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The Right is Rising in Europe as France Goes to the Polls

A man looks at the campaign posters of the candidates for the French Presidential election starting on Sunday.(Credit: Reuters)

France has never witnessed such a configuration before: four candidates running neck and neck, breaking away from a pack of 11, all with a fairly even chance of success, scrapping for the two top places in the first round of the presidential poll on Sunday.

Unless one of them gets over 50% of the votes cast and romps home to victory this Sunday, the top dogs will fight it out on May 7. This election is just too close to call, as is the colour of France’s next parliament, which will be elected a few weeks later, on June 18.

Although opinion polls give Marine Le Pen, the Front National’s xenophobic, anti-Muslim extreme right leader, and the blue-eyed 39-year-old centrist and former boy-wonder Emmanuel Macron, a slight edge, they say the hard left’s literature-spouting Jean-Luc Melenchon and the conservative former prime minister François Fillon both stand a chance of  inching into the second round run-off two weeks away.

Last Thursday’s terrorist attack in which a policeman and his attacker both died, has shifted the focus back from French malaise, poor economic performance and the country’s lost grandeur to the three I’s of Identity, Immigration and Islam. This might brighten the chances of the two major right wing candidates, Marine Le Pen and François Fillon  in tomorrow’s first round, but it is unlikely to significantly increase their share of the popular vote. The Socialist Party’s official candidate Benoit Hamon, who is currently limping in fifth position is most likely to pay the price, since the Socialists are believed to be soft on crime and terrorism, although the State of Emergency now in force in France was introduced in November 2015 by the outgoing socialist President François Hollande. It has since been extended five times by parliament and runs beyond 2017.

Abstention will be a massive factor in this vote. Some 40% of France’s 46.9 million registered voters say they are still undecided about whom to choose. A high abstention rate will more likely affect the centrist and leftist candidates and work to the advantage of Le Pen, who has a strong committed following among those who see Islam both as fuelling terrorism and as a threat to their culture as well as many former communist or working class voters who feel dispossessed and marginalised by globalisation.

There is a lot at stake. This is a crucial year for Europe, with both France and Germany, Europe’s largest economies, going to the polls. The election of a hard left or extreme right candidate will very likely result in the dismantling of the European Union as we know it. Marine Le Pen has vowed to impose extremely harsh immigration quotas, take France out of the Euro and re-introduce the Franc, expel those suspected of radical Islamic leanings, reintroduce border controls and reserve jobs for French nationals.  The extreme left’s Melenchon says he will crack down on financial markets, massively increase wages, debt and taxation and re-negotiate trade agreements.  They have widely divergent views on immigration and Islam, with Le Pen slamming both while Melenchon pleads for greater humanism and tolerance, but both are pro-Russia, anti-American, anti-globalisation and anti-NATO.  The extreme left and extreme right parallel lines in France, it appears, meet at infinity.

France has one of the strongest presidential regimes in the West with the head of state enjoying almost monarchical power, especially in areas such as defence and foreign policy. Parliament has limited powers and often acts as a rubber stamp or can be countered by ruling through ordinance. Even so, there have been three occasions in the history of the current Fifth Republic, founded in 1958, when voters shooed in a legislative majority in parliament that went against the President’s political grain. In 1986 and 1993, voters elected conservative legislatures under a Socialist President, François Mitterrand.  A decade later, in 1997, they decided to administer the conservative president, Jacques Chirac, a dose of his own medicine by electing a socialist-majority parliament.

At least two of the serious four contenders do not have solid political machines backing them. So winning a parliamentary majority in the legislative polls in June could be a tricky affair leading to a complete re-composition of France’s political landscape.

Macron, who still looks disarmingly school boyish (he married his former school teacher, a woman 23 years his senior), does not have a powerful party base, having founded his political movement En Marche! (Onwards!) just last November. He has the support of several prominent centrist and conservative politicians but little by way of a grassroots organisation. Jean-Luc Melenchon is a Communist and Socialist renegade whose unabashed hard left rhetoric has beguiled many. Fillon has the Les Republicains conservatives backing him but the party is sharply divided with several members speaking out in favour of Macron.

The polls all indicate that not one of the four main contenders or the seven other “fringe” or marginal candidates will win over a quarter of the popular vote. So will it be a right versus right finish with Marine Le Pen pitted against Fillon? Will it be Le Pen against the hard left Melenchon? Or will the centrist Macron edge out the other three to force a centrist-extreme right face off? The polls appear to be reasonably certain that Marine Le Pen will be one of the two finalists on May 7. What then will she do for the legislatives in June? Will the conservative François Fillon, with his pious Catholic talk enter into a pact with the devil of the extreme right to win parliamentary seats?

If anyone is naïve enough to read the results of the recent Dutch elections as a rejection of the extreme right, they have another think coming. The real test of the rise and rise of the extreme right in Europe is staring everybody in the face right now in France.

Yes Geert Wilder did not become the Prime Minister of Holland. Yes Marc Rutter’s centre-right party won the most number of seats there and yes, the anti-Islam venom of the extreme right did not carry the day. But when one looks closely at the result, it is clear that the poisonous hate of the extreme right has made significant and dangerous inroads.

The extreme right is stronger than ever and here to stay. The French poll may yet reserve a couple of not so pleasant surprises in the most bizarre and unpredictable French election yet.