France’s new president: From the far left, centre, right or far right?

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Will the French choose a leader for Europe and the world, or just for an inward-looking France? Alan Austin reports from France on the latest in the race for le Palais de l'Élysée.

WITH FOUR DAYS to go before the first vote in France’s presidential election, the outcome is unexpectedly uncertain. There has been an obvious winner up until now — though not always the same one.

Les citoyens will have 11 candidates on their ballot paper for next Sunday’s first round vote. Four have moved well clear in opinion polling. But, intriguingly, all four have moved closer together than ever in the last few days.

Through late 2016, the front runner was urbane, conservative family man Françoise Fillon, the candidate for Les Républicains — the stalwart right-wing party, which, with various name changes, produced presidents Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy.

Fillon’s fortunes turned badly to merde in January, however, when serious corruption allegations emerged. Things worsened in mid-March – just before the first candidates’ debate – when he was formally charged with embezzlement.

The beneficiary of these bizarre events appeared to be centrist newcomer to electioneering, Emmanuel Macron, who zoomed to the top of half the polls and second in the other half — behind hard right anti-immigration candidate Marine Le Pen (National Front Party). It seemed almost certain then that Macron and Le Pen would lead the first round, with Macron easily winning the second.

Macron is a former banker who was appointed – not elected – minister for the economy and industry in François Hollande’s Socialist Government in 2014. He resigned last August to form his own new party – En Marche! – which translates as “On the move!” or “Forward!”

In France, however, les surprises are frequent and can sometimes be très surprenant indeed. Such is the case now with the rehabilitation of Françoise Fillon and the late surge of Trotskyist candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, backed by the Communist Party, as the leading left-wing contender.

In the televised debates, Fillon has appeared the most presidential with his measured, patrician delivery and moderate conservative policies. Mélenchon, in contrast, impressed as the most charismatic, colourful and confidence-inspiring agent of change.

These four – Macron, Le Pen, Fillon and Mélenchon – have moved well clear of the other three leftist candidates, Benoît Hamon of the Socialist Party, Nathalie Arthaud of Workers’ Struggle and Philippe Poutou of the Anticapitalist Party. None from the centre or right have gained traction: Nicolas Dupont-Aignan of France Arise, Francois Asselineau of the Republican Union, Jacque Cheminade of Solidarity and Progress or Independent Jean Lassalle.

Latest polls have Macron with 22-24%, just ahead of Le Pen’s 22-23%. Both are down from earlier highs of 26% and 27%, respectively. Mélenchon is polling a remarkable 18-20%, up from 10-12% throughout March. Fillon is just shading Mélenchon on 19-21%, up from lows of 17% when the scandals appeared – wrongly, it now seems – to have ended his tilt. But Fillon remains well below the 32-34% he was getting late last year.

There are several intriguing things to note. The first past the post voting system requires a run-off between the two leading candidates if neither gains 50% in the first round. This means whoever comes second is definitely in with a shot at the top job. Coming third or fourth means mothballs. So any shift in support among the top four will be critical.

Ultimately, the outcome will depend on how voters rank the issues at stake by importance. There are several. Guiding the Western hemisphere is one.
The French appear increasingly aware that the world has changed in the last year and more change is coming.

Leaders of the free world a year ago were the USA’s Barack Obama, the UK’s David Cameron, Germany’s Angela Merkel and France’s François Hollande. Canada’s Justin Trudeau was emerging. Now, the UK and the USA have leaders who are, respectively, uninterested in and unfit for global leadership. Merkel faces a re-election battle in September. Hollande has retired.

So if the French want a statesman in the mould of Charles de Gaulle or Giscard d'Estaing they will likely opt for Fillon first – scandals notwithstanding – then Macron, Mélenchon and Le Pen. This could be a factor underpinning Fillon’s recovery.

If they want to follow the insularity of Britain and the USA, the order would be Le Pen, Fillon, Mélenchon and Macron. Indications are that, as in the Netherlands last month, they won’t.

If they see conventional economic management – jobs and growth – as the priority, they will go for Macron, Fillon, Le Pen and then Mélenchon.

If they regard the worst of the global financial crisis as over and see the current buoyant economic period as a chance for exciting social reform they will prefer Mélenchon, Macron, Le Pen and Fillon. Okay. Unlikely. Sure.

If they want a photogenic, hip young dude like Canada’s Trudeau, they will opt for Macron, 39, then Le Pen, 48, Mélenchon, 65, and Fillon, 63. He just looks older.

If they prefer the stability that comes from having a seasoned political campaigner at the helm they will choose anyone except Macron.

So each of those four can win; and each can come fourth. Nous verrons bientôt. We will soon see. But we will have to wait for the second round run-off on 7 May.

You can follow Alan Austin on Twitter @AlanTheAmazing.

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