Analysis

Which Lackluster Contender in France Can Stop Marine Le Pen?

Candidates right and left of the National Front leader either struggle to muster support or fail to resonate with the public.

Big heads of French presidential election candidates during carnival in Nice, France, February 11, 2017.
Henri Grivot/AP

PARIS – The race for the presidency of France is totally open. Everyone agrees on that, including even the leading candidates. Anything can happen because a lot of crazy things have already happened. This is the most open and mysterious election campaign in the history of the Fifth Republic, if not beyond that, if only because there is a real prospect that in the second (and final) round of voting, neither of the two candidates will be from one of the large political parties in control of France’s public agenda since the end of World War II.

Nevertheless, even in the midst of such craziness, one number has not changed over the past several months, has remained stable in the polls, and it’s frightening significance has been clear to everyone: While about a quarter of voters have not yet decided who to vote for, those who have decided acknowledge that they could change their minds.

That’s true of supporters of all of the candidates except for one. In answer to the question “To what extent are you certain that you will not change your mind by Election Day?” 80 percent of those who say they intend to vote for the leader of the far-right National Front, Marine Le Pen, answer in the affirmative.

Eighty percent say they are sure they will vote for her while the percentage of voters favoring Emmanuel Macron, (who is neck-and-neck with her) who say they are certain he will get their vote, is less than 50 percent. If that’s the case, then the question for a large portion of the population, perhaps even a majority, is not who the best candidate is but who is the candidate who can stop Le Pen.

Pollsters and political commentators have been coming and going at television and radio studios at a dizzying pace and not for nothing.

The ratings for campaign coverage have been higher than ever. More than 80 percent of France’s population say that are “interested” or “very interested” in the political developments. (Even in 1981, which saw Francois Mitterand achieve his political turnabout, that number was just 46 percent.)

Francois Fillon

Francois Fillon, of the right-wing Republicans party, at a rally in Sant-Pierre, France. February 12, 2017.
LAURENT CAPMAS/REUTERS

A news conference by right-wing Republicans party candidate Francois Fillon that was broadcast live drew a bigger audience than “Dancing with the Stars.” If you add to that the newspapers, which are reporting on the latest details of the most recent political scandals and are being snapped up at newsstands, you have a political media volcano that Fillon called a group of insatiable “bloodthirsty dogs.”

So let’s start with Fillon. The most important event in the election this past week was actually not broadcast live. On Monday, he contacted dozens of members of his party, and according to people who heard it first-hand, threatened that if they dared depose him as party candidate, he would file so many legal objections that there would be no party candidate.

How did Fillon, who had been the leading candidate in the race, sink to becoming such a bad joke? It was a toxic combination of hubris, insensitivity and alleged corruption.

Over the past week, for example, the following new suspicions against Fillon were reported: 1) His declaration of wealth includes a ridiculous valuation for his estate in the Sarthe area in the west, which has enabled him to evade personal taxes for years. 2) His wife, Penelope, not only drew a publicly funded salary for years for a fictitious job, but also received severance pay when she left. 3) Fillon’s two children falsely received salaries when they were still university students, at the expense of genuine parliamentary aides. 4) At the end of every month, Fillon himself withdrew the balance of public funds he had not used and would distribute them among young parliamentary aides from the party. 5) Fillon received 200,000 euros ($213,000) in consulting fees from Axa Insurance before returning to politics, but then immediately included Axa’s plan for the privatization of public medical insurance in his platform without disclosing his ties to the company.

March 17 is the deadline for filing for candidacy in the election. If Fillon can hold on until then, at that point he wouldn’t be able to be removed from the ballot. He was initially expected to be the one who would stop the National Front. He is a staunch Thatcherite who opposes abortion and strongly supports privatization of the public sector. It was thought that he would steal the votes of classic right-wingers from Le Pen.

At the moment, however, the polls show Fillon with 19 percent of the vote. If that holds true on Election Day, this might be the first election in which a candidate of his party, the Republicans, will be ousted in the first round. The only way the party can pull itself out of its morass is to ask France’s constitutional court to defer elections for six months to allow the party to hold primaries. Such a situation is unprecedented and it is not clear what the legal basis for such a request would be.

Jean-Luc Melenchon

Jean-Luc Melenchon, leader of the French radical left, at a rally in Chassieu, France, February 5, 2017.
EMMANUEL FOUDROT/REUTERS

The main problem for Jean-Luc Melenchon, leader of the radical left, who is supported by the labor unions and remnants of the Communist Party, is that from the moment that the competing Socialist Party chose a symbol of the left, Benoit Hamon, it has been expected that there would be a split in the left-wing vote.

Melenchon launched his campaign through an imaginative public appearance of his likeness in a hologram, broadcast hundreds of kilometers from his actual location. Hamon has already announced that he would be interested in talks about closer ties with Melenchon, but observers familiar with the two find it hard to believe that Melenchon would actually cede his candidacy to free up votes for the Socialist Party, which he left.

