By THEOPHILE DE SAINT SERNIN
On May 7, France will elect a new president.
In the current international political climate, this election could have a determinant impact on the future of both France and the EU as a whole. The current security and economic climate in the EU and France has seen the increasing predominance of extreme right-wing parties in certain European countries. Those parties’ xenophobic and europhobic ideologies could put a stop to the European integration project.
After his victory in the primaries of right-wing party Les Républicains (LR) last November, former Prime Minister François Fillon was widely considered the favorite to win the presidential bid. Three and a half months later the situation has changed critically.
Accused of paying his wife a salary for a job she apparently never did, Fillon has dramatically fallen in the opinion polls, has been contested within his own party and is now trailing in the polls behind extreme right candidate Marine Le Pen and center-left candidate Emmanuel Macron for the first round of the elections. If Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron were to win the first round of the elections, then both candidates would face each other in the second round for the presidency.
This is a rather unusual situation for France because, for most of the Fifth Republic, the two mainstream left (Parti Socialiste/PS) and right-wing (currently known as Les Républicains/LR) parties have dominated presidential races.
Today, however, the two candidates of those parties, François Fillon (LR) and Benoît Hamon (PS), seem to be struggling to appeal to the majority of the electorate. Like Fillon, Benoît Hamon has also been contested within his own party. The members of the socialist government have not offered their full support for his candidacy, and the more center-left voters prefer Emmanuel Macron to Hamon.
Yet in order for the coming elections to be the most representative, France needs at least one of these two candidates to mount a credible bid for the presidency. The absence of a strong candidate, especially from the right, could push electors to vote for more extreme alternatives, particularly in the first round of the elections.
Fillon’s political positions have allowed him to gain an important electoral base in the more traditional, conservative and Catholic fringes of the population. If he were to abandon the race, this electorate would be pushed to look for other options. While moderate voters may turn to Emmanuel Macron, there is a risk that the more conservative elements of the right would throw their support behind the more extreme Marine Le Pen.
After five years as the head of the French state, François Hollande’s place in the opinion of the French public is extremely low. Many voters are dissatisfied with the current government’s actions, which in turn has pushed them to look for stronger candidates who could provide a solution to the challenges facing France and Europe.
This has strongly benefited Marine Le Pen and her Europhobic and xenophobic discourse. However, François Fillon offers many voters on the right the possibility to vote for a “normal” candidate, whose positions are not as radical as Le Pen’s, but still represent traditional right-wing views.
Last Monday, the political committee of the LR announced that the party would remain unified behind its candidate. The announcement followed that of Alain Juppé, who earlier that day confirmed he would not be replacing Fillon as the LR party candidate.
This decision temporarily stabilizes the political landscape in the right. There are still two and a half months to go before the first round of the elections and we should not exclude new surprises. Increased political stability will provide voters with the opportunity to identify the best candidate for the job.
Theophile de Saint Sernin is a staff writer for the SAIS Observer. He is an MA student concentrating in Strategic Studies at SAIS Bologna.