Europeans are keeping close tabs on France in this decisive election year, and the French are giving them plenty to watch. Three months before the final round of voting in the presidential election on May 7, a good portion of the political establishment has already been weeded out of the race. And it currently looks as though the purge won't be slowing down any time soon.
Currently, a big question mark is hovering over the future career of François Fillon, who had looked until last week like one of the most promising contenders. But then, as the newspaper Le Canard enchaîné put it, a "gigantic stain appeared on his white vest." But Fillon's travails are only the most recent in a string of absurdities that have dogged the French campaign.
Right from the get go, President François Hollande's disastrous showing in the polls prevented him, the incumbent, from running for re-election. His prime minister Manuel Valls, once one of the country's most popular politicians, also got derailed as the Socialist Party's replacement candidate in the primary. And "omnipresident" Nicolas Sarkozy fared equally poorly in the conservative party's primary. The early vote also wiped out the prospects of the man who had led all the polls: Alain Juppé, the aging mayor of Bordeaux, who at times looked almost like he already had one foot in the door at Élysée Palace, the French White House.
Now the slate of contenders, with or without Fillon, has completely changed and is considerably more exciting than what had been anticipated only a few short weeks ago. France's third most popular sport behind football and rugby -- that of calculating the probability of every possible (and impossible) post-election coalition -- has begun filling myriad columns and television programs.
What would happen if the entire left, including the Communists, the Greens and the rest were to finally join forces and field a joint candidate? Can the highly gifted Emmanuel Macron, a man in his late thirties, really launch a movement out of nowhere and catapult himself to the helm of the French state within just a few months with his breezy "neither left nor right" course? Does left-wing radical Jean-Luc Mélanchon, mocked as a "YouTube Che Guevara" by his opponents, stand a chance of gaining more than the 10 percent support he has now? And what was the name of the guy running for the Greens again? Jabot? Jadot?
A Compelling Election
This much is certain: It's going to be an exciting election, in no small part thanks to France's grassroots-promoting practice of holding open presidential primaries. The Socialists were the first to test it years ago, and the conservatives are following suit this time around. Both were also forced to realize that primary voters pay little heed to polls or probability theories, but are instead more likely to inject deep polarization into the political system.
In the left-wing camp, Benoît Hamon, a man largely unknown abroad, won the candidacy. In France though, Hamon is well-known as the leader of the revolt within the Socialist party against the French president's "social democratic" course, a moniker which, in the French interpretation, means the overly centrist and wishy-washy path pursued by Hollande.
Prior to Hamon's crowning, primary voters had picked Fillon to be the candidate for the conservative party which was recently rechristened as the Republicans. Though Fillon, an avowed Catholic, has served as a minister in several governments and also spent a number of years as prime minister, he hadn't been seen as a likely candidate and his triumph essentially came out of nowhere.
For some time after that, many considered Fillon -- a staunchly conservative, serious candidate -- to be the front runner in the march to Élysée Palace. Now, though, it looks like his run has come to a sudden end. For as much a Fillon is fond of preaching about morals and decency, he himself doesn't seem to possess much of either.
Le Canard enchaîné, an odd newspaper with its mix of gossip and satire, published a report last week providing proof that Fillon had hired his own wife Penelope as a fake, but very well paid, parliamentary assistant. Last Wednesday, Canard then admitted it had made a mistake -- and then revised the figures upwards. The paper now claims that Penelope Fillon earned 831,440 euros from her husband over the course of several years -- a shockingly large sum that doesn't befit a man who is proposing drastic austerity for his country.
Despite the scandal, Fillon has said he won't drop out of the race and spent last week angrily and vehemently denying the allegations. He described himself as being the victim of a "professional smear campaign" against him conducted by "those in power, on the left." The aim, he claimed, was to shoot down the "exalted idea of France" he promoted. Only hours after those statements, however, breaking news emerged of further incriminating information, including the broadcasts of parts of a television interview with Penelope recorded years ago in which she says she had never worked at any time as an assistant to her husband, belying the couple's efforts last week to prove that the payments to Penelope had been legitimate.
Welcome News for Marine
Now, even if Fillon survives as a candidate, he will be so damaged that he has virtually no chance of winning. Last week, in fact, his own party began discussing a "Plan B" so openly that it was almost disrespectful. Juppé is one possible replacement candidate being discussed, but the names of some young conservatives have also been circulating. Regardless, none of these alternatives would be as capable of taking voters away from Marine Le Pen and her project "Marine 2017" as the pre-scandal Fillon would have been.
The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 6/2017 (February 4, 2017) of DER SPIEGEL.
This, of course, is welcome news for Marine Le Pen, who transformed the fascist clique surrounding her father into a modern party, the right-wing populist Front National, with her at the center. Over the weekend, she introduced "140 proposals for France" as she launched the main segment of her campaign. Yet even as she hits the stump, she is comfortably secure in the knowledge that she has the support of at least one-quarter of the country's voters no matter what she says and no matter what others might say about her.
