New twists in the French presidential election

When I last wrote about France’s upcoming election, it looked like the Socialist party would nominate hard-leftist Benoit Hamon and that he would lose out in the first round of the general election to Francois Fillon of France’s conservative party, considered something of a Thatcherite, and Marine Le Pen of the National Front. It seemed to me that Fillon would have a decided edge in a two-way race against Le Pen, but a Len Pen victory could not be ruled out.

That was then (January 23). What about now?

Hamon did win the Socialist primary handily, and he still seems destined to be out-of-the-money in the general elections. Beyond that, however, two developments may have flipped the script.

First, the Fillon campaign has been rocked by a scandal. He is accused of paying his British wife, Penelope Fillon, up to half a million euros to do a job that never really existed or that she never really performed.

French authorities are investigating the matter. His poll numbers have dropped. It is difficult to see the French rallying behind a candidate calling for the slashing of entrenched economic privileges if voters believe his wife was paid large sums of money for doing little or nothing.

The second development is the rise of Emmanuel Macron. Until recently, he was the Minister of the Economy, Industry and Digital Affairs under Socialist president Francois Hollande. However, he quit that job to form a new “centrist” party, called En Marche (On the Move).

Macron casts himself as a maverick, saying “I’ve seen the emptiness of our political system from the inside; I reject this system.” He insists that he is “neither of the Left or the Right” but “for France.”

I guess he wants to make France great again. It’s been a while.

“Centrist” candidates running independently of the two main parties are nothing new in French presidential politics. They don’t fare well.

But this year might be different. Macron is doing well in the polls. According to one recent survey, he is ahead of the embattled Fillon, with Le Pen leading them both. The numbers are: Le Pen 26-27; Macron 22-23; Fillon 19-20.

Polls give Macron a big lead over Le Pen in a run-off between the two — bigger than Fillon’s lead over the National Front woman. Against Fillon, Le Pen could perhaps draw significant support from leftists opposed to the conservative’s free market, privilege-slashing agenda. As a former Socialist running on a vague platform, Macron should be able to prevent Le Pen from making significant inroads among leftists. As a “centrist,” he should also be able to hold his own at worst among French conservatives, especially those who vote for Fillon in the first round.

The election isn’t until April 23, so we might well see more twists and turns. But in the event of a victory by either Macron “the outsider” or Len Pen the “flamethrower,” the French election will, in at least some senses, follow the pattern that began with the victory of Brexit and continued with the victory of Trump.

Stay tuned.

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