26 December 2017

French politics has never been so unpredictable


Over the Christmas week, CapX is republishing its favourite pieces from the past year. This was first published on January 27. 

French politics hasn’t ever been this fun – or this hard to keep up with. Barely a week ago, as we waited for the first round of the Socialist Party primary last week, everyone was bemoaning the shambles of the Left.

There were eight lacklustre candidates taking part in the contest, as well as two “independents” outside of the primary, none of whom seemed capable of making it to the last two in the actual Presidential election, come May 8.

Meanwhile, uncharacteristically, the Right seemed to have their act together. Yesterday’s faces, Sarkozy and former prime minister Alain Juppé, were booted out in a well-attended primary — over four million votes — just before Christmas. The ultimate winner was Sarkozy’s less notorious prime minister, François Fillon – 20 points ahead of his rivals. You could tell Fillon’s Welsh wife, Penelope, was already picturing herself curtain-measuring at the Elysée.

That was then, this is now. The biggest beasts in the Socialist Primary, former PM Manuel Valls, and the flamboyant former Industrial Reconstruction Minister Arnaud Montebourg, were both pipped to the post last weekend by the class swot, former Education minister Benoît Hamon, 49, a fresh-faced, dapperly suited-up version of Jeremy Corbyn.

Hamon favours taxing homeowners to pay for universal basic income, raising the minimum wage by 10 per cent, taxing robots to give human workers more jobs, lowering the current working week to under 35 hours, closing down enough nuclear plants in France to bring their share of the nation’s electricity production to 50 per cent instead of today’s 77 per cent, and unconditionally recognising the State of Palestine (the only clear foreign policy point in his platform). So far, so Momentum.

Valls, 54, once a tough-talking, law-and-anti-terrorism Home Secretary before he got the number two job, was supposedly the shoo-in for the Socialist nomination. But if 2016 taught us anything, it’s that nobody, nowhere, is a shoo-in. So he sleepwalked his way into second place – only to comprehensively blow it in Wednesday’s runoff debate against Hamon.

On one side, the swotting paid off: Hamon rattled off his figures in an engaging manner, sounding reasonable even when arguing the ridiculous.

On the other, Valls, prepped not to sound too aggressive, took several attempts to utter his prepared soundbites, losing all the hoped-for zing. Even on his strong point of laïcité, the French Republic’s founding secularism, he found it difficult to counter Hamon, who as an MP refused to support France’s widely popular burqa ban 2010 Bill.

Prime ministers resigning with a splash in order to challenge the president who appointed them – as Valls did – have been a regular fixture of the Fifth Republic, starting with Georges Pompidou in 1969. Yet Valls looked like the tired acolyte of a tired president: yesterday’s man.

He is expected to be comprehensively trounced in the second round this Sunday, with polls giving him as little as 30 per cent of the meagre Socialist vote. Barely 1.5 million voters took part in the first round of the primary, accompanied by a very strong whiff of ballot-stuffing and numbers-massaging by the party machine. This, just like in the Labour leadership contest in Britain, favours the young and committed, who far prefer Hamon’s “solutions” to Valls’s incremental realism.

But the stark fact is that neither will make it to the Presidential election runoff: a poll today put Valls at nine per cent, and Hamon at eight per cent. Both of the “outside” candidates — Left-wingers who disdained to take part in the primary — are likely to poll more votes in the first round on April 23. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, on the Militant side, is routinely polling at 13-14 per cent. Maverick former Economy minister Emmanuel Macron, a can-do, go-getting 39-year-old darling of the Economist and the FT, showed up with 20 per cent in an Ipsos poll yesterday.

Talking into account the natural caution of the French, who, no matter how fed up they are with the system might yet baulk at voting for Marine Le Pen (she leads the first-round voting intentions with 27 per cent), this should surely be a shoo-in for Fillon.

But remember what we just said about shoo-ins?

Fillon’s clear lead on the Right had started to erode in recent weeks, thanks to a series of disastrous flip-flops on the health service, commonly known in France as “La Sécu”, which commands at least as much love Left and Right as the NHS. Fillon’s chief adviser wrote into his policy program that private insurers should assume the burden of “small” illnesses, leaving serious stuff to La Sécu.

Cue a series of gaffes on what constitutes a “small” illness and how you distinguish its early symptoms from a rather more unpleasant one’s. The offending policy was then erased from Fillon’s website, only to immediately flower into a thousand screengrabs on Twitter. Another adviser tried to justify the now absent policy, and was rebuked. All in all, this cost Fillon over 10 per cent of his  popularity.

And this was before Penelopegate. And Macrongate.

Far from measuring curtains for the Elysée, Mrs Fillon may well cost her husband the Presidential job. This week, Le Canard Enchaîné, France’s very political answer to Private Eye, revealed in oh-so-timely fashion yesterday that over nine years, Penelope Fillon was paid a total of nearly half a million euros as her husband’s parliamentary assistant. This is legal in France (provided you work for it, which is in question since nobody has ever seen her in the Assemblée Nationale).

But legal or not, the figures involved make the whole setup pretty unacceptable as far as the public is concerned. About the only moment of complete harmony between Valls and Hamon in the Socialist debate was when they touchingly agreed that MPs should no longer be allowed to employ relatives.

French politics is hardly averse to dirty tricks – but never has it been done with such impeccable timing.

Emmanuel Macron was the clear beneficiary of the Fillon debacle. Then, that same day, two conservative MPs brandished a newspaper serialisation of a rather staid book on the Finance ministry, stating that Macron used up 80 per cent of the Ministry’s entire expenses budget in eight months to wine and dine the contacts, supporters, and Facebook friends of his fledgling mini-Party, En Marche, prior to declaring himself.

Macron howled that this was untrue, claiming that the economy Minister was surely expected to travel and entertain. But even though some of the revelations have an element of comedy – such as Macron attending two separate dinners a night, both paid for by public funds – the perception that he’s living high on the hog, again, is unacceptable to public opinion.

You’d think this would play directly into Marine Le Pen’s hands. It probably will. But not as much as if she and her acolytes had raised a fuss. Which they haven’t, on account of being under a number of investigations related to their own parliamentary assistants and general hiring practices, in Paris and especially in Brussels where they are MEPs.

Pollsters are hard pressed to give firm predictions as to how the French presidential election will go; but in all fairness, they have excuses.

Anne-Elisabeth Moutet is a French journalist and broadcaster