French standoff

french_electionsUntil the 1970s, Western countries had no clear ideology of conservatism. Conservative politicians saw their role to slow down, but not actually stop, the changes advocated by the left. They wanted to adopt these “inevitable” changes at a slower pace than that advocated by liberals and socialists. Reagan and Thatcher changed that. Soon, worldwide, conservatives were united by an ideology which – until the rise of Donald Trump – was centered on free-market economics. Clinton, Blair, and Germany’s Gerhard Schroeder, reconciled the left to this new reality. Only fringe politicians such as Dennis Kucinich on the left and Pat Buchanan on the right were outside the consensus.

But absent from this western consensus was France. From 1981 to 1995 it was led by Francois Mitterrand, a far-left socialist who set a maximum working week of 35 hours and hugely increased taxes and welfare payments. French politicians – left and right – derided any notion of individual choice or freedom of contract as “Anglo-Saxon” economics. 

This year’s presidential election in France could yet be the most “Anglo-Saxon” election that France has ever had. Socialist President, Francois Hollande, is not even bothering to run for re-election, and it is assumed his party’s candidate will come fourth or fifth, not qualifying for the run-off. The grand technocrats of the right were trounced in the primary election by Francois Fillon, who openly admires Margaret Thatcher and globalization, and whose British wife speaks French as her third language after English and her native Welsh. He was expected to top the poll and then face the populist, Marine Le Pen, in the run-off. The left would reluctantly rally to him, as it did to Jacques Chirac when he trounced Le Pen’s father by three to one in 2002.

But the Socialist Party chose a hard-left candidate, compared to Bernie Sanders or Britain’s Jeremy Corbyn, except that he is decades younger than either of them. He will pick up votes from the Left Party, the Greens may even pull out and endorse him. He will not qualify for the run-off, but while picking up votes from the left he will lose some to the independent centrist candidate, Emmanuel Macron.

Macron strongly admires Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. There’s still an outside chance that an admirer of Blair could face an admirer of Thatcher in a country which is suspicious of both free markets and the British.

But that now looks unlikely. Fillon’s campaign has hit some problems too: further boosting Macron’s chances of making the run-off, against Le Pen. Fillon has been accused of employing his wife on a parliamentary salary for a job which, critics claim, involved no actual work. Not so, Fillon responds. She was his speechwriter and a key policy advisor.

Either Fillon or Macron could still qualify for the run-off, but it will probably be against Le Pen. She is now leading in some polls, and in both Britain and America polls have tended to underestimate populist causes and candidates. She is not as rough around the edges as her father. She probably won’t win, but don’t expect the three-to-one trouncing he received from Chirac.

 ql

Quentin Langley lives in New York and London and teaches at the University of Bedfordshire Business School. He is the author of Brandjack: How your reputation is at risk from brand pirates and what to do about it

 

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