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France’s next president: Hollande is sunk but who will follow him?

July 18th, 2016

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The battle for the Élysée will be between the centre-right and the far-right

Complacency has been the bane of the established political class across the Western world these last few years; a bad habit it doesn’t seem capable of kicking. Time and again, outsiders have shaken up the order, from Tsipras in Greece to Labour electing Corbyn to Trump taking the Republican nomination to Bernie Sanders running Hillary close to the UK voting for Brexit. Parties and electorates have been in revolt – though not always simultaneously.

Will France be next? It’s now only a little over nine months to the first round of the presidential election – about the same time as from Iowa to the general election in America – and it’s a question we should ask.

Before we do, we should recognise the effect of Thursday’s attack. France has now suffered within the last year alone, two of the fifteen deadliest terrorist attacks in Europe’s history. Despite that, France is a resilient country that has suffered and come through even worse before – this year marks the centenary of Verdun as well as the Somme – and it’s notable that after last November’s attacks, the opinion polls barely twitched.

Even so, three attacks in eighteen months, including the Charlie Hebdo killings, must create both a nervousness and an increasing desire to blame someone, which inevitably means someone else. That this latest outrage appears to be a low-tech assault by a lone actor is all the more disconcerting: there is no evil guiding mastermind, hunkered in his mountain lair to ‘take out’, no terrorist organisation to track down, engage and destroy. There is, however, the uncomfortable knowledge that it might easily happen again.

Does that play into the hands of the far right? In one sense, yes: populist politicians offer simple solutions to complex problems, which an electorate can easily turn to if they come to believe that the complex solutions being offered up by the mainstream are ineffective at best and a smokescreen for their own incompetence at worst. But France isn’t quite there yet.

What is clear is that the country has practically given up on Francois Hollande, who is polling a miserable 13-15% in the first round. For comparison, five years ago, Sarkozy was polling in the mid-20s – and of course he went on to lose.

Whether Hollande will even make it on to the ballot paper is open to question. No president of the Fifth Republic who’s sought re-nomination has yet been denied it but then none has been as unpopular as the current incumbent. He should though. The Socialists hold their national primary in January and as yet, Hollande is the only serious contender. It’s true that the 38-year old Minister of the Economy, Emmanuel Macron, polls a good deal better than either his PM or his president but you’d think that at his age, better to wait five years when there should be an open nomination either way.

The bigger question lies on the centre-right, where two heavyweight candidates are contesting the nomination of the newly-renamed Republicans: former president Nicholas Sarkozy and one-time prime minister, Alain Juppé.

This, unfortunately, is where it gets complicated. France’s party structure is fluid and there’s a delicate game being played which interlinks who the candidates will be for each party with which parties will contest in their own right and which will form alliances. Most significantly, the centrist party MoDem, led by François Bayrou, seems likely to contest the election if Sarkozy is the Republican’s pick but will sit it out if it’s Juppé.

Why does that matter? Put simply, because Bayrou is potentially Marine Le Pen’s ticket to the Élysée Palace. The Front National, under Marine’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, reached the second round against Jacques Chirac in 2002 but in that case, the left rode in – deeply unhappily – behind the president. That will not necessarily go the other way round. For a start Le Pen fille is polling considerably better than le Pen père did, consistently scoring in the high twenties.

More importantly, it’s possible that a Bayrou candidature might split the centre-right in a reverse of 2002 and let Hollande onto the ballot. He wouldn’t on current polling – Sarkozy typically leads Hollande by about 7-8% for second place – but with nine months to go, the possibility is there. Were it to come about, the polls suggest it would be very tight, with several giving her the lead (amid massive abstentions or spoilt papers).

That possibility remains thin, certainly much thinner than the 4/1 she’s best-priced at (though those odds alone tell a frightening story). Consequently, the value lies with Juppé at 7/4; he should be close to odds-on. If it is to be Le Pen, she needs three things to come together: firstly, Sarkozy to defeat Juppé in the Republican primary, whereas every poll this year has given the older man a lead of at least 18%; then the first round would need to split to give Le Pen a beatable opponent – which so far is only Hollande and he’s well back in third or fourth; and finally she’d need to win the run-off, which would currently be a toss-up. All else being equal, I’d make that nearer 20/1.

However, all else isn’t necessarily equal. Those suggested odds assume that Le Pen’s base vote remains at the 25-30% she’s currently winning. And that would be a complacent assumption.

David Herdson