Marine Le Pen is a far-right politician that in the past has compared Muslims living in France to the Nazi occupation of the country, and despite this and a countless number of other statements disparaging ethnic and cultural minorities, she is one of the favourites to win the French presidential election in April. The centre-left is in disarray, and the far-left has begun to splinter. Previously I was less worried about this because the French system creates a run-off vote if no candidate wins more than 50% but this is no longer a source of comfort. The wave of populism sweeping across the world has yet to hit France but if nothing is done in the next few months I believe that we may soon see President Marine Le Pen.
A few months ago I was discussing the upcoming elections across the world with a friend of mine and essentially said that France and Germany were different to the UK and the US because of inbuilt parts of their electoral systems. I still believe this is the case for Germany but I no longer think this can be said for France.
The evidence I cited for this belief was the French Presidential election of 2002. In this election it was expected that the sitting centre-right President, Jacques Chirac, would manage to successfully fend off Socialist Party challenger Lionel Jospin in the second round of voting. However this was not to be the case. Instead the French people went to the polls and Jospin came third. Chirac went into the second round against the candidate of the Front National (FN), Jean-Marie Le Pen, a noted anti-Semite and the father of Marine Le Pen. Although Chirac handily won the election in the second round (82.2% vs. 17.8%) the events of that election have been etched in the collective political consciousness ever since.
So why has my opinion changed? We live in times that are more ideologically polarised which makes compromise more difficult. In some ways this is good because it means that bold solutions to structural problems can be suggested without being misled by the argument for moderation, but in some ways it creates a more confrontational framework for policy-making. My mind has been changed because of the candidate chosen by Les Republicains.
François Fillon was selected by the centre-right party to take the Élysée Palace back from the Socialists. Fillon is expected to get into the second round of voting and according to some opinion polls would face-off against Le Pen. My worry is not that people on the Left will vote for Le Pen, my worry is that they will not vote for Fillon. Fillon is ideologically similar to Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, and if somebody said to a bunch of communists and socialists to chose between Thatcher and a neo-fascist many would simply chosen to not take part. This outcome will elect Le Pen.
What do we do to prevent a Fillon vs. Le Pen run-off vote? We need a bold left-wing alternative to both these horrendous candidates. Much of Le Pen’s support comes from the disaffected working classes, much of which are in rural areas. The Left needs to come together behind a unity candidate that will target this very group. Rural development grants, state assistance with the reduction of costs particularly in the case of energy, and local government help for farmers to help them diversify. In addition the Left needs to work to increase unionisation among the working class and to stimulate provincial economies so that the economic angst that may push voters towards Le Pen is alleviated.
Emmanuel Macron has split from the Socialist Party and is seeking to run as a candidate of the Centre and I believe that he will pick up a decent number of votes from the Right of the Socialists and the Left of Les Republicains. The job of the Left must be to pull support from the Front National and make sure that the people of France are not faced with a straight fight between Fillon and Le Pen.
Turnout has to remain high and I do not think the Left will not come out and enthusiastically vote for Fillon to top Le Pen. The Left must avoid factionalism at this crucial time and unify to stop the far-right from emerging in France. A bold policy programme that puts ordinary people first will do this. Bringing economic prosperity to provincial towns will severely undermine the popularity of the FN and a party of the Centre led by Macron will, hopefully, pull Les Republicains back from full-on Thatcherism. French politics needs to realign away from the traditional two-party system and a failure to do so would be disastrous.