If the election were held now, Melenchon is projected to get 11 percent of the vote, but if he weren’t running, a considerable portion of his support would not go to Hamon but instead to Marine Le Pen. The economic platform of France’s extreme left is so similar to that of the extreme right that many voters would find these two candidates similar and could vote instead for Le Pen.

Benoit Hamon

Benoit Hamon, leader of the Socialist Party, at a rally in Gueret, France, February 9, 2017.
PASCAL LACHENAUD/AFP

Socialist Party candidate Hamon opened his election campaign with a well-organized programatic speech long on inspiration but short on economic growth engines. Hamon bears the burden of being from the party that produced the Fifth Republic’s worst president, the incumbent, Francois Hollande. Hamon has been unable to cut himself loose from that legacy.

Hamon’s main policy idea is a salary for everyone. It has been scorned by the leading candidate, Emmanuel Macron, which has made Hamon sound defensive. Hamon has greatly diluted the concept and has been constantly busy explaining how it would be funded, instead of talking about other things.

If the election were held now, Hamon would get about 15 percent of the vote, down somewhat from what it was when he was nominated. But as long as 26 percent of the electorate remains undecided, a fresh candidate like Hamon has a chance to attract support.

He has just put two new items on the public agenda. First, in a transparent attempt to court Muslim voters, he promised to curb France’s pro-secularism laws so that Islam is given a place in the public space, although that is causing unease in his party’s traditional base.

Secondly, he has presented himself as the only candidate who can counter Russian President Vladimir Putin. As Fillon would also have it, Le Pen and Macron are also close in one way or another to the Russian president. In the post-Trump election atmosphere that has taken over the world, such a message may really manage to sink in.

Emmanuel Macron

Emmanuel Macron, an independent and former French Economy Minister, at a rally in Paris, France, December 10, 2016.
Kamil Zihnioglu/AP

The polls show Macron, an independent candidate, surviving the first round, with 21 percent of the vote, and facing Marine Le Pen in the second. But can he hold on until Election Day for the first round, April 23, simply by espousing hollow economic slogans? And is it possible that just as Fillon has been tripped up by scandal during the campaign, the same could happen to Macron?

Last week Macron, who is married, publicly denied a homosexual relationship with the CEO of Radio France. It was unusual for Macron to address rumors about himself directly, but so far he seems to have handled matters well.

The matter has dropped from the public agenda and the French have reverted to their usual stance that politicians’ private lives are not a matter of public interest.

But this was just the first of anticipated campaign trial balloons from Macron. By chance or otherwise, last week a special report was released by French security services predicting that Russia would push to support Le Pen’s candidacy by disseminating information on social networks and leaking embarrassing details about other candidates.

Macron is facing other dangers, however, including a possible decision by perpetual centrist candidate Francois Bayrou to run for president, which would cost Macron at least 5 percent of his votes. And that’s even before Le Pen asks Macron on live television how he intends to defend France against the dangers of Islam.

So what are Macron’s positions on non-economic issues such as terrorism, social and foreign policy and the European Union? For the moment, he is maintaining a typical centrist party stance.

Commentators are of the opinion that when she decides to do so, Le Pen could eat him for breakfast in a first debate. They may be right, but she has eaten the other candidates even before the first debate.

The important statistics in this context of course are the polling data from the second round of voting between the top two candidates, on May 7. Although pollsters are wary of publishing projections, Macron is expected at this point to beat Le Pen in the second round by 63 percent to 37 percent. But there’s another possibility.

Marine Le Pen

Marine Le Pen as she takes part in France 2's 'L'Emission politique,' in Saint-Cloud, France, January 9, 2017.
THOMAS SAMSON/AFP

The National Front’s Marine Le Pen has officially launched her presidential campaign but is making few public appearances, seeing that the more that she allows the electoral arena to slumber the better her chances are. Last week she was up again in the polls against the backdrop of the collapse of Fillon’s candidacy, which was preceded by a terrorist attack at the Louvre in Paris. She is currently projected to get 26 percent in the first round, more than any other candidate, even though she is forecast to lose in the second round.

But there could be a surprise. If Fillon’s candidacy continues to founder, Le Pen could place her bets on a first round victory, which hasn’t happened in France since the election of Charles de Gaulle in 1958, and then it was only thanks to the prevailing electoral system at the time. Le Pen would have to get more than 50 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff.

From her supporters’ standpoint, the National Front’s failures at the polls are a result of stolen votes. Like her father, Jean Marie Le Pen, Marine Le Pen has also been halted in the second round.

The chances of her winning in the first round are slim, on paper.

She would have to convince all of Fillon’s remaining supporters to vote for her as well perhaps as some of Melenchon’s supporters - at the expense of their natural candidate. But it should be remembered that 26 percent of voters have said they have still not made up their minds about who they would vote for. It’s possible of course that many have in fact decided and are voting for the National Front, even if they won’t admit it.

Half of the French population says Le Pen is “a legitimate candidate like the others.” Among supporters of the Republicans, the percentage who agree with the statement rises to 73 percent. Le Pen just needs more than 50 percent to be elected president in the first round.