France’s Crazy Presidential Election (or, The French Disconnection)

Paris looked beautiful from the top of Notre Dame Cathedral on November 7, 2008 (author photo)

While the UK is undergoing a protracted exit from the European Union and the US is attempting to come to terms with the ascension of Donald Trump to the presidency, there is another country about to take part in an election of its own: America’s “oldest ally”, the French.

Ah, oui oui! The French hold elections too, and they are just as crazy as the ones in this part of the world, if not more so…but then again, we are talking about the French. Now, you may be thinking, “Why should I care about the French election?” (A question the French will never ask with regard to the United States.) I take your question, and I shall answer it.

French elections are always of interest to Americans because of the strong alliance between the two countries. Forget the “freedom fries” fiasco of 2003: on most major issues, the two countries are in lockstep with one another, even if they have some different policies on their respective domestic fronts. Thus, the identity of the person who leads France ought to be of interest to us.

However, the French election is particularly of interest this year because of the current global trend toward populism and nationalism. At the moment, the European Union is hanging not quite by a thread, but something close to that. I say this not because it is in such dire financial or military straits that it is bound to collapse tomorrow, but because many Europeans have lost faith in the whole concept of European integration, if indeed they ever believed in it to begin with: the number one case in point here is Brexit. With the British out of the picture, that leaves the French and the Germans to fight things out within the EU, and there is reason to believe that the French are now wavering.

Benoît Hamon is the Socialist candidate for president. Photo by Philippe Grangeaud/Solfe Communications

The current president of France, François Hollande of the Socialist Party, announced that he would not run for a second term in office after what has been a rather tumultuous five years in office. His policies did not seem to benefit the French economy, and a spate of terrorist attacks has done nothing to help. Given the current political trends sweeping the globe, it will perhaps not surprise you that in an effort to rebound from Hollande’s disastrous presidency, the Socialists went for the most far-left candidate they could find, Benoît Hamon. His policy proposals include paying every French adult a monthly allowance of €750, because apparently everyone likes getting money. He also wants to reduce the already-short-by-American-standards French work week from 35 hours to 32. His plan for making all of this work financially is a bit vague (Of course!), but I understand he does plan to impose a tax on robots. Well, only about 15% of French voters seem to be supporting Hamon at the moment, but that is admittedly better than Hollande’s approval rating, which hovers somewhere around 5%.

François Fillon at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland in 2008. Photo by World Economic Forum

The Republicans (the conservative party as in the U.S.) have nominated François Fillon, who served as prime minister under President Nicholas Sarkozy between 2007-2012. Unfortunately, Fillon has gotten himself involved in a scandal. As this is France, it is not a sex scandal, because the French are not especially scandalized by sexual misdeeds. (It turns out Americans don’t care much about them either given our current president…) No, what got Fillon into deep water is the other thing politicians have trouble with: money. He is now the subject of a police investigation into whether or not his wife and children received illegal government payments. Apparently, Madame Fillon was paid for a job that she did not do, something that is generally frowned upon regardless of the country in question. Apparently, 61% of the French now think the Republican candidate should withdraw from the race. Sacre bleu!

Marine Le Pen has risen in popularity since this picture was taken in 2012. Photo by Rémi Noyon

These candidates are child’s play compared to the one that really has people concerned: Marine Le Pen of the National Front. Until recently, the National Front was regarded as a radical racist oddity – the kind of party for which polite people would never vote. It has rather a distaste for foreigners and even French citizens of non-French ethnic origins, lambasts globalization, and wants to hold a referendum on leaving the European Union. It has become an acceptable political force to many given the concerns over terrorism. If you’re thinking this sounds a lot like Donald Trump, well…yes, Marine Le Pen is a lot like Donald Trump. She is admittedly a bit better looking, and she speaks with a French accent.

Naturally, Le Pen is leading in the opinion polls. However, that does not necessarily mean she is actually in a position to win. France has a two-stage presidential election. If no candidate receives an outright majority of votes in the first round (highly likely, as there are so many people running), then the top two vote getters will proceed to the final round. Everything I have read suggests that Marine Le Pen will be one of the two candidates in the run-off. Her opponent will be either Fillon (possibly), Hamon (less likely), or an up and coming independent.

Emmanuel Marcon at the World Economic Forum in 2016. Photo by World Economic Forum

That independent candidate is Emmanuelle Macron. In an election that seems split between the extremes of Le Pen and Hamon, with poor Fillon floundering under scandal, Macron is attempting to provide a middle-of-the-road alternative for French voters. Macron is actually supported by the party En Marche! (Let’s Go!), but he has spent most of the past decade as a political independent. In fact, he has never held elected office. He did serve as an advisor to President Hollande for a time, and his economic reforms were apparently deeply unpopular. Nevertheless, in a year of terrible candidates, many in France appear ready to throw in their lot with the outsider who seems halfway decent. He is currently sitting second in the opinion polls behind Marine Le Pen.

There are a host of other candidates, none of whom are likely to factor into the final round of voting. Thus, the question becomes, which of these candidates is better for the United States?

