Disarray grows as France heads towards elections
France, America’s main ally in continental Europe, seems headed towards political disarray as the world braces for the upheavals likely to be triggered by Donald Trump’s presidency.
The disrupter could be Emmanuel Macron, a 39-year-old maverick politician who founded a new political party called En March! just 10 months ago. His party is thought to have only 100,000 “sympathizers”.
A former Rothschild’s banker and short-lived Finance Minister, Macron is an unusual leader who claims not be beholden to any political formation of the right or left in France. He is 24 years younger than his wife Brigitte Trogneux, whom he married in 2007 but met at age 15, when she was his teacher of French in a Catholic school.
A new poll commissioned by France’s leading business newspaper Les Echos found that he could get 24 percent of the votes in the first round of presidential elections on April 23. He would be behind the right-wing candidate Francois Fillon with 26 percent, and ahead of far-right candidate Marine Le Pen with 22 percent.
Both Fillon and Le Pen are established politicians with decades of experience. Macron was catapulted to the national stage in August 2014 when French President Francois Hollande named him minister of finance. He left two years later to enter politics as an outsider unaffiliated to France’s traditional right and left parties.
His En March! party seeks to become France’s first trans-partisan organization. He calls it a progressive party of both the left and the right. It is a centrist “third force” in French politics but its fortunes are closely tied to those of Macron.
Recently, French polls have been notoriously misleading, as were most American polls that predicted a Trump defeat on November 9, 2016. But Macron’s rise has legs and he is shaping into a credible political force.
His former boss Prime Minister Manuel Valls is expected to be the Socialist candidate in April since Hollande’s ratings, which fell to 4%, forced him to cry out of the presidential race. He must first win the final round of Socialist party primaries on January 29.
French presidential elections are held in two rounds. All candidates butt heads in the first round and the two strongest compete in the second round on May 7.
It is still possible that Valls will be in the final face-off with Fillon but the more likely possibility is that Fillon will confront Le Pen. The prospect of seeing Le Pen in the second round is so disturbing for many that Macron and Fillon might be the final duo, especially if socialist voters rally towards Macron’s centrism to prevent the right from taking over under Fillon.
Fillon is positioned well right of center but not as far right as Le Pen who is bluntly anti-immigration. She wants to withdraw France from the European Union even though France was the chief impetus behind the European cooperation now embodied in the EU.
Macron’s leap onto the arena may strip Fillon of almost all centrist support. That could force him to move further right towards Le Pen or somehow curry favor with undecided or left wing voters positioned beyond the center but away from the extreme fringes.
It is too early to predict how these cookies might crumble but the situation will become clearer after the Socialist primaries in January’s final 10 days. That is also the period when Trump’s positions will become clearer.
US domestic and foreign policies could slide into unprecedented disorder if Trump does even a little of what he says about rejecting trade agreements, repealing Obamacare and cooperating with Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
That disorder would directly affect France’s elections by forcing the French (and other Europeans) to pick sides. The right and extreme left might prefer the demagogue Le Pen to traditionalist right winger Fillon, who belongs to the elite intellectual establishment. Centrists may lean away from the Socialists, whose Hollande ruled dismally for five years.
If that happens, the consummate populist Le Pen would make short work of Macron, who is new to the raucous world of political rallies. But centrists whether of left or right could provide a strong electorate for Macron because they have nowhere else to go.
So many loathe Le Pen so deeply that they might see Macron as a more enlightened choice for stability and economic resurrection.
In turn, outcomes in France will significantly influence German elections in the fall and the manner of Britain’s exit from the EU.
Brexit is expected to happen over two years starting in late March 2017, when Prime Minister Theresa May has promised to invoke the EU treaty provision that would trigger exit negotiations.
Le Pen sees Trump as her role model because she intends to upend France’s existing political structure and the EU as radically as he expects to disrupt US domestic politics and the international order of trade, political and military partnerships.
She is bluntly pro-Russian and dismisses allegations that Putin’s interference helped to cause Hillary Clinton’s defeat last November. She thinks US intelligence agencies reflexively claim that “whenever something bad happens the Russians are the reason”.
She finds it “stunning” that Americans should complain about dirty tricks when they led the way to using espionage as a weapon for interfering in the internal affairs of other countries.
Both France and the EU would fall into severe disarray if like Trump she outraces expectations to become France’s next President. She says French banks, which often have state participation, are unwilling to lend her the $30 million she needs for her presidential bid but may get a loan from a Russian bank.
That raises red flags but her riposte is that a lender bank does not own the borrower — it just wants its money back.