To the surprise of many, François Fillon has won a landslide victory to become the right-wing candidate for France’s 2017 presidential election. He won the first round of the republican primary with more than 44% of the vote. He then went on to beat former front runner Alain Juppé in the second round by a resounding margin.
The polls failed to see it coming, which only adds to the growing list of mistakes made in the past few months by the diviners of electoral results. It seems that polls are no longer able to predict, even within a reasonable margin of error, how much voters are ready to back their candidates.
Fillon represents the interests of the Catholic middle classes, concerned about advances in gay rights and the interests of big business, as an adamant defender of the free market and an advocate for a minimal state. A former minister under Jacques Chirac and prime minister under Sarkozy, Fillon is firmly enshrined in the establishment.
The socialists are in dire situation. The outgoing president, François Hollande, has decided not to run for re-election. Surely his abysmal popularity ratings, descending to an all time low of 4% approval, had a part to play in his withdrawal. Had he ran, he would have been the only potential candidate predicted to lose if he were to face the far right’s Marine Le Pen in the second round of the election.
The current prime minister, Manuel Valls, fares little better. If Valls wins the nomination of the left-wing primary in January, he is predicted to come dangerously close to losing the second round against Le Pen.
That could become irrelevant if the socialists fail to even make it to the second round of the election – as happened in 2002. If the contest was then one of right versus extreme right, Fillon would be more likely to emerge victorious as left-wing voters would opt for him over Le Pen. But if Le Pen faces a candidate from the left, it is doubtful that a majority of right-wing voters would return the favour and vote for the left.
If the independent socialist Jean-Luc Mélenchon, another anti-establishment candidate, does slightly better in the first round of the election than the 11% of the vote he is credited with, he could overtake Fillon and face Le Pen in the second round. France would then have to choose between a former Trotskyist and the leader of the extreme right. A Marxist president, however unlikely, would be the truly unthinkable result of a surreal election.
Macron on the march
But the challenge could equally come from the centre left. Emmanuel Macron has been polling extremely well – some even put him in second place behind Le Pen. Macron was, until recently, Hollande’s finance minister but resigned to strike out alone as an independent presidential candidate at the head of his own political movement. He is both a member of the establishment and an upstart.
Macron could gather votes from the socially-progressive centrists for whom Fillon is too conservative, and from disappointed socialist voters who would not vote (again) for Hollande. Both would compete for the economically liberal right, as their economic programmes are difficult to distinguish at this stage.
But against Le Pen, Macron will be perceived as a candidate of the establishment, and recent anti-establishment votes around the world cast a long shadow over this possibility. A Macron-Le Pen second round would resemble the recent US election, where a centre-left candidate with strong finance ties struggled to compete against the rhetoric of a populist leader.
If the second round of the presidential election in May 2017 is a contest between left and right, there is a real possibility that the next president of France will be the head of a party that was once openly in admiration of Hitler. Many argue that Le Pen has since purged the Front National of its most undesirable elements, but the nationalist, protectionist, and mythico-religious roots of the party are largely intact. The ideals are clear, if contradictory. The plan is to make France great again, a militarily powerful, white, Catholic nation that uses French francs and tolerates no challenge to its secularist republic, either from European bureaucrats or from Muslim women wearing veils.
The polls failed to see Fillon coming and it is at least conceivable that Le Pen will do much better in the election than they predict. We’ve seen that the rules of the game can change. Recent events in Britain and the US are proof that it is perfectly possible.