David P. Hamilton :
The French presidential election: Does the Left have a shot?

The central electoral issue is, who will win the opportunity to beat Le Pen in the runoff?

Benoît Hamon may be the left’s one hope. Painted portrait by thierry ehrmann / Flickr / Creative Commons.

By David P. Hamilton | The Rag Blog | February 16, 2017

In the wake of the disastrous term in office of “Socialist” president Francois Hollande, the chances that the left could win the upcoming French presidential election are certainly not good, but also not impossible.

In French elections, there are two rounds. The first round has participants from many parties. There are currently 11 announced candidates. Each is given the same amount of television time and expenditure limits. Unless one candidate wins a majority in the first round, the second round is a runoff between the two candidates receiving the most votes in the first round.

The first round of the 2017 French presidential election will be on Sunday, April 23rd and the second on Sunday, May 7th. There will be 4-5 major candidates in the first round and several others representing minor parties who will collectively receive 10-12% of the vote. With the vote split so broadly in the first round, as little as 20% might get one into the runoff.

From right to left, the major candidates are: Marine Le Pen of the National Front (FN), Francois Fillon of “Les Republicaines,” independent Emmanuel Macron, the nominee of the Socialist Party, leftist Benoit Hamon, and further-leftist Jean-Luc Melenchon of “Le Front de Gauche,” composed of parties to the left of the Socialists, primarily the Communist Party. Current polls show Le Pen leading with 25%, Macron second with 20%, Fillon third with 18%, Hamon fourth with 15%, and Melenchon fifth with 11%.

Le Pen supplanted her openly racist, anti-Semitic father and softened the party’s image.

Le Pen is the heir of the FN leadership, having supplanted her openly racist and anti-Semitic father in 2011 and softened the party’s image while maintaining its basic racial appeal to the “traditional” French. Its overarching issue is its opposition to immigration, especially by Muslims. The FN maintains that France is “a Christian nation,” thus also challenging French secularism.

I have seen no one claim that Le Pen being the only woman in the race is a significant factor, but France has never had a woman president. It should, however, be noted that the Front National is not “far right” by the definitions of American politics. Its economic and labor policies are arguably to the left of both Fillon and Macron and much of its support comes from ex-communists.

Fillon is from the same party as ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy, now known as “the Republicans,” a designation which has had a much different meaning in France historically, but the adoption of that name was certainly a gesture referring to their kinship with their American counterpart.

Fillon lives in a 12th century castle and wants to cut 500,000 public sector jobs.

Fillon was Sarkozy’s prime minister and surprisingly beat Sarkozy and another ex-prime minister, Allan Juppe, for the nomination. Fillon lives in a 12th century castle and wants to cut 500,000 public sector jobs. He’s probably the most right-wing in terms of economic policy: privatization, austerity, deregulation, etc.

Fillion has gone from being the favorite to being a failure in a remarkably short period of time due to being engulfed in a burgeoning corruption scandal. Seems he kept his wife and children on his payroll for a past decade or so, to the tune of roughly a million euros. His defense is that this practice was normal until his case came up.

His polls are declining and some members of his own party have suggested he step aside in favor of another Republican. But now Sarkozy is under indictment and Juppe says he doesn’t want it, so the Republicans are stuck with Fillon. Regardless, any Republican would compete for the center-right vote and the chances any of them could make it to the second round are quickly diminishing.

The ascendant candidate of the moment is Emmanuel Macron, running as an independent.

The ascendant candidate of the moment is Emmanuel Macron, running as an independent, he is the youngest candidate at only 39. He became romantically involved with his high school teacher at 15 and they married after his graduation when he was 18. She is now 63. His campaign family photos show him playing with her grandchildren.

After attending all the elite schools, he first became a government functionary in the Ministry of Finance. He soon bought himself out of his government contract in order to become a banker with the Rothschild investment bank where he became a multi-millionaire and found powerful patrons. He then became a pro-business cabinet member in Hollande’s now deeply discredited government, lasting until he decided to run for president himself.

