Embattled presidential candidate François Fillon probably looked at the political calendar in the first week of February and thanked his lucky stars that the spotlight shifted, for a weekend at least, to other candidates in the French election race.
Lyon became the focus of the campaign. Nicknamed “the capital of the three Gauls”, it became the city of three candidates, as independent candidate Emmanuel Macron, far-left proposition Jean-Luc Mélenchon and far-right upsetter Marine Le Pen all rolled into town. Meanwhile, back in Paris, Benoît Hamon was being formally adopted as the socialist candidate.
Macron in the middle
Some have accused Macron of populism, pointing to his claim that he is of “neither right nor left”. He also claims to stand against “le système” – but that’s ground he shares with Mélenchon, Le Pen and, curiously, Fillon.
Of course they all mean different things by this. For Macron, who is standing at the head of his own movement, it means that he is not tied to any party. For Mélenchon it is shorthand for being profoundly anti-globalisation and eurosceptic. When Le Pen rails against the system, she means the other parties and the Fifth Republic itself – all “designed” to exclude her. And for Fillon, it means state bureaucracy, to which he intends to take a large axe.
Macron is yet to produce a manifesto but 8,000 cheering supporters gathered in the hall to hear him speak in Lyon, with perhaps as many as 5,000 more watching on jumbo screens elsewhere in the complex. However, he is no more a populist than Fillon. On the day, he reiterated his commitment to a reformist, social democratic approach to the market.
What really sets him apart is a very clear and distinctive plea for the EU and for multiculturalism. “There is no such thing as a single French culture. There is culture in France and it is diverse,” he said during his speech. Set against the “one and indivisible secular Republic” of the left and the “roman de la nation” – a single, national history that both Fillon and Le Pen have promised to bring back into French schools – it’s a significant difference. And while populism generally offers simple fixes for complex problems, one thing that might mire Macron’s programme is precisely the detail in his proposals to reform welfare, the minimum wage and taxes.
Back in Paris, on Sunday morning, the Socialists prepared to formally endorse Hamon following his victory in the party primary. There had been some scepticism about him but, in the end, the ceremony passed off without a hitch (although some high profile names were absent, including former presidential candidate Ségolène Royal).
Hamon has his party’s favour now largely as a result of his showing in opinion polls since winning the primary. The party is by no means out of the woods, but he is polling at 16-17%, which of course doesn’t mean victory by any stretch of the imagination, but is considerably less embarrassing than previous results.
Hamon’s success has been a setback for Jean-Luc Mélenchon. A former member of the Socialist party, he opposed the party’s decision to support the European constitution in 2005 and left in 2009 to set up his own Parti de Gauche.
A candidate in 2012, with the support of the Communists (PCF), Mélenchon was something of a surprise package. Anti-globalisation and profoundly eurosceptic, he promised to spend that campaign making life unbearable for Le Pen. He made a strong showing at the start of the campaign before losing out in the first round of the election.
Mélenchon’s fortunes have fluctuated since, but the rejection of Hollandisme within the left gave him enough encouragement to announce that he would be a 2017 candidate as early as February 2016. The PCF hesitated and, in the autumn of 2016, even rejected supporting Mélenchon and his La France Insoumise movement, before figuring that it had no alternative. Hamon’s rise in the polls, has given them some sense of satisfaction and belief that they may not have to support Mélenchon after all.
Mélenchon’s task on February 5, then, was to take back the initiative, which he did it in striking fashion by appearing in two places at the same time – in Lyon in person and in Paris in hologram form.
His two-hour speech was high on the rhetoric of resistance and saw him attack, by turns, Macron for his social democracy, Fillon for promising reforms that will do little for low earners, and Le Pen for being Le Pen. Hamon, by contrast, was spared, since that relationship remains a work in progress.
One question that remains regarding Mélenchon’s policies of raising the basic wage and other welfare increases and improvements is how he plans to pay for it all. On Sunday, Mélenchon answered the question by rejecting it: “No one puts a price on stupidity, or death”. Quite so, Jean-Luc …
Le Pen’s top 144 suggestions
For her part, Le Pen’s speech rounded off a weekend of events that had started on Saturday with her presenting her 144 propositions for France. Of course, no one has read them all and very few people will, but they are summed up under seven promises of a France that will be “free, safe, prosperous, fair, proud, powerful and enduring”.
What this means in concrete terms is jettisoning the Schengen agreement, rejecting multiculturalism, reinforcing secularism in public spaces (shorthand for bans on Muslim dress), protectionism, the introduction of school uniforms and revising the history curriculum in schools (both policies she shares with Fillon), and making overtime tax-free (an idea that the Sarkozy-Fillon government introduced between 2007 and 2012). At the bottom of it all, however, lies a fundamental commitment to Frexit: to leave the eurozone and the EU.
Two posters from the weekend sum up Le Pen’s campaign. One promises to “put France back in order in five years”. Another tells the story of a mother, living in a car with her five-year-old son, or a retired farmer living off a pittance: “Alas for Sandra/Pierre, they are not migrants.”
Most of the main candidates for 2017 are now in place. François Bayrou, the veteran centrist, has still to announce whether he will stand. And despite a press conference on the evening of Monday February 6 at which Fillon presented his mea culpa but promised to fight on, there are still doubts that he can see the contest out. It is not clear what effect, if any, the announcement that Nicolas Sarkozy will face charges over the funding of his 2012 campaign (the so-called Bygmalion Affair) will have on Fillon or any of the others.