You don’t have to be a fan of Charles De Gaulle or François Mitterrand, or even Jacques Chirac, to conclude that the 2017 French presidential election is unlikely to be a contest for the ages.
The French have fallen out with their leaders much as the British have lost faith in theirs. Assured by the pundits that their country is deep in the merde, lost in its internal contradictions, plagued by Islamists, without direction, without hope, they know who to blame. The only question is, who will they blame the most?
In reponse, party managers are frantically sniffing the wind, trying to work out who should stand and, more to the point, who should not. Nothing is fixed. The only thing that is certain is that the hapless François Hollande does not “own” the presidency. His graph, despite a few modest upward blips in recent months, has moved downhill, leaving him as France’s least popular head of state in modern times.
Nicolas Sarkozy, his centre-right predecessor, who left the country’s economy in tatters after failing to discern the difference between appearance and reality, is, however, on the comeback trail. The “king of bling” has worked harder as an aspiring President than he ever did as the occupant of the Elysée. His difficulty, compounded by the fact that he faces intense legal scrutiny over alleged financial improprieties while President, is that he is widely mistrusted, and, worse, regarded by many as preposterous.
Out on the fringe, as it moves to centre-stage, Marine Le Pen, reformist leader of the far-right Front Nationale, is not only caught in a dynastic struggle between her father and her niece, but is currently on trial in Lyon for making a speech that has been interpreted as incitment to hatred of France’s growing Muslim minority. And she is the moderate Le Pen.
Inevitably, it is the incumbent who is in the deepest trouble. Hollande, by common consent, was the wrong choice to take charge of France in the middle of a complex global recession. An old-school Socialist (i.e. no Marxist, just the man currently given his orders by the Confédération Générale de Travail), he had no real idea how to bring down unemployment and rebuild his country’s broken economy. All he knew, when he wasn’t precoccupied with his various ex’s, was that the French weren’t going to give up early retirement, jobs for life or the 35-hour week without a fight and that he wasn’t the man to take them on in a bareknuckle encounter.
His one stroke of luck has been that the miseries of the world have come to his rescue. The Charlie Hebdo killings; terrorism in Mali and Chad; the opportunity to bomb Isis in Syria: François was up for all of these, since they required him mainly to unleash the forces of the state, with him as the voice behind the curtain tunelessly humming the Marseillaise.
Hollande’s problems, however, probably run too deep for any meaningful recovery. He has said several times that he will not stand for a second term unless unemployment, currently nudging 11 per cent, starts to fall by the end of this year. This may happen. But even if it does, it is likely to be by no more than a few percentage points, leaving him able to boast only that he did a bit of good in Africa and okay’d a decisive end to the Charlie Hebdo affair.
Who, then, might pick up the conche? As the party grandees, including Hollande’s former wife Ségolene Royal, reflect on the hopelessness of their President, most eyes have turned to the Spanish-born prime minister Manuel Valls, a gallic Tony Blair, or Nouveau Travalliste. His name on the ticket, while reassuring the pragmatists from the centre-right of the party, would go down badly with the hardliners, hell-bent as they are on putting up a Tribune of the People. They know that Valls, in reality, is a manager, not a Socialist, and would seek to erect the barricades not on the Left Bank, but in the Elysée itself.
Almost as desperate, the Gauliists, currently rebranded as Les Republicains, have been thrashing around in a bid to uncover someone – anyone – who isn’t Sarko. Chirac, we are told ruefully, at least had authority. He may have been a rogue, but he got things done. Sarkozy, by contrast, was so wrapped up in his vanity that he forgot the central point of being President – keeping the show on the road – and as a result lost the plot.
But the little master has no plans to abandon the struggle. In particular, he has no intention of giving way to the ageing Alain Juppé, the Old Pretender of the centre-right, who as mayor of Bordeaux retains a tentative foot on the national stage. Over the last year, Sarkozy has toured the country like a troubadour, assuring audiences large and small that next time will be different, that he has learned from his mistakes and that he is now the finished product, sharp and strong, like a French cheese just before it goes off.
Which leaves Marine Le Pen, revered by some 40 per cent of voters, reviled by the rest. Ms Le Pen is caught between her grumpy, irredentist father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, whose racist outbursts suggest he is suffering from the political equivalent of Tourettes Syndrome, and Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, her equally outspoken niece, who, while still the youngest member of the Assemblée Nationale in France’s postwar history, is already seen by some as a future Joan of Arc.
Jean-Marie believes that his daughter, once the apple of his eye, has betrayed the FN’s fascist roots. She in turn has made it clear that her father, a Holocaust denier, is yesterday’s man, interested only in controversy and stirring the pot. Marion, for her part, is closer to her grandfather. She opposes the EU and all other forms of globalisation; she is against gay marriage and is sympathetic to Vladimir Putin. Most of all, she is deeply suspicious of France’s Muslim community, which she fears as, in essence, a fifth column for militant Islam.
One weapon all three Le Pens will be itching to deploy is the example of Britain and the EU. If the UK votes for Brexit in advance of the presidential elections, the FN will have been dealt a trump card. “More Europe!” is the cry from Brussels when Europe is seen to fail. Les Pens’ response is simple and direct: “More France!”
The more immediate test for the parties’ big beasts comes in December when the first elections will be held to the 13 new French regions that will replace the previous 22-region mosaic making up the “Hexagon”. Both Le Pen women are standing, Marine in the far North, Marion in the Deep South. Should they win through to head their respective regional councils – both FN heartlands – Hollande (or his successor as Socialist leader) and Sarkozy (if he holds off any remaining challengers) will have to move smartly to regain the intitiative. Few believe that the Far Right can make it all the way to the Elysée, but a strong showing when the first round of the presidential election is held in the spring of 2017 could lead to a surge of support for the Front in the “third round,” the assembly elections, that will follow six weeks later.
The Left’s problem, as ever, is that it is out of ideas. The remedies to which it instinctively clings are out of tune with the times. Capitalist crises call for capitalist solutions – either that or a second Revolution, which no one other than the Marxist Front de Gauche contemplates outside of their dreams. If Hollande knows what needs to be done, he is in no position to do it. He has shot his bolt, which flew wide of its mark and landed somewhere in the silt of the Seine. Valls, as Monsieur Sensible (in the English sense of the word) might well attract a more broad-based constituency, but would then have to take on the unions, to say nothing of the Paris mob.
On the other side of the aisle, Sarkozy talks big but seems basically to be saying, “you know all that stuff I told you I would do in 2007, well I’m going to do it now, but with extra anti-immigrant seasoning.” His party, born out of the ashtrays of the former UMP (previously the NCSP, originally the RPF), did well in the departmental elections in May, leading him to hope that he might yet have a Colombey moment that will enable him to come again. Whether he has truly changed or would shortly return to type is the question no one can answer.
Voters are spoiling for a fight. They want everything, and nothing, to change. France, as a result, could either end up with a Socialist President, but an assembly dominated by the Right, or else Sarkozy as head of state, obliged to confront both the Front Nationale and the unions. Faced with such a prospect, even De Gaulle would surely throw up his hands.