22 November 2016

France’s election is getting exciting. Here’s what you need to know


In the wake of Donald Trump’s election victory, and the triumph of Brexit, France’s presidential elections have been cast as the next theatre for a populist anti-establishment insurgency.

The elections have already delivered a shock, with former president Nicolas Sarkozy being beaten in the Republican primaries on Sunday: former prime minister François Fillon and mayor of Bordeaux Alain Juppé will now face each other in a knockout vote on the 27th.

And Sarkozy’s defeat is only one way in which this election is turning into a very un-French affair indeed.

The Republicans might nominate a candidate committed to slashing government spending

On Sunday, the Republican party held the first round of its open primary, in which seven candidates competed for the nomination.

The polls predicted that the mayor of Bordeaux, Alain Juppé, an establishment centre-right candidate with a great appreciation for the European Union, would be the clear winner, with Sarkozy on his tail.

In a stunning upset, Sarkozy’s former prime minister, François Fillon, won 44.1% of the vote, while Juppé finished second with 28.6%.

The upset is not only that an alleged outsider qualified for the knockout vote, but that his proposals advocate a much smaller government.

Fillon wants to get rid of 500,000 public sector jobs in five years, lower the burden of taxation and social security contributions by €50 billion and reduce spending by €100 billion.

Fillon also intends to considerably increase school autonomy and wants to scrap François Hollande’s tax on large incomes.

Before we get too excited about Fillon’s free-market credentials, note that his spending cuts will be offset by a 2 per cent increase in sales tax. His win may also derive more from his social conservatism than his economic liberalism: he supports the War on Drugswants an annual cap on immigration, would like to ban the burkini, and backs reintroducing mandatory sentencing in criminal law cases.

Also, Fillon was Sarkozy’s prime minister from 2007 to 2012, a period marked by tax increases and a massive bank bailout.

François Hollande could be overthrown by his own party

In a recent poll, only 4 per cent of voters regarded the work of the incumbent president as “satisfying”. With ratings lower than the alcohol percentage of a bottle of Bordeaux red wine, Hollande and his party are in serious trouble.

If the current polls are correct, Hollande would be eliminated in the first round of the general election.

It is usual in France that the incumbent president goes unchallenged in his leadership for the next election, yet Hollande’s unpopularity led the Socialist Party to set up a primary last June. This is the second time they’ve ever done this, after the open primary in 2011 which saw Hollande beat Martine Aubry to become the Socialist Party candidate.

Hollande’s chief rivals in this race, which takes place in January, are his own prime minister Manuel Valls, and his former economics minister Arnaud Montebourg, known for his Keynesian approach to government spending. According to polls, both of them should defeat the president in the primary vote in January.

Yes, Marine Le Pen has a clear chance of winning

By far the biggest elephant in the room, Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front, has reached such heights of popularity that her party did not even bother to organise a primary.

Opinion polls show that she could easily make it to the knockout round, bringing her as close to the presidency as her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, in 2002.

In many ways, Le Pen has reached her political ceiling – there is nothing she can improve on, no change of message would that would increase her favourability.

Her political agenda is there on the table: halting immigration, leaving the euro and the European Union, and introducing old-school protectionism.

At this point, the only factor that can alter Le Pen’s prospects is the behaviour of her opponents.

Sarkozy’s departure, for example, means that she will pick up many of the more radical supporters of the former president. As Le Figaro wrote on Monday: “The National Front hopes to pick up Sarkozy’s orphans“.

The underperformance of the Socialist Party will be Le Pen’s strongest attack line. Her economic agenda is highly interventionist and radically opposed to both the more laissez-faire approach of Fillon and the traditionalism of Juppé.

An independent free-marketeer is polling in double digits

Emmanuel Macron, former economy minister, quit the socialist government and is now running as an independent candidate.

He is widely known for the Macron Law (officially the law for growth, effectiveness and equality of economic opportunities) which contained a myriad of changes to legislation.

Macron opened up the inter-city bus market, a measure that created competition on the market, lowered transportation costs and created 13,000 private sector jobs.

He also reformed labour regulations regarding work on Sundays: not only by extending the exceptions made to allow businesses to open on Sundays, but also by increasing the total number of permits granted by local authorities.

Another measure induced flexibility into the profession of notaries, most importantly through creating 24/7 “free establishment zones” throughout France, in which notaries don’t have to be sworn in by the government. This liberalised the notary market and brought down costs for consumers.

Macron is currently polling in double digits, drawing his supports from all sides of the political spectrum.

This may be France’s tipping point

France is facing its greatest national security crisis for half a century; GDP per capita has not increased between 2007 and 2015; unemployment hasn’t dropped under 10 per cent despite multiple administrations pledging to bring it down; public debt interest is two-thirds of the national education budget; deficit spending is out of control; and entitlement reform is unreasonably difficult due to the immense political influence of the unions.

This, in other words, is crunch time for France. The question is whether it will turn to the extreme solutions of Le Pen, retreat to the comforting nostrums of the old-school politicians, or at last embrace the need for free-market reform.

Bill Wirtz is a political commentator based in Luxembourg.