French political system fights for survival as presidential campaign begins

Angelique Chrisafis in Paris
Graffiti saying the name of the French president, François Hollande, scrawled over campaign posters for candidate Emmanuel Macron, in Villers-Cotterêts. Photograph: Pascal Rossignol/Reuters

France’s traditional political party system is fighting for survival as the presidential campaign kicks off this weekend, with the mainstream left and right at risk of being knocked out by two outsiders: the independent centrist Emmanuel Macron and the far-right Front National’s Marine Le Pen.

The two-round presidential vote in April and May – followed immediately by parliamentary elections – is the next focus of the European political calendar after the centre-right party of Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, beat the populist, anti-Islam, anti-EU Geert Wilders into second place in Netherlands parliamentary elections this week.

Negotiations to form a Dutch coalition government in are under way and expected to take several weeks, with an array of parties in the line-up refusing to work with Wilders.

The highly unpredictable French presidential contest begins in earnest on Saturday when the full list of candidates is unveiled, possibly running to a dozen people, including smaller Gaullist and leftist candidates.

A three-hour TV debate between the top five candidates takes place on Monday night. Many hope it will shift the focus from the political corruption scandals that have dominated airtime and onto key policy questions such as how to deal with the mass-unemployment that has plagued the country for decades and how to secure the future of France’s wide-ranging, but increasingly costly, social protection system, including pensions, healthcare and unemployment benefits.

Polls currently suggest the final round run-off on 7 May could deal a hammer-blow to traditional parties by pitting the centrist Macron, who has never run for election, against the far-right, anti-immigration, anti-EU Le Pen, whose FN has made steady gains in every election since she took over the leadership from her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, in 2011.

Fifteen years ago, when the Jean-Marie Le Pen made it to the final round of the 2002 election, it was a political earthquake. He was squarely beaten by the rightwing Jacques Chirac who won with 82%.

Who is Macron? - explainer

This time, his daughter is seen leading the first round and the final run-off is likely to be much closer. Polls suggest Le Pen will be beaten by whoever faces her, and that she cannot win the more than 50% majority needed to become president. But observers are cautious. Despite party-funding corruption scandals facing the FN, Le Pen’s electoral base remains solid.

The election could be marked by a blurring of the traditional right-left divide in favour of new divisions between a liberal, pro-globalisation stance and “close-the-borders” nationalism.

Jérôme Sainte-Marie, a political scientist and pollster, said the new rift would be between those who felt they were benefiting from globalisation and “those who feel they are losing out”. Le Pen has styled her election campaign as between “patriots” and the “globalists” who she says are embodied by Macron, a former investment banker who served as economy minister under François Hollande.

François Fillon, the former prime minister and candidate for the mainstream rightwing party Les Républicains, has, in less then two months, gone from being the clear favourite to desperately fighting to stay in the race. The self-styled honourable Mr Clean who wanted to slash public spending is now under formal investigation for the embezzlement of state funds after he allegedly gave his wife and children generous, taxpayer-funded “fake jobs” as parliamentary assistants over the course of his long political career.

On Thursday night, the already wide-ranging inquiry into a number of offences allegedly committed by Fillon was broadened to investigate gifts of expensive bespoke suits. Fillon has denied wrongdoing and instead has railed against the justice system and the media. After several centre-right figures quit his campaign complaining of its increasingly populist tone, Fillon has continued to radicalise his line. In Caen in Normandy on Thursday night, he borrowed from Le Pen’s rhetoric warning against “anti-French racism”, a term favoured by the far right.

On the left, the Socialist party is in disarray. Its candidate, the leftwing, former backbench rebel Benoît Hamon is struggling to be heard. He is currently polling in fourth place at about 13%. His supporters believe that if he teamed up with the fifth place candidate – the hard-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who has the backing of the Communist party – the left could have a chance of making it to the final round. But this week Mélenchon categorically ruled out standing down and joining forces. “That would be absurd, that would encourage thousands of people to abstain from the vote,” he said.

The parliamentary elections in June will be crucial because the majority in the lower house will determine how a new president could govern. If elected president, Macron – who is fielding MP candidates from his fledgling movement, En Marche! (On the Move) – would have to seek a new kind of parliamentary majority across the centre left-right divide. If Le Pen did win the presidency, she would very probably not win a parliament majority, thwarting her ability to govern. But her party hopes to increase its MPs in the 577-seat house. Currently Le Pen has only two MPs.

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