Foreign Elections — French Edition

On Sunday, French voters will go to the polls in the first round of their presidential election.  There are several key differences between the U.S. and France.  First, the French have more than two main political parties.  Out of the eleven candidates running, at least five represent significant political groupings.  Second, the French president is elected by popular vote.  Third, if no candidate gets a majority of the popular vote (likely based on current polls), there will be a run-off.  Fourth, the center of French politics is significantly further to the left than U.S. politics.  While folks try to put things in U.S. terms, the best way to view it is that the top five is like Donald Trump, John Kasich,  Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and someone to the left of Bernie Sanders, and even the Donald Trump candidate is more liberal on fiscal issues than President Trump.

Of course, what is the same is the existence of the National Front — an organization that Donald Trump loves.  As it’s name implies, the National Front is a xenophobic party opposed to French membership in the European Union and the Islamic influence in France.  It is also pro-Putin.  The National Front typically polls somewhere in the teens.  While this has historically been enough for the National Front to contend for run-off slots (both in Presidential and Parliamentary elections), the National Front is so far out of the mainstream of French politics that it normally loses most of those run-off elections (it only holds two seats in the outgoing French Parliament.)  In this election, the National Front is (again) running Marine Le Pen — daughter of the founder of the National Front and its leader since dear old dad retired.

There are some signs that the far right nationalist views of the National Front are making gains in France.  There is a symbiotic relationship between ultranationalist candidates like Le Pen and Trump on the one side and Islamic fundamentalist terror groups like ISIS.  Each terror attack make the law and order and anti-Islam messages of the ultranationalist sound like the only option that voters have if they want security.  However, that very anti-Islam message feeds into discrimination against Muslims who are native-born citizens.  Young Muslims feeling rejected by their own country then turn to leaders who call for a return to an era when Islam was dominant and promote violence as a means to that end.  When these young people follow through on that call and engage in acts of terror, the cycle begins again.   Given a spate of terror incidents on the eve of the election, the National Front may pick up an extra couple of percent in the first round of the election.

Fortunately, the French run-off system is likely to protect us from the global disaster that a Le Pen presidency is unlikely to happen.  Her polling is around 5-10 percent higher than the norm for the National Front in the past.  In a five-way race that might be good enough for a top two finish, but right now the fifth place candidate is starting to slip back, and there may be four candidates (including Le Pen) who finish between 20 percent and 25 percent.  Any two of the four could make the run-off.

The best chance for Le Pen to win, surprisingly, comes if the moderate-conservative candidate makes the run-off against her.  And the reason is the same as one of the reasons why Trump is in the White House.  The current candidate of the conservatives — Francois Fillon — has been the subject of an ongoing investigation.  In his case, the allegations is he hired his wife to “work” in his legislative office.  Allegedly, his wife didn’t really do any work in the office and this was merely a means to get a second paycheck from his legislative position.  At times, polling about potential runoffs have shown a close race between Le Pen and Fillon.  As in the Clinton-Trump race, those numbers are just close enough that Le Pen could theoretically close the gap in the two weeks between the first round and the run-off.  (Against the other candidates, Le Pen trails by about 30 percent.)

The French elections (which besides the presidential run-off will also include two rounds of legislative elections) is the second European election this year that will see how strong the ultra-right nationalists are around the globe.  Earlier, the Dutch elections ended in a good showing but still not a win for their equivalent of Donald Trump.  Later this year, Germany will also hold elections and the German equivalent of Trump and Le Pen is hoping to win seats in the German Bundestag for the first time ever.  Fortunately, the Brexit vote last year seems to mark the highwater mark for this wave in the UK.  With the issue in the UK now being how to leave — rather than whether to leave — the European Union, the surprise election called by the current government, while potentially seeing more mainstream conservatives in Parliament, is unlikely to result in any substantial seat for the far right.

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