She has been accused of having systematically misappropriated EU funds for party purposes in the European Parliament. She is no longer able to hide the fact that she is sparring over the direction of the party with her own niece, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen. But it doesn't matter: Her polling numbers have remained constant at 25 percent, indicating that it is very likely she will attract enough voters to make it into the second round of voting in the presidential election.
Who Will Challenge Front National?
The only question is who will be her challenger? Who will become the "lesser of two evils" of this campaign?
Will it be Socialist candidate Hamon, with his foolhardy plan of introducing an unconditional basic income for all French, starting at 600 euros and later rising to 750 euros? The plan would likely lead to 380 billion euros in additional annual spending for the French government.
Or will it be Emmanuel Macron? There is no doubt that he has the charisma of a leader, but he also has some weaknesses that make him prone to attack, including two that could become particularly dangerous. The first is a resume that is hardly consistent with the image of a young hero shaking up an ossified political system. Macron studied at France's elite École nationale d'administration (ENA), he's a wealthy former banker who worked at Rothschild before becoming an adviser to François Hollande. He has long been part of the elite on which he has declared war.
Then there's Macron's second problem: With the exception of a relatively refreshing and clear commitment to the European Union, at least for a Frenchman, he doesn't have much of a platform. He has said he will announce his plans in late February, once his movement's hundreds of thousands of volunteers, organized in working groups across the country, assemble policy proposals on diverse issues. If this operation is successful and Macron does indeed produce a coherent political platform, it will represent yet another grassroots miracle for France.
But is such a thing even possible? Can a new political course -- neither left nor right, but simply correct and good -- really be formulated by the masses? There is plenty of hope surrounding Macron, but mockery is never far away. A French comedian could be heard last week on the radio, still an important opinion-shaping media in France, saying that washing machines have more programs than Macron. Recent polls showed him pulling in 23 percent of the vote. Leftist Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a man who thinks quite highly of himself and his ideas, stands at around 10 percent. Mélenchon is promising to allow people to retire at the age of 60 and draw full pension benefits and is calling for a monthly minimum wage of 1,300 euros. He wants France and the European Union to recognize Palestine as a state, he is calling for France to withdraw from NATO and is demanding the renegotiation of the EU treaties. Next.
Indeed, a look at the line-up of candidates with three months to go before the final round of the election leads one unavoidably to the conclusion that the greatest threat facing Front National and presidential candidate Marine Le Pen is the party itself. The good news, though, is that the party has always proven adept at defeating itself in the past.
When the business daily Les Echos, for example, takes a closer look at the particularly unrealistic proposals made on the campaign trail, Le Pen is high on the list. Her plans to withdraw from the EU and the common currency would lead to a national disaster, including a currency collapse and an explosion of new debt. And beyond the economy, Le Pen is still broadly considered to be unelectable because she has yet to completely disassociate herself from her radical right-wing father Jean-Marie, who founded the Front National party.
And beyond being realistic about the economic aspects, French voters are also unlikely to vote for Le Pen in the end because she ultimately hasn't done much to distance herself from the stench left behind by her father and party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, a Holocaust denier with neo-Nazi ties.
Speaking in Code
A speech she gave in September in the town of Fréjus is still presented on her website as a policy cornerstone of her movement. The dystopian sermon portrays France as a country under seige by alien powers of all kinds.
It invokes a reclamation of Gallic France facing a noble battle of life and death. It opposes the false liberal doctrine of our time, multiculturalism and, of course, Europe. Throughout the speech -- sometimes between the lines, sometimes overt -- there is a whiff of a xenophobic, ethnic-nationalist and exclusionist and backward ideology.
Le Pen, together with her recently assembled team of smart young men, attempts to disguise this message for the broader public, but it remains a constant strategic tight-rope walk. She must serve up hard-core slogans to her hard core of voters, but must avoid scaring off the rest of the electorate. To do so, as her Fréjus speech makes clear, she has developed a kind of secret language that one could describe as right-wing radical doublespeak. Cognizant supporters hear a different message in her speeches than does the public at large -- and that is the strategy the Le Pen is following in her attempt to find her way into the Élysée.
She has also been seeking to enter the orbit of others with pertinent experience. Le Pen was recently spotted drinking coffee at an ice cream parlor in Trump Tower in New York. There are also rumors that the notorious U.S. web portal Breitbart News, which paved the ideological path for Donald Trump, plans to expand into the French market.
Still, it remains unlikely that Marine Le Pen will become France's president. The polls may show her making it into the second round of voting, but once there, the current data also shows that she would likely be defeated by an opposing candidate, no matter who it is. At the moment, for example, polls show Macron getting 65 percent of votes in a run-off against Le Pen. One of the certainties you can rely on in France is that Le Pen is constantly seen as the greater of two evils.
Still, the rest of Europe is gripped by a feeling of uneasiness as it looks to France in this decisive election year. People haven't forgotten that it looked as though Brexit wasn't going to happen until the British actually did vote to leave. And in the U.S., there was widespread confidence, even a week before the election, that Donald Trump wouldn't win.
In France, the party primaries followed the exact same pattern: the favorites, praised by those in the Paris bubble and in the media, all lost. And outsiders won. Will that trend continue? We won't know until May.