and with Penelopegate—or, rather, Françoisgate—dominating the news. This past week has been the craziest in French politics in I don’t know how long. What is clear: François Fillon, who looked to be an all but shoo-in after his brilliant, amazing victory in November’s LR primary—a victory absolutely no one foresaw even three weeks beforehand—is now toast. Il est mort. And with the French Republican party—the largest in the country, which looked set to govern France for the next five years, following the debacle of François Hollande’s quinquennat—now reeling and in disarray, and eleven weeks before the 1st round of the presidential election. This is a disaster for the French parliamentary right and deeply unsettling for the French political system. Thanks to the venerable Le Canard Enchaîné—the honor of the French press—and the investigative reports in its January 25th and February 1st issues of the egregious nepotism practiced by Fillon over a dozen years, the presidential race has been completely upended—and with the 2007 interview with Penelope Fillon, unearthed by France 2 last Thursday (watch here), looking to be the coup de grâce. And if not, the latest revelation, this in today’s Le Monde, should do it.
Fillon is defiant, first railing on about conspiracies hatched by unnamed cabals and saying that he would quit the race only if magistrates deemed that his nepotistic practices were in violation of the law—which we won’t know for weeks, if not months—then with his press conference this afternoon, in which he apologized to the French people for “errors” committed in the past regarding the employment of his family, though which was entirely legal. But whether or not the nepotism was, in fact, legal—which it may possibly have been—it doesn’t matter. Fillon’s sober, upright, squeaky clean image—a man of integrity and probity: one of his big selling points—has been shattered—and with voters of his own party, not to mention the larger electorate. Seriously: how can one call for belt-tightening and budgetary blood, sweat, and tears when one has been revealed to have shamelessly enriched one’s own family—i.e. oneself—at taxpayer expense? I don’t see how Fillon recovers from this. If he maintains his candidacy—and only he can decide to renounce, which he appears determined not to do—he will most certainly be eliminated in the 1st round on April 23rd—and the latest polls are already projecting this (here and here). Most LR voters will, out of partisan loyalty, vote for him—and an IFOP-JDD poll out yesterday shows 64% of those voters continuing to support his candidacy—but enough will defect—to Marine Le Pen, Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, or Emmanuel Macron—nullify their ballots, or stay home, thus killing his chances.
What is striking in this affair is Fillon’s cluelessness. Though he sounded contrite at his press conference, he manifestly did not understand even ten days after the affair broke that politicians can’t get away with this kind of thing anymore. Political mores in France are no longer what they used to be. Until recently politicians would explain away such corruption as a natural product of France being a “Latin country”—as opposed to an “Anglo-Saxon” or “Nordic” one (and, as I have noted over the years, people really do believe these cultural clichés). As a politician of the right once said in waving off affairs of corruption, “si la France était la Suède, ça se saurait” (if France were Sweden, we would know it). I remember listening on the radio, back in the ’90s, to the conservative journalist Philippe Tesson justifying the time-honored practice of government ministers annually receiving, as a perk, thick envelopes of public cash, with which they could do whatever they pleased and with no accountability. Autre temps, autres mœurs.
The drama for the LR party—whose leadership, looking into the electoral abyss, has been desperately hoping that Fillon would withdraw his candidacy—is that it has no procedure for selecting a new candidate. It’s too late to organize another primary, that’s a certainty. But what legitimacy would a candidate designated à la va-vite by the party’s Political Bureau or National Council carry in the eyes of the party membership? And who would that candidate be? Primary runner-up Alain Juppé has ruled himself out, which is a good thing. The conservative LR base doesn’t want him, which is why he was buried in a landslide by Fillon in the primary’s 2nd round. Making the loser the winner won’t fly. And in a field of candidates born in the 1960s and ’70s, Juppé would look out of place. His moment has passed. Nicolas Sarkozy? LOL.
That leaves the younger generation. François Baroin would seem a good compromise choice except for the bad blood between him and Juppé, and though he’s a well-spoken, eternally boyish-looking 51-years-old, has been in politics for so long that he seems old and, moreover, has no demonstrated appeal outside the core LR electorate. And his poll numbers aren’t too good: +24/-36 favorable/unfavorable in the latest IPSOS baromètre politique, and with 40% having no opinion of him. Il ne marque évidemment pas les esprits. Xavier Bertrand wouldn’t be bad but, like Baroin, lacks notoriety and is probably too moderate and gauche-friendly for many LR voters. Laurent Wauquiez: too right-wing. C’est un vrai réac celui-là. Valérie Pécresse: she could have a certain appeal but, frankly, I can’t see her being it. And her IPSOS fave/unfave rating, presently at +25/-45, is also not brilliant. Senate president and filloniste Gérard Larcher’s name has been advanced. Problem: if he were to walk through the Forum des Halles, down the Canebière, or across the Place Bellecour, most people wouldn’t recognize him. Just as most people don’t know what his voice sounds like. He has never been on anyone’s list of présidentiables. His notoriety, or lack thereof, is such that his name doesn’t even figure in the IPSOS baromètre. So scratch that one.
