortion. Both Fillon and Le Pen have a hardline stance towards political Islam. However Fillon is opposed to gay marriage. Hence Fillon is aware of the fact that in the second round, he might have to win the vote of the left leaning voters and has moderated many of his stances. Recently, his controversial proposal about the healthcare reform proposal was deleted from his website.

It is predictions time!!! The Republicans in the U.S. did it in 2016!!! It is time for the Republicans in France!!! As one reader in the Wall Street Journal put it nicely,

“Francois Fillon is all set to make France great again!!!”

Disclaimer: Views expressed in this article are those of the author

Harish Venugopalan
Harish Venugopalan
Harish Venugopalan is a Research Assistant with the Observer Research Foundation. He has done his Masters in International Relations from the Dublin City University (DCU) in 2011-2012. His current research interest is ‘Conflict Management in Africa’.