Friday, March 31, 2017

NAQ: The French Elections

There's so much fast-breaking domestic news to follow (Flynn? Immunity?) and so many complex, major crises abroad, that you may be entirely forgiven for paying no attention whatsoever to the upcoming French elections. But if this were a more placid moment in history, you'd probably be hearing a lot more about France’s weird presidential campaign, actually one of the weirdest in French history.
So I've compiled this NAQ -- a list of never-asked questions -- to answer some of the questions you would have asked if this were a normal news year in which a French election could actually get anyone's attention for more than a second.
Q. How does France work?
A. The president -- who serves a five-year term -- is directly elected by French citizens. (The term used to be seven years; it was reduced to five in 2002). The French Parliament is bicameral. The National Assembly has 577 members, who are elected directly by the citizens of their constituencies and serve a five-year term. The Senate has 348 members, who are elected for six years by the electoral college.
Q. Who's in the electoral college?
A. One elected representative from each of metropolitan France's 98 departments, plus eight from France's other dependencies and twelve from the Assembly of French Citizens Abroad. 
Q. So when will the presidential elections be held?
A. The first round will take place on April 22, and the second round on May 6. In theory, if any candidate wins an absolute majority (50 percent of the vote plus at least one more vote) in the first round, he or she is immediately elected. In practice, this has never happened. (Charles de Gaulle came the closest, in 1965, with 44 percent in the first round.)
Q. Why does it seem as if the French are always voting?
A. Because first they vote in party primaries, using a two-round runoff system; then they use the same two-round runoff system to elect the President and the National Assembly. (Well, almost the same: in the National Assembly, any candidate who wins at least 12.5 percent of the registered party-members' votes goes through to the runoff in a first-past-the-post vote.) They vote in lots of local elections, too. And they also vote for members of the European Parliament, using proportional voting, every five years. It adds up to a lot of headlines that say, "French voters go to the polls."
Q. How do they vote for the Prime Minister?
A. They don't, actually. The President appoints the Prime Minister, along with all the rest of the junior and senior ministers who comprise the government. But the government is responsible to Parliament, and the National Assembly has the power to fire the whole government, including the Prime Minister, and can do so with a simple majority vote. So in practice, this means the government will always be comprised of members of the majority political party (or coalition) in the National Assembly.
Q. Really? So how powerful is the President, in reality?
A. Very -- if the President's party controls parliament, too. Then he can pick whomever he wants for the government, and he'll more or less be an elected king, constrained only by the judiciary. But if another party controls parliament, he's a lot less powerful. He'll be obliged to appoint a government that shares the agenda of the majority party, an arrangement known as cohabitation
Q. That means the legislative elections are just as important as the presidential elections, doesn't it?
A. It sure does.
Q. When will those be held?
A. On June 11 and 18, after which the French will be utterly exhausted.
Q. If the legislative elections are so important, why don't I ever hear about them?
A. Would you click on a story about French legislative elections? Neither would anyone else, so no one bothers writing about them. Anglophone readers are pretty much only interested in reading about French elections if the story involves Marine Le Pen, even though -- owing to the two-round system -- there's no way she can be elected.
Q. But hold on, she's the only politician in France I ever hear about. Why can't she be elected? 
A. Because her ceiling is about 25 percent, and she's utterly toxic to the rest of the electorate. Last time she ran, in 2012, she only took 18 percent of the vote. She'd need to triple that, almost, to win an outright majority. Let's say the polls aren't just off, but wildly off -- let's say she's able to pull in as many votes in the first round as Charles de Gaulle. She still can't win, because the rest of the electorate will unite to vote against her in the runoff.
The most recent polls show her and Emmanuel Macron winning the first round, taking 25 and 24 percent of the votes, respectively. Then they show Macron resoundingly beating her, with 62 percent of the vote, in the finals.
Typically, the French vote for the candidate they like best in the first round, then they eliminate the candidate they hate most in the second. So, for example, in 2002, Marine’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, managed to reach the second round. Voters from left and the right united, unhappily -- but firmly -- behind Jacques Chirac to keep Le Pen out of power.
Q. Why is Marine Le Pen so loathed by so much of the electorate? She just wants France to be France, right?
A. Okay, this is a complicated question. She's the head of the National Front, which was founded by her father, Jean Marie Le Pen, in 1972. He never had any real aspiration to the presidency; he just liked being the head of a big protest movement.
