The far-right is on a roll in 2016. First Brexit and now Trump. Next on the list is the French Presidential election next year. The Front National have been talking up their chances. Following a disappointing term of leadership from François Hollande, who failed to live up to his initial promise, Marine Le Pen is now a serious contender to become his replacement.
There is one (seemingly) logical course that events in 2017 may follow. We saw it before in 2002, when left, and center-right combined to back Chriac against Le Pen Sr by a huge margin in the second round. In 2012, Le Pen Jr had a similar amount of support compared to her father a decade prior and was kept out of the second round due to the stronger popularity of Hollande and Sarkozy. The difference this time is that Le Pen is polling in the high 20%/low 30% mark. She could make the second round due to popularity alone instead of the vote splitting which helped her father in 2002. While the Socialists (PS), Les Republicans (LR) and others could combine again to defeat her: (1) the trend is alarming and (2) she may have some soft support from fed-up voters who can’t bring themselves to vote for someone like “Crooked Alain”. Indeed the second round polls paint a bleak picture, with 60-40 support for prominent non-Hollande candidates against Le Pen but with swathes of voters preferring to abstain. Given the poor reliability of political polling in recent years, the actual picture could be even scarier.
How can Le Pen be kept out? Given that much of her support now comes from people who would have voted for Hollande/Sarkozy last time around, it’s not impossible to entice them back. We should consider why they chose to switch their support to the FN. It probably all stems from fear and uncertainty surrounding poor economic conditions and a series of devastating terrorist attacks. The FN’s anti-immigration, protectionist and eurosceptic rhetoric offers a perverse message of hope for disaffected voters.
In practice, reducing immigration won’t magically save France from terrorism. Especially if those carrying out terrorist attacks have lived most of their lives in France. Instead, changing French economic practices to give everybody a decent standard of living and a sense of belonging would go further towards easing fear and uncertainty. For example:
- Reverse changes made to the retirement/pension system. Bring the retirement age back to 60 and the full pension to 65. The pension could be set to a universal payment instead of the contribution-based approach, which only serves to entrench the inequality gap between rich and poor. Allowing for earlier retirement opens up employment opportunities for younger people and the retirees themselves are happy since they are no longer stuck in a job they might not like!
- Full youth employment via a national service scheme. I’m not thinking of military conscription, but fixed-term work in the public sector (health, education, police, military, bureaucracy). This would eradicate youth unemployment and would improve the mindset of young people who feel like a legitimate part of society instead of an inconvenience that the free market doesn’t want to take care of. It may also help prepare teenagers for their careers afterwards. The public sector may have an improved capacity to deliver the services required from it.
- Reduce the 35 hour working week to 30 hours and reduce VAT. In principle, the loss of wages from working fewer hours would be offset by less expensive goods and services (assuming businesses don’t change their VAT-exclusive prices). This would allow more time for people to do things that they enjoy and could help with the distribution of labour, reducing the unemployment rate.
In effect, a more protectionist approach needs to be taken to kick the legs out from under the FN’s chair. Why would a concerned French voter vote for the FN if LR/PS/other can show that they recognize the failings of the current economic paradigm and present a robust plan to change it?
It seems that the “centre”-right LR has other plans in mind. The front-runner from their first primary is François Fillon, who is campaigning on a right-wing (economic and social) platform. His policies are remarkably stupid: increasing VAT, pushing up the retirement age and firing 500,000 public sector workers (while somehow promising full employment by 2022). Were he to succeed, putting 500,000 people out of work in the name of neoliberal economic ideology would be a gift to the FN. The choice between Fillon and Le Pen would be difficult: a bigoted free-marketeer, or a bigoted protectionist? If I were French, there would be no circumstances under which I would vote for Fillon (or Le Pen). The left-right alliance that kept out Le Pen Sr could fall apart, allowing Le Pen Jr to win the presidency.
Instead a candidate such as Emmanuel Macron is much more palatable. He seems to be the Sanders-type candidate with the enthusiastic support of many young people. He doesn’t appear to be a robustly left-wing candidate, but his “pragmatism” would be ideal in order to maintain the support of those on the right hand side of the political spectrum necessary to stop Le Pen. My advice to the PS is to not bother standing a candidate this time around, thus avoid splitting the left vote to give Macron the best possible chance of making it to the second round.
I am being incredibly hopeful here, those high-up in LR/PS won’t be interested in sacrificing their economic ideology or upsetting their corporate supporters. So long as they are in front, they won’t see any need to act differently. We have learned from the USA that 24-7 critical coverage of a candidate can backfire and act as free advertising. The political establishment and the media risk making the same mistakes again. Instead of talking down the FN, talk up France and talk up positive policies that your party can offer to make French lives better. Most importantly, the winning candidate must be able to deliver on their promises to ensure that this far-right domino effect is stopped in its tracks for good.