The Guardian view on France: Fillon v Le Pen is the wrong contest
The shift to the right in western democracies is undeniable. The left shares the blame, in France as elsewhere
Monday 28 November 2016 19.20 GMT
Across the western democracies, the centre of political gravity shifts erratically but inexorably to the right. Britain’s Brexit vote caused a tilt to the right in Theresa May’s cabinet and has been followed by the election of Donald Trump and a Republican Congress in America. This weekend, Austrians may elect a far-right president, while the centre-left Italian government could fall after this Sunday’s constitutional referendum. In France, meanwhile, the centre-right Republican party has now selected the more conservative contender François Fillon as its presidential candidate in the 2017 contest that could end as a head-to-head with the far-right Front National’s Marine Le Pen.
It is a mistake to treat these developments as simply interchangeable. Every country has its own local political dynamics. Mr Fillon, for example, is routinely depicted as an admirer of Margaret Thatcher – a charge that will be trumpeted by opponents between now and April. But his focus on France’s Catholic roots puts him in a long tradition of French conservatism which has no real equivalent in Britain. His politics are not the same as those of Mrs May, who is again sharply different from Mr Trump. The new Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, who took over from Nigel Farage today, is not Britain’s Ms Le Pen either.
Nevertheless, these developments across the western world have significant ingredients in common and reflect an overlapping mood among western voters. These include job insecurity in the face of globalisation, hostility to migration, anger against urban elites, fear of terrorism, and in some cases a more indulgent stance towards Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Mr Fillon, moreover, has rocketed into frontrunner status to be France’s next president without the media seeing him coming – another echo of the collective misreadings that marked both the referendum vote for Brexit and the Trump election win.
Mr Fillon’s rise sends a particularly resonant further signal. He spent the past three years touring France to listen to rightwing voters’ concerns. He then harnessed this experience to a hardline campaign for a strict minimum level of immigration, the restoration of Catholic conservative values, an overhaul of labour laws and a big cut in public sector jobs. The result was that Mr Fillon swept to an overwhelming two-to-one victory over his chief rival, the more moderate Alain Juppé, defeating him in 92 of France’s 95 departments. Both men are former prime ministers, but it was Mr Juppé, not Mr Fillon, who was seen by voters as campaigning from within an establishment bubble. The loser’s promises to “placate and reform” and promising a “happy identity” found few takers in a French nation that has failed to unify convincingly against either economic decline or radical terror.
The ability of the centre-right to respond to and shape the world as it is evolving in 2016 contrasts with the inability of the centre-left to make matching responses. This failure is also simultaneously particular to individual countries and shared across borders. France’s left politics provide a textbook example. With occasional exceptions, like Canada and Portugal, the centre-left has struggled to win recent elections on both sides of the Atlantic. France’s left suffers from being part of that more general international difficulty to articulate an alternative that catches the popular mood and from being a particularly acute local example of that failure.
France’s socialists have little time to solve their problems before planned primaries in January. But the signs are not good. François Hollande has been neither a radical reformer nor a leftwing traditionalist. He has been indecisive and is increasingly the despair of both wings of his movement. He is now the least popular president since the fifth republic was formed. Polling suggests he will fail to get through the first round of the two-stage presidential election if he runs for a second term.
Already, a spread of alternative candidates is emerging, from Jean-Luc Mélenchon to the left of the socialists to Emmanuel Macron in the centre. At the weekend, prime minister Manuel Valls hinted at a run too. Mr Hollande may decide, even so, that Mr Fillon’s success opens a space in which his own chances may improve. Yet any of them will struggle to unify a majority now. The danger is that the fragmentation and incoherence on the left are too deep. Yet without a credible candidate on the left, French voters will face a baleful choice between the mainstream right and the far right. That’s a problem for France above all, but it reflects a much wider failure too.
terça-feira, 29 de novembro de 2016
How François Fillon plans to knock out Marine Le Pen / The Guardian view on France: Fillon v Le Pen is the wrong contest
How François Fillon plans to knock out Marine Le Pen
His camp plans to expose National Front leader as a ‘false conservative’ and go after her blue-collar voters.
By NICHOLAS VINOCUR 11/29/16, 5:23 AM CET Updated 11/29/16, 8:25 AM CET
PARIS — With former Prime Minister François Fillon on his way to the French presidential election next year, his staff is turning to the next big obstacle in their path: far-right leader Marine Le Pen.
Polls show Le Pen, the head of the National Front, breaking through to the presidential election’s runoff round, setting the stage for a clash between the two.
Fillon staffers have yet to lay out a detailed plan for how to deal with Le Pen, but several campaign staffers told POLITICO they are already strategizing about the battle to come. The broad outlines of their plan: expose Le Pen as a “false conservative,” go after her blue-collar voters and remind the world of her lack of executive experience.
“In the next few months, we are going to continue to campaign on our values and tell the truth about the economy,” said Serge Grouard, a center-right MP and Fillon backer. “We’re confident that voters will make the choice of realism, instead of the escapism being served by the Front.”
To be sure, the path to the presidency for Fillon is long and winding. Over the next six months, the conservative flag-bearer will need to broaden his message to centrist voters while also fending off attacks from the Left, which holds its own primary in January.
Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a hard-left presidential candidate, and whoever the center-left designates as its candidate, as well as the National Front are all sure to accuse Fillon of trying to dismantle France’s cherished welfare state while giving tax breaks to companies. Despite the unpopularity on the Left of his plans to lay off as many as 500,000 civil servants and scrap the 35-hour work week, his camp is confident that his underlying message of tough-love reform and social conservatism will carry him to the election’s final round.
