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France’s search for a ‘providential’ leader

La Villette, a corrugated iron convention hall on the northern rim of Paris, was meant to be François Fillon’s launch pad towards the French presidency after winning the centre-right nomination in a landslide.

But on Sunday he stood in the packed venue, days after claims emerged that the Republican candidate had allegedly employed his wife in a fake parliamentary job for years and, suddenly, victory seemed to be slipping away.

Madeleine Boullez, a 73-year-old retired secretary from the southern 15th arrondissement, was defiant, however. “I’m here for my Fillon,” she said, holding a tricolore and playing with her jewel-encrusted Catholic cross pendant. “He is so respectable and honest — that’s precisely why his enemies are trying to target him.”

The allegations — that Mr Fillon’s wife received more than €800,000 of taxpayers money for an aide role she did not actually hold — shook a pillar of the conservative candidate’s presidential bid: embodying ethics in French politics. Despite denying wrongdoing, state prosecutors opened a preliminary inquiry into possible misuse of public funds, and his approval ratings fell.

By Sunday evening, polls showed Mr Fillon sliding towards elimination in the first round of the presidential contest on April 23. The next day, the Fillons were interrogated by the fraud office, and a series of new claims have followed. Meanwhile, party insiders are weighing possible replacements if Mr Fillon is forced to withdraw from the race — a move that would be unprecedented in six decades of French politics.

Mr Fillon’s sudden reversal of fortune is one of many upsets in this presidential campaign, which has taken on added significance following the UK’s vote to leave the EU and the election of Donald Trump in the US. Together with the German general election in September, the French poll is being seen as a test of whether anti-establishment anger will topple the EU’s postwar foundations.

The candidates vying with Fillon to make the runoff

© FT montage / Getty

Emmanuel Macron A former Socialist economy minister and now leader of the En Marche! movement, Macron stands to gain the most from François Fillon’s woes. He threatens to belie the rule book that states a Republican succeeds an out-of-favour Socialist incumbent

Marine Le Pen Tipped to make the runoff but not win the election, the National Front leader has sought to detoxify her party of its association with its anti-Semitic, xenophobic roots. Has wide support for her attacks on the EU and mix of nationalism, protectionism and statism

Benoît Hamon The Socialist presidential nominee supports a basic income and a reduction in the 35-hour working week. Projected to win only about 15 per cent of the vote, Mr Hamon may suffer from disillusionment with the Socialist party and is not expected to make the runoff

“It has never been that unstable and that uncertain,” says Luc Rouban, a Sciences Po Cevipof professor of politics. “We are witnessing a complete overhaul and a polarisation of the traditional French political offering. Meanwhile, voters’ behaviours have become so complex that pollsters and analysts have a harder time predicting them.”

The biggest benefactor of Mr Fillon’s woes has been a newcomer in politics: Emmanuel Macron, a 39-year-old former Rothschild banker who is running as an independent with En Marche!, his 10-month old party. Unknown to the public until August 2014, when he was appointed economy minister by Socialist president François Hollande, he has surged to second place in one poll, threatening to belie the Fifth Republic’s rule book according to which a centre-right Republican president ought to succeed an out-of-favour centre-left Elysée Palace resident.

This is because the rise of the far-right National Front party, led by Marine Le Pen, has changed France’s four-decade long power-sharing game.

After consistently attracting more than 25 per cent of the votes in local elections, Ms Le Pen is almost certain to reach the runoff in April, leaving only one place for the mainstream parties. Whoever faces her has a solid chance to become the next president because he would be expected to attract mainstream voters in the second round.

The fragmented political space has lowered the threshold to qualify for the final round, boosting the chances of politicians like Mr Macron, who has no prior experience of elections and a party base in its infancy. But for established parties, the task does not look any easier as they battle voter discontent amid France’s sluggish economic growth, stubbornly high unemployment and Islamist terror attacks.

“The Macron sensation is a symptom of the political system’s advanced state of decay,” says Dominique Reynié, head of Fondapol, a centre-right think-tank. “In normal times, someone who has never been elected and does not have a party base would not be a serious contender for the presidency. We’re in a moment where opportunists can win because the old world is crumbling.”

‘We need fresh blood in politics’

On a snowy evening last month, in France’s former mining country in the industrial north, Mr Macron made an incursion on National Front territory to show he was fit to take on the far-right party with his fresh approach and youth.

Steeve Briois, the 44-year-old mayor of Hénin-Beaumont and a rising star in the National Front, had made it clear that the presidential hopeful was not welcome in his town. He accused Mr Macron of being a “cynic” who, after earning millions as a banker, was campaigning in the region as some would go “on a safari, to take nice pictures”.


Proportion of working population who say they back Marine Le Pen’s plan to exit the EU and tackle immigration

But Mr Macron found a way to crash a small ceremony at a food wholesaler. In the warehouse, amid delicatessen and puzzled workers, Mr Macron suddenly found himself on friendly ground.

Among the unlikely fans stood Brigitte Dessailly, a 62-year-old widow who sells meat in the market. The daughter of a coal miner, she could easily fit the stereotype of those who have embraced the National Front’s anti-immigration and protectionist ideology as mines and textile plants shut down around them. She lives off her late husband’s €400 monthly pension and as many trade fair gigs — one or two-day temporary contracts — as she can get. In November, that totalled €850.