One of the National Front's progenitors, probably the most direct, was Action Française, which was founded in reaction to the intellectuals who defended Alfred Dreyfus. Its principal ideologist was the proto-fascist, anti-Protestant, and rabidly anti-Semitic Charles Maurras, whom Steve Bannon is said to admire, although I don't find that claim particularly credible. Action Française was monarchist, counter-revolutionary (contra the French Revolution, that is), anti-democratic, illiberal (in the sense of "against liberty"), anti-internationalist, and ultra-statist. Maurras believed the interests of the state should be above those of the individual. For example, he endorsed Colonel Henry's forgery blaming Dreyfus because he believed defending Dreyfus would weaken the French army and justice system; Dreyfus, he believed, should be sacrificed to the state's interests. Despite being something of an agnostic himself, Maurras wanted to restore Roman Catholicism as the state religion. Action Française supported the Vichy Regime and Marshal Pétain. After the war, Maurras was arrested as a collaborator and sentenced to life imprisonment. Not a particularly attractive figure, in other words. There's a lot of baggage, there.
So the National Front descends from them, as well as from the populist Poujadists, among whom were proto-nationalists such as Jean-Marie Le Pen. The party emerged against the background of the Algerian War (Jean Marie Le Pen was a paratrooper during the war, and many frontists were directly involved). Its members viewed the abandonment of Algeria by Charles de Gaulle as treason. More baggage.
It would take too long for me to explain all the details of the Le Pen family feud, but basically, think King Lear. Remember, Le Pen senior never really wanted to be president: He just wanted to be the head of the National Front. But Marine, to his surprise, discovered in herself a real lust for power. One sufficient that if the elder Le Pen were to die mysteriously, she'd be the first suspect.
She embarked on a campaign to "de-demonize" the National Front and distance it from some of its less attractive aspects, such as her father's regular propensity to Holocaust denial. But Le Pen père is so jealous of her that every time it seems she's about to get ahead -- every single time -- he opens up his big yap and reminds people why the National Front was demonized in the first place.
So basically, even though she's expected to be one of the two candidates to make it through to the second round, she's not going to win. Too many people loathe her, her party, its history, and everything it stands for.
Or, as this anonymous author who writes for puts it,
Short answer: NO! It is virtually impossible! She is expected to be one of the two candidates to make it through to the second round, but with a 71% disapproval rating (a large part of which could be called an abhorrence rating), there is no way that she could beat the other candidate who makes it into the runoff. Unless..... No, there just isn't an "unless." A majority of French voters would vote for anyone, even for Mickey Mouse, if he were the sole alternative to a candidate from the Front National.  
UK Brexiteers who dream of the French electing a candidate who will implement a Frexit are just not in touch with the reality of the French political system, nor of the mindset of French voters. Marine Le Pen is not Donald Trump, nor is she Brexit. Trump managed to win because he was the candidate of the conservative Republican Party ... not an outsider; and in the UK people voted for Brexit because it was championed by big shots from the Conservative party, not just by UKIP. Marine le Pen is a different case altogether: she does not have the support of any mainstream political party in France, except her own party the Front National.
Q. But this isn't 2002. Voters are truly fed up with the establishment, as Brexit and Trump's victories indicate. And the polls always seem to be wrong these days. 
A.  That's for sure. In fact, the French are so fed up with the establishment that François Hollande will be the first incumbent president not to seek re-election since 1962, when France introduced universal suffrage. And if the first round goes, as expected, to Macron and Le Pen, neither candidate will come from one of France's two traditional, mainstream parties -- the Socialists (PS) and Les Républicains (who used to be called the UMP). So we're apt to see a contest between two parties that have never been in power. Still, every single poll so far shows Macron routing her in the end. There's really only one path by which she could make it to the presidency ...
Q. I knew it! There's a way it could happen. How? 
A. Indecision and abstention. The polls suggest that millions of voters remain undecided and almost half say they may change their minds. It's the highest rate of indecision France has ever seen at this point in an election. And the electorate seems to hate all three of the main candidates, which could lead to unusually high rates of abstention in the final round.
Some groups are more likely to abstain than others: the young, ethnic minorities, and the unemployed. These groups would usually vote left, but might abstain instead of voting for Macron, who's not really a leftist. If the left stays home in large numbers, Le Pen will benefit. Likewise, some on the right might prefer not to vote at all than to vote for Macron -- who's not a conservative, either -- or for Le Pen, who's toxic.
A poll by Cevifpof recently showed a high percentage of Le Pen supporters among groups with high abstention rates: For example, 52 percent of farmers said they wouldn't vote at all; of those who said they would, 35 percent would vote Le Pen. But the Economist estimates that we'd need to see 60 percent abstention rates in both the first and second rounds to put her in power. Given that turnout in French presidential elections is usually about 80 percent -- and that voter turnout has never been anywhere near as low as 40 percent -- this seems awfully unlikely. 