Macron’s polls are ascending due primarily to Fillon’s collapse. But Macron has the most indistinct politics in the field. He describes himself as neither of the left or the right and seems to be trying to achieve that nebulous status by making lengthy speeches filled with recitations of vacuous platitudes that please everyone. He is, however, definitively pro-EU and favors France’s tradition of secularism. Inspired by the odd nature of his personal history, there are rumors that he is gay and/or that he has rich patrons who have virtually designed his career from its beginnings.

Hamon is known as the Bernie
Sanders of France.

Hamon is relatively obscure by comparison to all other major candidates. He was briefly the Education Minister in the Hollande government, but quit after four months in protest of Hollande’s pro-business policies. His landslide victory in the Socialist Party primary over better known candidates, especially recent prime minister Manuel Valls, was a powerful repudiation of the pro-business centrist wing of the Socialist party and represents a revolution within the party with the left wing taking over. Hamon is known as the Bernie Sanders of France. But some feel that this split in the SP will not heal and that many of the more centrists elements in the party will vote for Macron, dooming Hamon.

Hamon believes that the availability of profitable work that can be compensated with a living wage in the private sector of a capitalist economy is diminishing due to automation. Hamon wants to rethink society in relation to work by giving a basic income to all French citizens. He supports cannabis legalization, euthanasia, and huge investments in renewable energy. He says he wants to protect the “common goods” (water, air, biodiversity) in the French Constitution.

Hamon is also very critical of the “neoliberal myth of infinite economic growth,” which he blames for “destroying the plan.” By advancing these innovative positions, he hopes to rejuvenate the Socialist Party. He is pro-EU and definitely secular.

Melenchon is a veteran leftist with established support and deep roots in the working class.

Melenchon, long a member of the left wing of the Socialist Party, is the oldest candidate at 65, a veteran leftist with established organizational support, deep roots in the working class, and he is considered a “firebrand” by the establishment press. He has been an elected official since 1983 and has been a minor cabinet minister, a senator and a member of the European Parliament. He ran for president in 2012, receiving 11.1% and coming in fourth.

Had the Socialist Party nominated the centrist Valls, Melenchon would have stood alone as the candidate of the left, would have had an outside chance of making the runoff and might have led the Front de Gauche to become the principal party of the left. When the most leftist candidate in the SP primary, Hamon, emerged from relative obscurity to take the SP nomination, Melenchon’s chances to achieve those goals evaporated.

The most recent polling in this race was very interesting in several ways. As expected, Le Pen was in first place, but with only 25%, a figure that has been remarkably stable for months. Second goes to Macron who has risen to about 20%. Fillon is falling, now down to about 18%, fueling Macron’s rise. Fourth is Hamon at 15%. Polling figures from previous months on Hamon don’t exist because no one thought he would be the Socialist candidate. In fifth is Melenchon whose percentage has dropped recently from 15 to 11%. Were Melenchon to concede the obvious and defer to Hamon, delivering his disciplined followers in the process, Hamon would have 26% and be ahead of all other candidates going into the first round.

The conventional wisdom is that the winner of the first round will be Marine Le Pen.

Marine Le Pen should lead into the runoff. Painted portrait by
thierry ehrmann / Flickr / Creative Commons.

The conventional wisdom is that the winner of the first round will be Marine Le Pen. Until recently her opponent in the second round was favored to be Francois Fillon. That would constitute a runoff between the two most right wing candidates. But this campaign has already been shown to be surprising and uncertain. While everyone agrees that it is going to be Le Pen vs. someone else in the runoff, there is as yet no clear leader for the not-Le Pen candidacy. Fillon’s corruption issues look serious. Macron, a pro-business “social liberal,” is rising on hot air. A third centrist, Bayrou will likely get 5%. With Hamon and Melenchon both in the race, the left would be split and neither would have any chance whatsoever to make the runoff.

It is essential to know about the outcome of the 2002 French presidential election in order to understand how the outcome of their presidential election of 2017 is conventionally understood. In 2002, center-right Jacques Chirac came in first in the first round with just less than 20%. Marine Le Pen’s father, Jean Marie Le Pen, edged out the Socialist for second with 17%. In the second round, everyone to Le Pen’s left, which was just about everyone, voted for Chirac, who won the runoff by 82 to 18%.

The Brexit vote  and the Trump victory indicate we are in a new and unpredictable era.

