If you take a bet on Marine Le Pen to reach the run-off in the French presidential election, you will profit. That’s not even really a bet; rather worryingly, it’s only a shade away from a certainty.
You do not have to oppose or support the Front National (FN) to agree that they represent the populist right in France. Slightly to the right of UKIP, and Italy’s Five Star Movement (M5S), but not quite as far right as Alternative for Germany (AfD), or Austria’s Freedom Party, the Front National is a formidable political force.
France’s governing establishment is left in turmoil. Recent labour and employment reforms have caused mass strikes and protest. It is not too much to assume that Francois Hollande, the Socialist president, has lost votes. His position is shaky – even with the power of incumbency, it is likely he’ll lose power for the Socialists in the presedential election in April/May 2017. The (just) centrist force on the right is the Republican Party, whose candidate is likely to be former president Nicolas Sarkozy.
The populist left of French politics is a jungle – communists, small-S socialists and hard Trotskyites share a bed with union leaders, battling each other for supremacy. Despite this, they could be the king-makers (or queen-makers) of this election.
If the run-off is between the FN and the Republicans, the establishment left will fall on their swords and vote desperately for the centre-right, likely to be led Sarkozy. The populist left will have to weigh up their populism against their leftism. There is unlikely to be a strong vote among them for the Republicans, however this is exactly the kind of scenario that splits the left between champagne socialists and the working class heartlands. The former is likely to decry the FN as racists, the latter to feel that it speaks to their anger at the establishment, and their (not totally unjustified) concerns on immigration. Despite this split, it is likely that the Republicans will harness support from their natural centre-right territory, nose-holding centre-leftists and enough of the swing vote (which tends to be centre ground by its very nature) to defeat the populists.
If, however, the run-off is between the Socialists and the FN, the picture changes. Much like the Tory party in the UK, the establishment right is much more factious than the centre-left. There could be a split between those who support Le Pen, and those who support the continuation of the establishment and the centre ground.
With their candidate Hollande (or not) in the ring, the centre left is spoken for. The populist left, however, is another story. Many may feel a connection to their fellow anti-establishmentarians on the other side. They may wish to punish Hollande (or, failing that, his party) for their reforms. They will almost certainly wish it; the question is whether it translates into the votes.
The recent reforms will be the death of the Socialists for a political generation at the very least – but they are mild. By international standards, people may wonder how it has taken France this long to implement them. A flexible labour market is understood to be a cornerstone of supply-side policies for encouraging growth. But, France’s labour community has a protectionist heart. Workers ‘rights’ – even when they are obviously bad for the country, growth, and even the workers themselves – are paramount. Hollande has killed his career and knocked his party comatose. He should have achieved more for this sacrifice than he has.
With regard to Marine Le Pen, it looks ever more likely that she will become the next President of France. Walking through Paris, the aroma of croissants cannot suppress the stench of leftist establishment failings. Creeping in at the edges, however, is a warming, relieving smell of hope that change is coming.