The LR party is in a truly bad situation. Even if Fillon throws in the towel and a replacement candidate is designated by some hasty procedure—and this would have to happen very soon—s/he will have to put together a program and discourse in short order—it can’t and won’t be 100% Fillon’s—and then try sell it to a party base in a state of shock and disarray, not to mention a larger right-of-center electorate so disgusted by LR that a sizable portion of it will have already defected to Macron (or Marine LP). And then, if s/he were to somehow make it to the 2nd round, would have to attract a sufficient number of left voters to defeat Marine. What a calamity. No one has any idea of how this is going to play out.
As for the Socialists, they’re looking in better shape than LR at the moment, which is quite amazing. Benoît Hamon’s victory over Manuel Valls the Sunday before last was as decisive as victories can get—and with participation crossing the 2 million threshold, carried legitimacy. Hamon is the best possible candidate for the PS right now: he’s smart and well-spoken, which was demonstrated in his stellar debate performance of Jan. 25th; is relatively young (age 49) but with a long political career; was a frondeur—i.e. party dissident these past three years—so doesn’t have Hollande’s bilan hanging around his political neck; and best incarnates the current état d’esprit of the PS median voter. A certain number of Valls militants and supporters are defecting to Macron, which is inevitable. But if the polarizing Valls had been the primary victor, the exodus of Hamon voters to other candidates—Jean-Luc Mélenchon, Yannick Jadot, even Macron—would have been greater. Valls was more unacceptable to Hamon supporters—and which includes those who voted for Arnaud Montebourg and Vincent Peillon—than vice-versa. E.g. Valls’ authoritarian, intransigent laïcité de combat discourse—and demagoguery on the issue against Hamon—so repulsed many PS and other left voters (myself included) that they would not have voted for him under almost any circumstance.
And then there’s an issue that may seem secondary but is actually significant, both symbolically and practically, which is the legalization of cannabis. France has been way behind the curve on this compared to other European countries (and also the US), for reasons I have not entirely comprehended. The right but also the PS has refused to even debate the question of decriminalizing cannabis and other soft drugs, maintaining a repressive posture from another era that, entre autres, diverts law enforcement and the judicial system in a hugely expensive and time-wasting endeavor that is doomed to failure. Hamon and others on the left and center—including Mélenchon and Macron—now advocate legalization, but not Valls. The latter’s tough guy, Sarkozy-like posture just doesn’t fly on the left and it’s hard to see where he goes politically from here. The future of the French Socialist Party—or what remains of it after this election cycle—is with Benoît Hamon and those who have rallied to him.
As for Hamon’s signature issue, the revenu universel—that the right, center, and Valls-supporting Socialists dismiss as harebrained pie-in-the-sky—I said last time that I don’t pay much attention to Santa Claus-type promises from presidential candidates. As for whether or not the revenu universel is realistic, I don’t know and have neither the time nor interest in delving into the issue to find out, though I do note that brilliant, high-profile economists, such as Daniel Cohen and Thomas Piketty, have endorsed some form of what Hamon is advocating. What is important with grandiose proposals such as the revenu universel—which may sound unrealistic (one thinks of Bernie Sanders and single-payer health care or tuition-free college)—is not that they will necessarily see the light of day right away—Hamon, in the most unlikely event he were elected president of the republic and obtained a legislative majority, would certainly compromise on his scheme or scale it back—but rather express the candidate’s world-view and point in the direction s/he wants to take the country. (BTW and for the record, Hamon is much more akin to Bernie than he is to Jeremy Corbyn; the latter’s French kindred spirit is Mélenchon).
Left voters are clearly happy with Hamon’s victory, in view of the sharp spike in his poll numbers. The Cevipof-IPSOS-Sopra Steria-Le Monde mega poll of mid-January had him at 7% in the event he were the PS candidate. He’s now as high as 18%—in fourth place, just behind Macron and Fillon—and with his favorable numbers way up. It’s clear that Hamon is taking votes from Mélenchon; such is reflected not only in the latter’s significant polling drop—down to 9-10%—but is also what I’ve been hearing from people. Hamon is an attractive alternative for leftist voters otherwise furious at the Socialists’ record in power over the past five years but doubtful over JLM’s ability to reach the 2nd round, let alone win (and the mere thought of a Marine LP-Mélenchon run-off—a scenario out of the Twilight Zone—is enough to strike terror and sleepless nights in persons like myself). JLM may be running a good campaign and, with his hologram, packing the meeting halls but, as I’ve said many times, there is a ceiling to his support, of 14% of the electorate max. And I will wager here and now that he will not match his 11.1% score of 2012. As for Hamon’s score: if the écolo Jadot withdraws his candidacy and throws his support to Hamon, it is not totally out of the question that he could finish third. Making it to the 2nd round is another matter. I doubt anyone in the PS thinks that one is realistic.
