If you think that choosing between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton was a choice between the devil and the deep blue sea, then spare a thought for French voters, given the choice of candidates in their upcoming Presidential election.
Although ten parties have already announced that they will be fielding candidates in the election, there are really only three parties who stand any chance of winning the presidency. These are: The Republicans, the Socialist Party, and the National Front. Currently, only the National Front have selected their candidate for the Presidency, with The Republicans and the Socialist Party set to hold open primaries in due course to decide upon their candidates.
The National Front’s candidate for the Presidency is party leader Marine Le Pen, and the policy positions that she has advocated throughout her career reflect the worst of populist politics. In the past, Le Pen has advocated a complete moratorium on legal immigration, ostensibly as a solution to unemployment, as well as a crackdown on illegal immigration. She has pledged to restore French relations with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whilst cutting off relations with Turkey who she has accused of supporting terrorism. In addition, similarly to Donald Trump, Le Pen has advocated improved relations with Russia, and has suggested that Russia’s actions in Ukraine were misunderstood. Naturally (for populist politicians at least), Le Pen also wants to leave the Eurozone, leave the European Union, and have a referendum on the reinstatement of capital punishment. Perhaps most well-known of Le Pen’s policy pronouncements, is her pledge for a crackdown on Islam. Le Pen’s repeated pronouncements of the links between Immigration, Islam, and Terrorism, have rapidly gained support in a country where many are terrified after recent terror attacks, and are looking for someone to blame. Le Pen has dangerously used these attacks for political point scoring with the result that she now leads Presidential election opinion polls. However, with the French electoral system, which includes a run-off between the top performing candidates from the first round of voting (assuming no candidate gains 50 percent of the vote in the first round) it looks as though Le Pen could be defeated by whoever she faces in the run-off. Nonetheless, Le Pen’s recent success and popularity showcases the dangerous forward march of the populist right in Europe and around the world.
As for The Republicans, fourteen candidates have thrown their hats into the ring thus far, and more are set to follow (making the French Republican primary much like the American Republican primary). These declared candidates include: former Prime Ministers François Fillon and Alain Juppé, and former President Nicolas Sarkozy. Fillon was Prime Minister under Nicolas Sarkozy, and has spent recent years being one of the strongest critics of President Hollande’s economic policy, as well as his policy of intervention in Syria. In 2015, Fillon accused Hollande of presiding over the ‘pauperisation’ of France, whilst during his time as Minister for Education he was strongly in favour of restricting the wearing of ‘religious signs’ in public. However, with Fillon polling only around 10–12% it seems unlikely that he can challenge Juppé and Sarkozy who are the clear frontrunners. Juppé was Prime Minister between 1995 and 1997, and is the current Mayor of Bordeaux. He could comfortably be described as a moderate centre-right politician, perhaps one of the few voices of reason in the Republican primary. However, he is well-known as a poor public speaker, without the ability to fire up rallies in the way that the populist right have done so successfully, which could hurt him as the race goes on. Despite this, Juppé is currently ahead in the polls by around ten percent.
However, standing between Juppé and the Presidential nomination of the Republican Party is former President Nicolas Sarkozy. Since losing the Presidency to François Hollande in 2012, Sarkozy has looked to rebuild his career. When he hasn’t been pretending to be brilliant at cycling up mountains, he has reinvented himself in the style of Donald Trump, as a populist right-winger hoping that the rising tide of anger in France can propel him to the Presidency. Sarkozy has described France as being on the ‘edge of an abyss’, which is very similar language to that used by Donald Trump in his speech at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in June. Sarkozy has pledged to follow a hardline stance on immigration, and has been one of the most vocal supporters of banning the Burkini throughout France. In addition, he plans to re-establish the authority of the State, and introduce compulsory military service for those who are not employed or in full-time education at the age of eighteen. It has been clear throughout the campaign that Sarkozy and his advisers feel that the National Front is the main competition in the upcoming election, and that a campaign filled with populist rhetoric is the way forward.
He is probably right. Given the unpopularity of the current President François Hollande, it doesn’t look like the Socialist Party have any chance of retaining the presidency. In 2012, Sarkozy became the first French President since 1981 not to win a second term in office. But it is looking increasingly likely that Hollande will follow suit. Hollande is now the most unpopular President in recent French history, and recent polls have suggested that around ninety percent of the French electorate disapprove of his performance as President. Many French voters feel that Hollande’s handling of the recent terror attacks on French soil has left a lot to be desired, whilst rising unemployment has also heavily contributed to Hollande’s unpopularity. Polling suggests that were Hollande to run for a second term as President, he would be defeated in the first round of the election. Hollande’s potential run for a second term is further complicated by deep divisions within his own party. Several ministers have resigned from the Hollande Government in order to run against him in the upcoming Presidential primary. These ministers include Arnaud Montebourg who was Minister for Industrial Renewal from 2012–14. Montebourg has accused Hollande of a betrayal of the ‘ideals of the left’ following Hollande’s adoption of a more pro-business stance in recent months, with Montebourg running as a firebrand left-wing candidate and promising to bring an end to austerity in France. Another individual who could complicate things for Hollande is Emmanuel Macron, who recently resigned as Economy Minister in order to begin a centrist bid for the Presidency. Macron has never held elected office but has been gaining popularity in recent months. Given the unpopularity of the Socialist Party (which stems from Hollande’s personal unpopularity), Macron is perhaps the only chance the left have of retaining the Presidency. Throughout his time in politics he has successfully distanced himself from the Socialist Party, painting himself as an independent centrist. Ironically, he may now be their only hope.
Therefore, with Hollande looking like he stands no chance of retaining the Presidency, and with it looking like the Socialist Party stand no chance of making the Presidential run-off, it looks as though the French Presidential Election is set to degenerate into a slugging match between members of the populist right. Don’t be surprised if the the two candidates who end up fighting it out for the Presidency are Marine Le Pen and Nicolas Sarkozy, who will compete throughout the election with scary pronouncements for France’s future and strongly worded rhetoric regarding immigration and Islam.
Ultimately, with the current leader in the opinion polls (Marine Le Pen) someone who has previously been on trial charged with anti-Muslim hate speech, and the two most unpopular Presidents in recent French history (Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande) leading the way in the upcoming election, the 2017 French Presidential Election does look set to be one of the lowest calibre elections of modern times, not just in France but in the world.