Written by Paul Smith.
Never one to miss a bandwagon when it passes, Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s far-right Front National, was one of the first European politicians to congratulate Donald Trump on his election victory.
For the demagogic populist Le Pen, Trump’s win, like the Brexit vote, is the victory of the “people” against the “elites”.
Setting aside the ludicrous nature of anyone claiming the victory of a billionaire who inherited his riches as a blow against the established order, Le Pen’s intervention is important. France is facing its own presidential election in April and May of 2017 and Le Pen aims to win it.
On the face of it, her chances would appear slim. Unlike in the US, the French electoral system is designed to only deliver a president who is endorsed by an absolute majority of the electorate. But Le Pen’s rival parties are in disorder, which could ease her path, unless the electorate can pull together.
There are two rounds of voting in the French presidential election – set two weeks apart. In 2017, the first round will be on Sunday April 23, the second on Sunday May 7.
An unlimited number of candidates can stand in the first round, provided they gather a certain amount of support from local parliamentarians. If one of them achieves an absolute majority in the first round (50% plus one vote), then they are pronounced president. The fragmented nature of French politics means, however, that this has never happened since the system was set up in 1965. Even then, when the early opinion polls a month before the vote had Charles de Gaulle being re-elected with 60% of the vote, he was forced into a second ballot.
Only the first two placed candidates go into the second ballot. This run-off is to ensure precisely that the winner has the endorsement of the majority of voters who turn out. The French could not find themselves being governed by someone who did not obtain a majority.
There is every possibility that Le Pen will be ahead after the first round in April 2017 so the question is how much chance she has in the second round.
In the past, voters have united to prevent the far-right from winning the run off, but France’s other main parties are failing to offer new faces for voters – and recently we’ve seen all too well what can happen when the establishment fails to address the discontent of the people. They are also consumed by their own problems.
The left appears to have collapsed, while right-wing voters are deeply divided about who their candidate should be. The Republican party and some of its centre-right allies are about to hold their first ever primary election to make this decision, with former president Nicolas Sarkozy and former prime minister, the septuagenarian Alain Juppé, the current front runners.
Le Pen’s discourse of “the same old faces and the same old promises” has found some traction against this backdrop. With seven more-or-less familiar figures fighting it out, the contest hardly has the look of new blood about it. It doesn’t help that Sarkozy has various investigations hanging over his head and that Juppé was stripped of the right to stand for election or hold office for two years in 2004.
United against the front?
Voters on the left could probably see themselves voting for Juppé if he ended up in the second round with Le Pen but the same is not necessarily true in a Sarkozy/Le Pen contest. They would find it much more difficult to rally to his cause to keep out the Front National than they did in 2002, when they rallied en masse to Jacques Chirac. For all his faults, Chirac never adopted the sort of hardline rhetoric Sarkozy later took up, nor did he share the latter’s neoliberal economic agenda. In the second round in 2012, Sarkozy drifted so far to the right that even some politicians in the centre today would have problems voting for him if he wins the primary.
Juppé’s challenge, on the other hand, will be to convince voters on the right that he is their candidate, and not one of some soft centre.
This, then, is one scenario Le Pen will be hoping for. But there is another. If, by some miracle, she finds herself in a run-off against the left, then we really will be in uncharted waters.
France’s left-wing voters have, on many occasions, shown themselves willing to vote for the right to prevent the Front National taking power – most recently in the second round of France’s regional elections in December 2015, when they blocked Le Pen and her niece Marion Maréchal-Le Pen from taking control of two regional assemblies. But there is no proof that voters on the right would do the same thing.
So can Le Pen win the French presidential election? Yes, she can.