May day: Breaking down the upcoming French election

May day: Breaking down the upcoming French election
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With four front-runners facing difficult sets of issues, the electoral campaign is likely to be tumultuous with continued weakening French institutions.

On Sunday, January 29th the French Socialist Party (PS) held the second round of its primaries that led to the selection of Benoit Hamon as the official candidate for the upcoming presidential election. The result of the vote jump-started the campaign as the PS had been the last party still waiting to select its official partner.

The May 2017 presidential election will be a crucial ballot for France. The country has gone through a series of crisis that weakened its institutions and resulted in substantial uncertainty. All major candidates will be responsible with providing the country with a clear set of policies aimed at helping local society with regaining trust in the its elected officials. However, the four front-runners are currently facing specific sets of issues and the electoral campaign is likely to be tumultuous with the potential of continued weakening French institutions.

The Socialist Party: Divided and weakened after Hollande’s presidency

With more than 58 percent of the total vote, Benoit Hamon scored a clear victory over former Prime Minister Manuel Valls during the second round of the PS’ primaries. Approximately two million people went to the polls making it a relative success for the ruling party as it managed to generate some level of popular interest in the vote. However, the number of voters for the PS primaries were approximately half of the one that participated in the centre-right primaries in November 2016 and lower than the number of voters at the 2011 PS primaries. This highlights an overall social disenchantment with centre-left policies that have been in place since 2012.

The primaries have not only underscored the overall French disappointment with the PS, rather the ballot also brought to light a clear rift within the party. Candidate Hamon won with a strong leftist agenda while Manuel Valls had been pushing for the continuation of centre-left policies and the defence of President Francois Hollande’s domestic socio-economic policies. The break between Hamon and Valls came as a stern reminder of the ideological crisis of the PS as the party has been weakened by its inability to choose between a centre-left socio-democratic policies and a left-wing agenda. These internal tensions are likely to continue to influence the PS inner dynamics ahead of the presidential election.

President Hollande’s term has substantially weakened the PS with dropping approval ratings. The ruling party is a widely rejected by the French electorate and its internal crisis is likely to further weaken it in the long run. It is likely that a sizeable volume of Manuel Valls’ supporters will gradually shift toward centrist candidates such as Emmanuel Macron thus depriving the PS of an important percentage of votes ahead of the elections. In addition, the election of Benoit Hamon sent a clear message to President Hollande. The French left-wing electorate strongly opposes the president’s policies and his legacy. President Hollande is the first head-of-state of the French fifth republic not to run for re-election and to be defeated by an opponent in the party primaries. This situation will have lasting effects on the French presidential institution.

Early forecast show that the PS is unlikely to reach the presidential election’s second round. The French electorate is expected to favour the right wing Front National (FN), the centre-right Les Republicains (LR) party and Emmanuel Macron, the independent centrist candidate. However, given the current crisis faced by the LR that directly led to the relative surge of popularity of Benoit Hamon, it is possible that the PS may strengthen its position by adopting clear left-wing policies ahead of the presidential election. This would necessitate a negotiated deal with Jean Luc Melenchon, the radical left-wing candidate, and would further lead to a weakening of the standing centre-left government.

Les Republicains: The front-runner in crisis

Up until early February, LR centre-right party appeared to be bent to be in a leading position in the May 2017 French election. Former Prime Minister Francois Fillon was benefitting from strong opinion polls and his campaign based on liberal economic policies along with strong conservative moral values gained substantial support. However, Fillon is currently under investigation following the release of information highlighting his alleged abuse of power at the profit of his wife and sons. While the investigation has not yet released any conclusive statement, allegations are already taking a heavy toll on candidate Fillon. In early February his approval rates dropped and French media are increasingly focusing on the potential for the LR to find a replacement for the upcoming elections.

Francois Fillon has so far maintained his position that he will continue his campaign and that the ongoing investigation will not lead to his withdrawal from the race. However, the current crisis has hindered Fillon’s ability to showcase his policy plans as he has been forced to be on the defensive in regard to the existing allegations. In addition, rifts resulting from power plays within the LR party have appeared. Members of parliament have started lobbying to replace Fillon. While it is unlikely that the party will take such a drastic measure, the internal tensions will almost certainly weaken the centre-right position ahead of the elections.

Macron: Reformist or last chance to safeguard Hollande’s policies?

Emmanuel Macron started his campaign in November by portraying himself as an independent and centrist outsider. He has built his movement around an economically liberal agenda aimed at fostering the partnership between moderates from both the PS and the LR. However, following the centre-left primaries, there is a strong likelihood that Manuel Valls supporters will shift their votes toward Macron rather than vote for a leftist candidate such as Hamon. This would would indirectly make Macron the unwilling defender of President Hollande’s unpopular legacy, depriving him from his outsider status. Given Francois Fillon’s current legal woes, it is not unlikely that Macron could reach the second round of the presidential election. However, his electoral result will continue to be linked to the LR internal politics as well as to the PS capacity to unite its supporters.

The Front National: Strong party unable to expand its support base

The Front National (FN) position has been strengthened throughout Francois Hollande’s term. The right-wing party has been calling since the 1990s for anti-immigration policies, strict security measures, the re-establishment of national borders as well as anti-liberal economic policies and an overall review of France’s position in the EU. The wave of terrorist attacks that hit the country along with growing social anger and discontent in regard to France’s foreign policy decisions have bolstered the support for the FN. While it appears as if the party led by Marine Le Pen is the only political force realistically likely to reach the elections’ second round, it continues to face a massive opposition with virtually every other political force of the country ready to join forces against it.

In addition, the party is currently struggling to successfully orient its agenda. On the one hand, groups within the FN push for a left-leaning economic strategy focused on protectionism. And on the other hand, nationalist and security policies have served to define the FN as the key party of the French political right-wing. Given the opposition it faces as well as its ongoing internal ideological tensions, it is unlikely that the Le Pen party will win the May elections.

About Author

Riccardo Dugulin

Riccardo Dugulin is an analyst at Drum Cussac, a global business risk consultancy. He specializes in supporting international organizations and large corporations operating in emerging markets by providing them with critical risk management intelligence. His regions of expertise are the Near East, the Gulf, North Africa and Continental Europe. He previously worked as project manager for a French medical assistance company. He gained field experience in the Middle East having worked for leading think tanks in Dubai and Beirut. Riccardo holds a Master in International Affairs from the Sciences Po – Paris and a Bachelor in Middle Eastern Studies from the same university. Follow him on Twitter @RiccardoDugulin.