Yet, when Mr Macron stopped by her burger stand, she said she would vote for him — and was rewarded with a kiss on both cheeks. “We need fresh blood in politics,” she said.

François Fillon and his wife Penelope © EPA

Mr Macron’s unlikely rise and Mr Fillon’s rapid downfall are not the only anomalies in this year’s presidential campaign. In the past three months, disgruntled primary voters have sidelined or sent into early retirement the men who had long been regarded as the most likely contenders for the Elysée job. Nicolas Sarkozy, the former president, was eliminated in the first round of the Republicans’ primary in November. Alain Juppé, one of France’s favourite politicians, was defeated in the primary runoff by Mr Fillon, the stern-looking former prime minister under Mr Sarkozy, who had been given little chance of winning the nomination with a free-market platform inspired by Margaret Thatcher.

There is still a deeply rooted defiance towards the FN, on the right and on the left. there is no majority for her revolutionary programme

Unpopular and isolated in his own camp, Mr Hollande ruled out a re-election bid, an unprecedented decision for a Fifth Republic leader. His social-democratic prime minister Manuel Valls, who had pressed him to give up, lost the Socialist nomination on Sunday.

Faced with electoral annihilation, Socialists instead crowned Benoît Hamon, a little-known leftwinger who led a no-confidence motion against his own government last year and whose proposals include a tax on robots, a reduction in the 35-hour working week and a universal basic income that would cost about €400bn.

Projected to win only about 15 per cent of the vote, Mr Hamon is not expected to qualify for the run-off. His nomination opens a wider space for Mr Macron, who is set to attract the more moderate centre-left voters with his centrist platform. But Mr Hamon will probably seek to strike an alliance with far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who is polling at about 10 per cent.

‘A permanent state of crisis’

France’s political upheaval marks the death of a four-decade cycle that started shortly after François Mitterrand became the first Socialist to win the presidency in 1981, according to Jean Garrigues, professor of contemporary history at Orléans university.

In 1983, after two years of increased public spending, a widening deficit and currency turbulence, Mitterrand initiated his “turn to austerity”, in effect admitting the failure of the policies that helped him get elected, and marking the party’s conversion to a dose of market-oriented policies and fiscal discipline.

“Since then, voters have the feeling that mainstream parties from left and right have presided over a permanent state of economic crisis and mass unemployment,” says Mr Garrigues. “This phase is coming to an end, with voters rejecting anyone associated with what is perceived as a failure.”

Macron is a symptom of the political system’s advanced state of decay. Opportunists can win because the old world is crumbling

The last two presidencies have deepened the malaise, Prof Garrigues argues. Mr Sarkozy, who won on a promise of “rupture” in 2007, had captured this growing desire for modernity and reform, but he disappointed. Mr Hollande’s supply-side U-turn halfway through his mandate — reminiscent of Mitterrand’s austerity shift — felt like another betrayal for many Socialist voters, while also failing to produce tangible economic results.

This has created fertile ground for a “providential man”, Prof Garrigues says. Such men have been a familiar feature of France’s history — with figures such as Napoleon Bonaparte, his nephew Napoleon III and Charles de Gaulle. Mr Macron, who has yet to outline a detailed programme but draws large crowds wherever he holds a public meeting, may seek to fill that role, Prof Garrigues says. If this analysis is correct, Mr Fillon’s longevity is a weakness. The centre-right candidate’s career has spanned more than 30 years.

During the rally at La Villette, Mr Fillon sought to portray Mr Macron as the heir-apparent of Mr Hollande and a representative of the establishment. “He says he has a programme, I am waiting to see it,” Mr Fillon said. “In reality, Macron, it’s the Hollande legacy.”

Meanwhile, Ms Le Pen has also been embroiled in the fake jobs affair — she has missed a deadline to reimburse more than €300,000 to the European Parliament for allegedly using the money to pay FN members — including her bodyguard. But she seems unscathed by the claims. Since succeeding her father Jean-Marie Le Pen, the 48-year-old, far-right politician has sought to detoxify her party of its association with its anti-Semitic, xenophobic beginnings in the 1970s. She broadened her reach with a programme blending nationalism, protectionism and statism.

The strategy has paid off. Half of the blue-collar workers, lower-earning employees and low-skilled youths — about 40 per cent of the working population in total — say they back her plan to exit the EU and clamp down on immigration, according to Cevipof surveys.

Political analysts say she would still have little chance of winning a majority of the votes in the second round run-off with surveys suggesting the NF leader would secure 40 per cent of the ballot. “There is still a deeply-rooted defiance towards the FN, on the right and on the left,” says Jérôme Fourquet, a pollster at Ifop. “For now in France, there is no majority for her revolutionary programme.”

But Mr Reynié of Fondapol is not so sure. “If Ms Le Pen were to face Mr Macron, who has not been tested in any elections, it’s the unknown,” he notes. “Macron’s polls are not reliable because he has no history in French politics.”

And even if the far-right leader does not win this time round, France is set for a new era of coalition government, Mr Rouban says.

“And mechanically this will reinforce the extremes,” Mr Rouban adds. “The Fifth Republic is crumbling before our eyes.”

Via FT