The new nightmare in France

12.04.17 Publication:

With less than two weeks to go before the first round of France’s presidential election, financial markets are waking up to a new potential nightmare. Having for months expected the centrist Emmanuel Macron to face, and beat, the far-right, anti-euro populist, Marine Le Pen, of the Front National in the second round, a new danger is looming. A path has opened up through which Ms Le Pen could steal a surprise victory.

That path is being laid on the far left of French politics. In the campaign’s final weeks, the rising star has been Jean-Luc Melenchon, a far-left socialist who is a member of the European Parliament. His stirring rhetoric and radical message has brought him into third place in the opinion polls, ahead of the man who was once the front-runner, Francois Fillon of the centre-right Republican Party.

Mr Melenchon is seen by most outsiders as a typical French leftist, a man of inspiring slogans but little practical likelihood of any of them ever being achieved. Among other things, he proposes an income tax rate of 100% for all income above €360,000 a year. High-earners, which would have included Mr Macron during his days as an investment banker, are not expecting ever to have such a ceiling put on their incomes.

However, his rise really should be seen as a threat to both Mr Fillon and Mr Macron – and potentially to the future of the European Union. For there is now a chance that the crucial second round of the election on May 7th could be held not between Mr Macron and Ms Le Pen, as everybody expects, but Mr Melenchon and Ms Le Pen.

This would be an extraordinary outcome. But as Brexit and the election of Donald Trump showed, we live in extraordinary political times. And the point that needs to be borne in mind is that the French presidential election already has an extraordinary character, one which threatens to transform the two-round voting system from a safeguard against extremism into the source of an extremist victory.

The system has, traditionally, encouraged a large number of candidates to run for the first round (this year there are 11) knowing that they can get a platform and win some votes, for the electorate has considered that the system allows them to vote with their hearts in the first round, but with their brains in the second.

This has always worked well, because the strength of the two main party organisations – the Socialist Party on the left and what is now called the Republican Party on the right – has guaranteed that in the second round voters will always have a mainstream option.

However this year, both the main parties are in a state of disarray. The Socialists are failing because President Francois Hollande’s administration has, since it was elected in 2012, been such a failure. The Republicans are in disarray because the candidate who won an overwhelming victory in their primaries last December, Mr Fillon, has been discredited by scandal and yet has refused to quit.

Mr Macron has profited from this disarray, running as an independent backed by his own movement, En Marche. He has a good chance of being the leading candidate of the centre, and still a good chance of becoming president. But that chance faces a new shadow cast by Mr Melenchon’s rise.

That shadow is the possibility that voters might, as before, vote with their hearts for Mr Melenchon in the first round of April 23rd, but then wake up next day to a shock: to the news that he has squeezed just ahead, in a close race, of not only Mr Fillon but also Mr Macron.

This would be a dream result for Ms Le Pen. She would then have the chance of winning votes on May 7th both from Mr Fillon’s conservative supporters and from some of Mr Macron’s backers. Voters in the centre would face an impossible choice between the two unpalatable extremes of Mr Melenchon and Ms Le Pen. Many might well abstain.

The best way to avert this would be for Mr Fillon to see sense during the final weeks of the campaign and to resign his candidacy, placing his endorsement behind Mr Macron. That is what his brain should now be saying. Whether his heart will now allow him to give up the race for the sake of France and of Europe could be a different matter. Let us hope.