Dr Steve Davies is Head of Education at the Institute of Economic Affairs.
After the Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s victory in the United States all eyes now turn to France – a country that, like Germany, has endured terror attacks this year. There a Presidential election will be held next May and the pundits have a great chance to be wrong for a third time. What chance is there that there will be a third electoral shock, a victory for Marine Le Pen that will likely destroy the EU as it presently is? The answer is that this is still not as likely as the other two were before they happened but has just become significantly more probable that it was a week ago.
Until last week it was thought that if we assume Le Pen makes the second round of voting she would then face a candidate from the centre right, either the former President Nicolas Sarkozy or the former Prime Minister Alain Juppe. However we now know that it will be another onetime Prime Minister Francois Fillon – unless the left manages to find a candidate who will bring it back from the land of the political dead.
Almost all of the commentary on Fillon’s surprise success in the Republican primary sees this as a ‘setback’ or even a ‘nightmare’ for Le Pen. The general view is that this makes her challenge even more difficult. What this shows rather is that commentators, particularly those on the left and centre left still do not understand the new world of politics that is rapidly appearing around them. In reality Fillon’s victory has increased Le Pen’s chances, not by as much as a Sarkozy win would have done, but increased them nonetheless.
Since she took over the Front National (FN) from her father, Marine Le Pen has significantly expanded the party’s voting base by expanding it outside its original core of the traditionalist French right. On the one side she has gained support from the centre right but more significantly she has gained support from working class voters in the old industrial areas of France who had previously supported the left or even the far left, in the shape of the Communist Party.
The key to this success is the emerging ideology and programme of the FN, which most commentators simply do not ‘get’. Obsessed by her nationalism and anti-immigration positions they ignore the other part of her platform. This combines strong support for the welfare state with an aggressive programme of state economic interventionism and dirigisme. In fact in some ways her programme is to the left of the one espoused by Jeremy Corbyn – for example she favours ‘de-privatisation of money’, i.e. the funding of state spending and investment by money printing and the government taking over the supply of money and credit from private banks. (Corbyn and McDonnell toyed with this idea under the heading of ‘People’s QE’ but then abandoned it).
It is this failure to understand the full ideology of the FN and to realise that its economic interventionism is not simply ‘window dressing’ but a central element of that ideology that leads commentators to misunderstand why Fillon’s likely candidature will assist Le Pen rather than hurting her. The consistent underlying idea behind the programme and ideology of the FN is anti-liberalism, opposition to both economic liberalism in the shape of free markets and globalism and to social liberalism.
This is allied to populism, an exaltation of ‘ordinary people’ against a technocratic, distant and incompetent elite. The positive element is nationalism and support for a very ‘thick’ and defined notion of French identity, one that is intimately tied to the French state. This programme appeals both to some on the right and others on the left. The one group who will never support it are French liberals, whether of the free market right or the socially liberal and technocratic left but they only make up 10-15 per cent of the electorate.
Le Pen however does have an appeal not only to the 20 per cent or so of the electorate who support both elements of her platform but also to many on the right who are attracted to her social traditionalism and assertion of traditional identity and, crucially, many voters on the left who support her critique of ‘neoliberalism’. Meanwhile voters across the spectrum share her hostility to the French elite and media classes.
Francois Fillon however is one of the few French politicians who is comfortable with the ‘Thatcherite’ label. His platform combines cultural conservatism and traditionalism with free market radicalism and promises to shake up the French economy. The economic part of this platform is both welcome and overdue but politically it faces two problems.
The first is that a large and growing part of the French right does not share his enthusiasm for free market reform. More significantly this platform is toxic for the left as regards both economic policy and wider social politics. One thing it may well do is to galvanise the left so that it does better than expected. It is unlikely they will recover enough to make the second round but if they do this will make a Le Pen victory the one to bet on.
If that does not happen and there is a runoff between Le Pen and Fillon why would that be better for her than a race with Juppe? Surely Fillon’s call for radical reform will resonate? Not so. If Juppe were the candidate almost all of the left would indeed rally behind him along with a significant part of the right. With Fillon however while he will get the votes of both left and right liberals and significant chunks of mainstream right and left, a large part of the left will be so repulsed they will either not vote or will even vote for Le Pen.
Although the French electorate is discontented, sadly the change Fillon is advocating is not the kind most of them want. France, like many other countries is seeing the emergence of a new electoral coalition that combines economic interventionism with social conservatism. The kind of conservatism that Fillon represents, combining cultural conservatism with economic liberalism, is declining because culturally conservative voters are increasingly deserting free market economics and globalisation. The odds are still very slightly against Marine Le Pen but they have shortened significantly and for me are only slightly worse than even money.