The candidate best situated to make it to the 2nd and face Marine LP—and her qualification is, at this point, an all but foregone conclusion—is Emmanuel Macron. Those of my general political parti pris are, in any case, crossing their fingers that Macron makes it. He has taken off in the polls, as one is likely aware, and, with the Fillon debacle, is a serious contender to be elected president of the republic. I watched part of his speech at the big rally in Lyon on Saturday—streamed live online (thanks to Art Goldhammer for posting the site on social media)—which went for an hour and forty minutes. Monsieur Macron has a lot to say. He made sure to cover all the bases and press all the buttons in his catch-all appeal to voters spanning the center-left to the center-right. There was something in it for everyone—and nothing major that would turn anyone off—in that sizable segment of the political spectrum he seeks to occupy. It was the first time I’ve watched him speak at length. Mediapart’s Mathieu Magnaudeix called his tone that of a “drowsy televangelist.” He sounded good to me, and the crowd at the overflowing arena clearly felt likewise. He has yet to reveal his detailed program but the outline, indeed much of the content, is clear. He’s a social-libéral on the economy and a North American-style liberal on questions de société. On my personal litmus tests—laïcité, migrants and immigration, depenalization of cannabis—he passes. And he’s pro-Europe. His invitation to American scientists fleeing the Trump regime is also appreciated.
Lefties—including personal friends and family members—are bashing Macron, labeling him a right-winger, an ultra-libéral—a grievous insult for French gauchistes—and purveyor of an “Uberized” economy, entre autres. This is excessive, IMO, if not downright silly. One promise I find in the prospect of a Macron presidency is in an area in which he has so far not expressed himself, which is introducing a measure of proportional representation in legislative elections, of perhaps even half the seats in the National Assembly. Small parties are for it, the big ones—PS and LR—against, and as Macron is not of the latter, he has no a priori reason not to favor such a change. François Bayrou, who will announce by mid month whether or not he’ll jump in the race, has long advocated a dose of PR. Bayrou has been critical of Macron but implicitly left the door open to him in an interview late last month on France Inter. If Macron incorporates PR into his program, it could prompt Bayrou—who is polling in the mid single digits—not to run and to endorse Macron, which would increase ever more the latter’s chances of making it to the 2nd round. And if Macron were to hint that he would appoint Bayrou prime minister—which would be entirely logical—that could clinch the deal with a lot of people. This is admittedly idle speculation on my part. On verra.
I’ll have a post on Macron’s program when he fully releases it. In the meantime, he is sure to become an increasing target of Russian dirty tricks and no doubt from the Stephen Bannon White House too. As both the Putin and Trump regimes want to see Marine Le Pen in the Élysée, Macron sera l’homme à abattre…
As for Marine—who released her dystopian, Trumpian campaign platform yesterday—I’m not going to talk about her right now, except to say two things.
First, as mentioned above, she is all but certain to make it to the 2nd round and, if current polling holds, finish in first place, with up to 25%, even more. She has her own potential scandals—plus real ones—but, as a populist candidate, they’re not affecting her standing in the polls. Her supporters, like Trump’s outre-Atlantique, don’t care. And insofar as many of them get their information from the fachosphère (French alt-right)—and the FN has a sophisticated internet operation, with troll armies and all—they will dismiss what is reported in the soi-disant mainstream media. Moreover, Marine appears to be attracting increasing interest among voters in social categories that have heretofore been allergic to the extreme right, such as Muslims, domiens, young people, and seniors.
Second, I have been dismissive of MLP’s chances of winning the presidency, on account of her disastrous favorable/unfavorable numbers: +23/-71 in the IPSOS baromètre, signifying that in order for her to win, a lot of people, mainly on the left, who hate her would nonetheless have to vote for her. And while I will continue to insist that the prospect of her winning is minimal, I no longer categorically rule it out. These are crazy times and with populism on the march. France will likely be saved by its electoral system—a victorious presidential candidate needs 50.01% of the vote, and participation rates in the 2nd round are always high: with a single, unique exception, it has never dropped below 79% in a presidential election—but given the discredit of the parties of government, particularly the PS, and the Fillon debacle, all sorts of scenarios can be credibly envisaged, even those considered outlandish two months ago. If Macron runs into trouble, then I will get worried. This election is wide open.
Emmanuel Macron, Lyon, 4 February 2017