Fred Kearey is an economics student at Birkbeck College, and is Deputy Chairman Political of East Surrey Conservative Future.
The mainstream right in France is riven with divisions over how to react to globalisation, and its effects on the traditional industrial working class. It has led a transformation of the West’s social and economic model – and this in turn has caused ruptures between elites and those who feel left behind.
The radical right in France in recent years has found its standard bearer in the Front National (FN) led by Marine Le Pen, who has exploited social and political fault-lines to further her ambitions, and who could make it to the second round of the French presidential elections next spring. Despite this, due to the run-off system which is used for French presidential elections, the most likely outcome is that the mainstream vote coalesces around the mainstream candidate still left in the race.
This hypothetical person is likely to be Alan Juppe of the centre-right Republicans, who has held a lead for some time in the polls. A danger for the UK, post-Brexit, would be for the French right to adopt a protectionist attitude to trade and economic co-operation as a consquence of the sclerotic and stale condition of the Eurozone, which is primarily dominated by its key economy, Germany. There is an economic imbalance between the two countries, with France suffering from high unemployment, stagnation, and high debt to GDP ratio of close to 95 per cent.
If this economic decline continues, the chances of Le Pen the FN doing significantly well will increase. This could result in the fragmentation of the centre-right to right-wing vote, with more moderate conservative voters being turned off by Marine’s stridently populist rhetoric. A moderate centre-right candidate, such as Juppe could, perversely, receive votes from the centre-left in the run-off – echoing the result in 2002 when the FN, then even more controversial and divisive under the leadership of Jean Le Pen (Marine Le Pen’s father), was crushed by Jacques Chirac by 82 per cent to Jean Le Pen’s 17 per cent. It is possible that the margin of victory that Juppe would gain were he to defeat Marine Le Pen would be considerably less, since the political and cultural mood in France has changed radically.
The rise of Islamist extremism in the notorious Banileus, as well as recent terror attacks, has created a raw and febrile atmosphere. The FN’s agenda has gained traction among a substantial portion of the French people which, if left to fester, could lead to the possibility of a French exit from the EU. This is why the Republicans now need to set the media agenda and regain momentum – although, if popular dissatisfaction with loss of sovereignty and increased cultural ghettoisation isn’t countered, France could leave in any event, especially if there is further economic stagnation or even recession.
This would be a truly seminal moment, since France and its political establiment has been at the ideological forefront of the European Project for decades. This possibility can only be reduced by a pragmatic and determined centre-right government of national interest, which would, first, stabilise the economy by mean of reform and then, crucially, regain sovereignty – as well as returning to national borders and ending free movement.
Such change could have a truly decisive effect on future Brexit negotiations after Article 50 has been triggered. A Europe moving towards more national democratic control could greatly enhance the UK’s prospects of striking a favourable deal. But chances of this prospect would not be improved by tainted figures, such as Nicholas Sarkozy, dividing the support base of more credible candidates such as Juppe and Francois Fillon who have experience in government. Juppe has proposed economic reforms to increase competitiveness and dynamism by encouraging a more market-orientated economic model. Creating one would be difficult, since there are entrenched bureaucracies and interest groups who would vigorously resist any change to the status quo, but it is possible – as is a more dynamic and democratic Europe in consequence.