Five Ways to Understand the French Presidential Race

Bill Wirtz

This article first appeared on the Foundation for Economic Education site.

1. The Republicans might nominate a candidate running on slashing government spending

Last Sunday, the French Republican Party held the first round of its open primary, in which seven candidates competed for the nomination.

The polls predicted that the mayor of Bordeaux, Alain Juppé, an establishment center-right candidate with a great appreciation for the European Union, would be the clear winner, with former President Nicolas Sarkozy right on his tail.

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Former President Nicolas Sarkozy's former prime minister, Francois Fillon, at his campaign headquarters in Paris on November 20. Bill Wirtz writes that in a stunning upset, Fillon won 44.1 percent of the vote in the French Republican Party's open primary on November 20. Thomas Samson/reuters

In a stunning upset, Sarkozy's former prime minister, François Fillon, won 44.1 percent of the vote, while Juppé finished second with 28.6 percent.

The upset is not only that an alleged outsider turned out to qualify for the knockout vote this Sunday, thereby disproving pollsters and political commentators, but also that this candidate's proposals advocate a much smaller government.

Fillon wants to get rid of 500,000 public sector jobs in five years, lower the burdens of taxation and social security contributions by 50 billion euros and reduce spending by 100 billion euros. Fillon also intends to considerably increase school autonomy and wants to scrap Socialist President François Hollande's tax on large incomes.

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But let's not get too excited. Fillon's spending cuts distract from the fact that he supports a 2 percent increase in sales tax, encourages the war on drugs, suggests an annual cap on immigration through parliament, wants to ban the burkini and wants to reintroduce mandatory sentencing in criminal law cases. Fillon was Sarkozy's prime minister from 2007 to 2012, a period characterized by tax increases and the massive 2008 bank bailout.

2. Hollande could be overthrown by his own party

In the latest poll, only 4 percent of people regarded Hollande's work as satisfying." With ratings lower than the alcohol percentage of a bottle of Bordeaux red wine, he has brought himself and his party in serious trouble.

Current polls show that he would be eliminated by the first round in the general election, dividing his fellow party members.

Related: Who is François Fillon and why has he got Europe's attention?

It is usual in France that the president goes unchallenged in his leadership for the next election, yet Hollande's unpopularity led the Socialist Party last June to organize a primary.

Hollande's chief rivals in this race are his own prime minister Manuel Valls, and his former minister of the economy, Arnaud Montebourg, known for his Keynesian approach to government spending. According to polls, both of them would defeat the president in the primary vote in January.

3. Yes, Marine Le Pen has a clear chance of winning

She's probably by far the biggest elephant in the room. Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front, has made such a jump in popularity that her party did not even bother to organize a primary. Opinion polls show she could easily make it to the knockout round, bringing her as close to the presidency as her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, in 2002.

There effectively is no room for improvement for Le Pen; no change of message would make her climb the ladder of favorability. Her political agenda is on the table: halting immigration, leaving the euro and the European Union, and introducing old-school protectionism.

The only factor that can advance Le Pen and the National Front are the variables of her political opponents. The knockout of Sarkozy in the Republican primary means an influx of the more radical supporters of the former president. As Le Figaro said on Monday: "The National Front hopes to pick up Sarkozy's orphans."

The underperformance of the Socialist Party will be Le Pen's most important asset. Her economic agenda is highly interventionist and at odds with both the more laissez-faire approach of Fillon and the convictions of the Europhile Juppé.

Infighting among the various political groups favors the rise of the extreme nationalists.

4. An independent free marketeer is polling in double digits

Emmanuel Macron, former minister of the economy, quit the Socialist government and is now running as an independent candidate.

He is widely known for the Macron Law (officially: the law for growth, effectiveness and equality of economic opportunities). This law contained a myriad of changes to legislation regarding economic law, labor law and transport law. Macron opened up the intercity bus market, a measure that created competition on the market; lowered transportation costs; and created 13,000 private sector jobs.

Furthermore, there was the reform of labor regulations regarding work on Sundays. Macron not only extended the exceptions made to allow businesses to open on Sundays but also increased the total number of permits granted by local authorities.

Another measure intended to introducing flexibility into the profession of notaries. Most important, it creates 247 so-called "free establishment zones throughout France, in which notaries don't have to be sworn in by the government and can freely exercise their profession. This basically liberalizes the notary market and brings down costs for consumers.

Macron is polling in the double digits, drawing his support from all sides of the political spectrum.

5. The tipping point for the country is here

National security is extremely important to the French right now, as several Islamic militants have committed horrible attacks resulting in hundreds of deaths.

Gross domestic product per capita has not increased between 2007 and 2015. Although multiple administrations have promised to combat unemployment, the jobless rate has yet to drop under 10 percent, and an alarming number of unemployed people haven't worked since the 2008 economic crisis.

Reimbursement of interest on public debt is two-thirds of the national education budget, and terrifyingly close to 100 percent of GDP. Deficit spending is out of control, and entitlement reform seems unlikely due to the immense political influence of the unions.

France is at a crucial juncture, and there is no doubt that the consequences of this election will last for decades.

Bill Wirtz studies French law at the University of Lorraine in Nancy, France.

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