And they see a variety of ways of shrinking the appeal of the National Front, whose presence in the election’s final round Fillon has said is “not determined by fate.”
The ‘Right’ Choice
For Fillon’s camp, one way to knock the National Front off balance will be to challenge its political identity.
Their own candidate won more than 60 percent of the vote against a more moderate candidate by focusing on social values, winning the support of Catholic groups and projecting exactly who he is: an economic liberal and social conservative who, at the end of the day, is indisputably right-wing.
Le Pen, by contrast, is full of ambiguities. Is she a right-winger who happens to have sympathy for left-wing ideas? Or is she a socialist who happens to hate immigration and the European Union?
The National Front leader will have no good answers to such questions for a simple reason: Le Pen’s pitch to voters that she is merely a patriot beyond Left and Right marks her out as an opportunist who has exposed herself to attacks as a “rootless sovereignist,” Fillon’s camp said.
“Voters often choose Le Pen because there is no clear conservative candidate available to them,” said Grouard. “We’re going to give them a candidate with clear views who tells the truth about the economy.”
Fillon, 62, has also promised a crackdown on immigration and has taken a tough rhetorical stance on Islam, promising a closer relationship with Moscow in order to destroy what he has called “totalitarian” Islamists. An avowed Catholic, he is against abortion, gay marriage and surrogacy.
Such positions helped Fillon win the support of a Catholic current of the Républicains party named “Sens Commun,” which organized between 400 and 500 meetings for him. Over the next six months, Sens Commun plans to broaden and deepen its efforts in favor of Fillon.
When it comes to traditional conservative voters, Fillon currently holds an advantage.
By contrast, Le Pen’s camp believes that economic arguments, based on disenchantment with the EU, will continue to resonate widely. Coupled with the party’s tough attitude on immigration, the National Front still sees itself riding to power in 2017 on a similar wave to the one that carried Donald Trump to victory in the U.S. presidential election.
But there is no denying that when it comes to traditional conservative voters, Fillon currently holds an advantage.
While Le Pen also wants gay marriage repealed, she never attended the “Manif Pour Tous” rallies meant to topple the bill. As National Front president, she is more comfortable discussing economic issues or the European Union than religion or identity. The choice reflects the thinking of her vice president, Florian Philippot, who is the architect of the National Front’s anti-euro agenda and has repeatedly pushed back against attempts, from other cadres, to make the party’s platform more traditionally right-wing on societal matters.
None of this has won her many friends among Catholics, who voted massively for Fillon on Sunday.
Marine’s niece, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, is more favored by Catholic conservatives. But the 26-year-old is not running for president, and her influence within the National Front appears to be waning, possibly by choice. This week, Marion called Fillon a “dangerous” candidate for the Front, while Marine said she would be happy to face him in a runoff round.
Working class hero
Another pillar of the anti-Le Pen strategy will be to puncture her claim to be the choice of the little guy — the working class voter, the farmer and the young unemployed.
Hours after Fillon’s victory Sunday, Philippot went on television to assail Fillon as a cold-hearted agent of capitalism, saying his plans to lay off 500,000 civil sector workers would “bleed” France. His calls for reform of labor rules were further “austerity” directed from Brussels and embrace of the EU was proof of his “savage globalism,” Philippot said.
“The candidate of uncontrolled globalization has a name: François Fillon,” Philippot told BFMTV. “His program is rather medieval in nature: he wants to bleed France to make it better, even though we know this doesn’t work very well.”
But Fillon’s camp argue they can siphon off Le Pen’s working class votes. They point to exceptionally strong performances in some economically depressed areas where the National Front usually does well as proof that Le Pen does not have a lock on “Trump-like” voters. In the northern Pas-de-Calais area where Marine Le Pen tried, and failed, to win a regional presidency last December, Fillon won 73.1 percent of the vote. Along the eastern border with Germany, where Philippot’s MEP constituency is based, Fillon clocked more than 70 percent of the vote in some places.
Even in the south, where ardor for the FN is strongest, Fillon got huge wins. He scooped up 74.1 percent of the vote in the Vaucluse department, where Marion-Maréchal-Le Pen is an MP, and 74.4 percent in the only other region where the party has an MP, the Gard.
Of course the centrist and conservative primary, which drew around 4 million voters, is no model for the general election in which more than 40 million are expected to vote. But Fillon’s side argues that the primary does offer some lessons. One is that National Front voters — thousands of whom voted for Fillon in the both rounds of the primary — can and will be stolen.
“Fillon is not going to leave Marine Le Pen with a monopoly on working class voters,” said another Fillon aide who asked not to be named. “These are very smart, very hardworking people. They can tell the difference between economic realism and nonsense. Given the choice, they will make the right decision.”
To win over more blue-collar support, Fillon is going to hammer home plans to raise employment, boost vocational training and increase the number of apprenticeships, the aide added.
Finally, there is the question of executive experience. Philippot and other National Front officials have tried to paint Fillon’s four decades as part of the establishment as a problem, arguing that he is no different than former President Nicolas Sarkozy. But while Fillon did spend five years of a notoriously obedient term as Sarkozy’s prime minister, conservative rival Alain Juppé tried to paint Fillon with that brush during the primaries to no effect.
On the contrary, Fillon’s experience in office was consistently cited as an advantage by poll respondents. In surveys of viewers after TV debates, Fillon consistently rated highly on “competence” and “economics.”
With that in mind, Fillon’s campaign is likely to highlight the difference between their candidate and Le Pen, who has run no larger organization than her political party.
“When it comes to running a country’s economy, to making decisions on foreign policy crises, to steering the boat — you want someone who knows what they are doing,” said Grouard.