Well, the answer to that question depends very much on what you want for the United States and for the world as a whole. Le Pen will do her level best to keep out immigrants, restore “traditional” French values, impose protectionist economic policies, pull France out of the EU, and generally pump up nationalism. I would submit that this would be a very bad thing. If France pulls out of the EU, then it is finished. There is no way it can justify itself as a completely German organization. (Many Europeans still don’t trust the Germans!) With Russia looking to expand, a fractured and flailing Europe is the last thing we need. Even if President Trump has no respect for the European Union, I would argue that it is strongly in the U.S. interest for it to survive as an organization and a firm ally. Le Pen, I am sorry to say, would be a disaster for France.

Hamon, on the other hand, would be a disaster of another kind. Rather than improving the country’s economic situation, his policies would increase national debt while doing little to make the French economy more productive and competitive. Socialist policies enacted over the past several decades are part of the reason why France lags behind the UK and Germany in terms of finances. If it truly wants to improve, it needs to break away from that, not dig itself into an even deeper hole. Thus, Hamon would be almost as bad as Le Pen.

Fillon would probably be competent enough as a governor. He would not upset global alliances and might even help to improve the economy. After all, the country was in better shape when he was prime minister. However, his personal corruption has tainted him as a politician and cost him the respect of the French people. I think he would be better than Le Pen or Hamon, but I do not see him ever being a truly great president.

With Macron, it is hard to make an assessment. He is simply too much of an unknown, having never served in high office before this point. He seems to be on the left, but not insanely far to the left. He favors liberal social policies, but his economic ideas appear more beneficial than Hamon’s. He seems to believe in the concept of the European Union and doesn’t hate foreigners. These are all points in his favor. However, it is truly rare for someone with no prior experience in an elected position to become a very successful executive. As much as voters are attracted to outsiders who do not have a long history of scandals on their record, these people often have difficulty navigating the complex government machinery of a modern state and building the necessary personal alliances to get their policies through the legislature. Thus, Macron may merely be the best of a lot of bad options.

Marine Le Pen at a National Front rally in 2012. Photo by Blandine Le Cain

If the current polls are accurate, and that is a big “if” due to the swing to the right that has occurred in the West over the past few years (making previous statistical models somewhat unreliable), then Le Pen and Macron will advance to the runoff, and Macron will beat Le Pen. I would submit that this would be the best result we as Americans could hope for, although I am sure the American president would love to work with Le Pen. Yet, the more important long-term question is who can maintain the strength of the French economy and the alliance between Europe and the United States. Even if Macron and Trump are not bound to get along, it is better for the U.S.-France alliance in the long run for France to have a better president, without a doubt.

The really worrying trend here is one of bad candidates. The United States just held a presidential election between two of the worst candidates in its history – truly, a terrible fate for voters to experience. Apart from a small band of loyalists on either side, most Americans were forced to hold their nose when they voted, or simply not vote at all for the major parties. In previous elections, people may not have been crazy about, say, Barack Obama or John McCain, but I think most Americans could find one of those two candidates that they didn’t think was absolutely disgusting. We have now entered an era in global politics in which halfway decent candidates are a thing of the past. It is happening now in France.

Why is this occurring? In general, two things have to happen for more radical candidates to get nominated by major parties: 1) A small band of very passionate people have to get fired up by segments of the media, including social media. 2) The larger group of more moderate types have to get so fed up with the process and so taken in by apathy that they fail to cast a balancing vote.

Consider that only a decided minority of Americans voted in the 2016 presidential primary elections. If everyone who hated Trump had shown up and voted for one of his opponents in the primaries, he would have never made it onto the Republican ticket. In Hillary’s case…for all I know, she actually cheated her way onto the ticket. We may never know the truth.

Radical people grab the most media attention. They create nice soundbites and tweets. Measured analysis does not make for good television and doesn’t look good in a Facebook feed. Add to this the fact that we are suffering from a true deficit of brave leadership on both sides of the Atlantic: principled, pragmatic people who will stand for office and loudly proclaim the values that have maintained a societal consensus since the end of World War II.

British historians originally coined the term “post-war consensus” to speak of policies enacted in that country between the end of the war and the ascent of Margaret Thatcher in the late 1970s. However, I think we can expand it more broadly. After the end of WWII, people were so desperate to prevent such a thing from happening again and so honestly horrified by its horrors (genocide, nuclear destruction, etc.) that they committed themselves to the expansion of human rights, equality, and diplomacy. They created institutions such as the United Nations, NATO, and the predecessor to the European Union. These organizations are not perfect, but they have helped to maintain peace and promote prosperity. A lot of politicians love to criticize these institutions, and public faith in them has decreased. Have we forgotten the purpose of these organizations: to help prevent the sort of radicalism that leads to war?

The French need candidates who will defend these values. The West needs candidates who will defend these values. The European Union has a lot of flaws and urgently requires a lot of reforms. It would probably work better if it asked countries to surrender less of their sovereignty. That is why they lost the British. Yet, the EU has helped to turn the former Soviet bloc in Eastern Europe into a more Western-oriented, capitalistic, and generally happier place. This has been the longest period in modern history in which the major European countries have not gone to war with one another. Surely these are good things!

So down, I say, with Marine Le Pen and the false message she sends to the French people. France is in no position to cut itself off from the rest of Europe without seriously hurting its own economy and that of the rest of the continent. Down with the Socialists who have no answer but to keep spending more, and more, and more money in their hopeless quest for Utopia. Down with politicians who lack integrity in their personal lives. Down with those who attempt to get by on charisma without a true knowledge of how government works. Yes, heaven help France, a truly great country that has a truly bright future…if only the French would embrace it.