It is assumed that Marine Le Pen will do much better than her father did in 2002, but that she will still lose in the second round against any other opponent, primarily because of the racist stigma associated with the FN and its anti-EU policies. However, the Brexit vote in the UK and the Trump victory in the U.S. indicate we are in a new and unpredictable era where outsider candidates like Le Pen can conceivably prevail.

The central electoral issue is, who will win the opportunity to beat Le Pen in the runoff? The race for that second place finish in the first round is likely to be very close and the candidate who comes in second to Le Pen in the first round will be expected to win in the runoff.

Right–left characterizations sometimes mean different things in France than in the U.S. and sometimes important issues in France have no U.S. equivalent. Le Pen is always labeled “far right,” but her economic positions are clearly to the left of Fillon and arguably Macron as well. What makes Le Pen “far right” is her anti-immigrant positions. All the closeted racists in France are rallying to the FN and Le Pen.

The FN wants France to leave the EU entirely and NATO’s command structure.

Fillon will try to compete for that anti-immigrant vote in a more subtle manner. Being anti-immigrant is not what most distinguishes Le Pen and the FN from other parties. The crucial policy difference that splits the French right is in regard to the anti-EU stance of the FN and the pro-EU stance of the Republicans. The FN wants France to leave the EU entirely and NATO’s command structure, exert sovereign control over its borders and go back to the franc as their currency.

Almost everyone else is pro-EU to varying degrees, with the exception of a few on the extreme left. It is this anti-EU policy position of the FN that makes unity on the right between the FN and the Republicans impossible. For many French voters, a candidate’s stance on EU membership is the most potent determinant of their support and very few pro-EU Fillon, Macron, or Hamon voters will vote for anti-EU Le Pen.

In a race that includes Le Pen, Fillon, Macron, Hamon, and Melenchon as the major candidates in the first round, the left is split and has no chance to make it to the second round. There is only one possibility for success for the left and that rests in the hands of one man, Jean Luc Melenchon.

For the left to have any chance to succeed, Melenchon must drop out and endorse Hamon.

With Hamon as the SP candidate, Melenchon’s chance to lead the left and perhaps have the Front de Gauche supplant the SP is gone. For the left to have any chance to succeed, Melenchon must drop out and endorse Hamon in exchange for the promise of an important cabinet post should Hamon win. Were Melenchon to deliver left unity behind Hamon, it would create the possibility that a representative of the left could make it into the runoff. Rumor is that Melenchon’s ego stands in the way of this outcome.

The opportunity for the left rests on its unity going into the first round and there being two major candidates who split the centrist vote. A Hamon victory in the first round would set up a sharply defined race between the pro-EU secular left vs. the anti-EU anti-secular right in the runoff, a race Hamon would likely win.

There are two basic models to run a political campaign. The traditional model is to be more outspoken on policy positions to attract the activist party base in the process of winning the nomination. Then the nominee moves back toward the center in the general election based on the assumption that the electorate is like a bell-curve, with most of the votes and the most pliable votes in the center. This has been the strategy of the Clintons throughout their political careers and they dragged the Democratic Party to the right to achieve that goal.

The opposite strategy holds the position that there is little or no center; only competing partisan camps, especially when voter turnout is low. Hence, a campaign should forget the center and maintain its harder-edged positions in order to better mobilize their base. This was the strategy of Donald Trump and, in recent years, of the U.S. Republicans in general. It has been successful for them.

The number and diversity of candidates in the first round of French elections, enhances the potential effect of this latter approach, at least as a means to make it into the runoff. If the left unites behind Hamon and adopts this more aggressive policy approach, the first round will have as one candidate a very well-defined rightist (racist and anti-secularist), two or more relatively vague centrists, and one well-defined leftist. The likely result would be a runoff between right and left, Le Pen and Hamon.

First round leftist dream result: Le Pen 27%. Hamon 23%. Macron 21%. Fillon 19%. Others 10%.

Runoff prediction: Not-Le Pen beats Le Pen 55-45 or more.


[David P. Hamilton is a member of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). A graduate of the University of Texas at Austin in history and government, David was an activist in 1960s-’70s Austin and was a contributor to the original Rag. David and wife Sally spend part of every year in France.]


Read more articles by David P. Hamilton on The Rag Blog.

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