Q. So what exactly happened to France's traditional parties?
A. The socialists have pretty much devoured themselves. The party is bitterly divided between reformers and its old-school hard-left Brontosauruses. Hollande tried to please both wings and in doing so managed to infuriate them both, becoming the least popular president in French history. Then he held off, Hamlet-like, until December before deciding not to run for re-election. So the party had no time to unite around a new candidate until late January. Benoît Hamon only emerged as their candidate after the second round. The Socialists are the establishment, and France has had it with its establishment. Its liberal wing is rapidly defecting to Macron -- and Hamon isn't crazy enough for the really hard-left wing, who will probably go for Mélanchon.
Q. But what about Les Républicains? 
A. Penelopegate.
Q. Beg pardon?
Okay. During the primaries for Les Républicains, François Fillon -- who was prime minister under Nicolas Sarkozy -- surprised everyone by wiping the floor with his rivals, Nicolas Sarkozy and Alain Juppé. He claimed to be an ardent admirer of Margaret Thatcher and pledged to slash public sector jobs. He portrayed himself as the embodiment of a certain kind of French Catholic rectitude: very conservative, very traditional, and -- unlike his opponents (both known for their corruption and their legal problems) -- very upright. I didn't happen to like him, because like Marine Le Pen, he's too close to Putin and too hostile to the United States, but I could at least envision him as the next President of the Republic. So I figured that's what he'd be.
Fillon sold himself as Mister Clean, even offering God himself as his character reference: "I will never go to extremes," he promised, "because I am a Christian.” He wrote a whole chapter in his pre-election autobiography about his Catholic faith and how it distinguished him from the long line of corrupt politicians to which France has become bitterly accustomed. For conservative voters, he was obviously a credible alternative to Le Pen. He also claimed, with some plausibility, that he was the only candidate who could put together a coherent majority with which to govern after the legislative elections.
Then Penelopegate broke.
It seems that between 1986 and 2013, Fillon gave his wife a fake parliamentary job, for which she was paid 680,000 Euros out of public funds. His party pressured him for weeks to abandon his bid and let someone who could actually win it take his place, but he dramatically refused, even after he was formally charged.
Now the police are investigating the claim that he and his wife forged documents in an effort to justify the payments she received, and prosecutors are now extending the investigation to his children, who also appear to have received highly paid fake jobs from the state when they were still students. Last Tuesday, Penelope was formally charged with complicity in the abuse of public funds -- and she was also charged in connection with a salary she received from a literary magazine owned by one of her husband's billionaire friends, too. 
Needless to say, he's plunged in the polls. Voters seem to feel personally betrayed by him in a way I haven't seen before in France. His name just infuriates everyone I've spoken to about him. It's a bit as if they married a man who wasn't rich, wasn't good-looking, and wasn't charming, either, but at least, they thought, he'll be faithful -- and then they found him in bed with the babysitter. Last Saturday, protesters threw eggs at him.
So who's going to win?
If the election took place today, it would be Emmanuel Macron, a former economy minister who's never been elected to public office. He started his own party, called En Marche!, which means, "On the move!" or maybe, "Let's roll!" and no one's quite sure how he got this far, because he wasn't expected to go anywhere. He's a former investment banker who's never run in an election -- and he has no established party behind him, either. He's closely associated with Hollande, who made him his protégé, first as an advisor, then as his economy minister. And he's in a strange marriage with his high-school French teacher who's 26 years older than him, and with whom he became involved when he was still in high school, which everyone tries to pretend isn't relevant, but secretly thinks is really weird.
What does Macron stand for? 
Not being Le Pen and not being dogged by Penelopegate, mostly. And not being close to Putin. He believes traditional left-right distinction in politics are no longer relevant. Conventional wisdom is that he’ll siphon off voters who would usually vote for the Socialist Party. He proposes a reverse brain-drain policy to attract bankers and other businesses who may be obliged to leave London after Brexit and scientists who will lose funding under Trump to move to France. Recently, he's received a slew of endorsements from Socialist Party heavyweights who see him as the only one, at this point, who can keep Le Pen out of power. They see their own candidate, Benoît Hamon, as too much of a risk. 
What's wrong with Hamon?
No one's happy with the way the French economy's been working under Hollande, and he seems to want to double down on everything that hasn't been working. In 2012, he walked out on Hollande’s cabinet to protest the government’s modestly pro-business turn. He favors a universal minimum income, which attracted a lot of attention and pushed him through the second round of the Socialist Party primaries, but he's got the same problem as Le Pen, only in reverse: too many people here are seriously sick of the Socialists.
So it's down to those three? 
Basically, yes, though technically there are eleven candidates in the race, support for whom could affect the outcome at the margins, so it's important to keep an eye on them.
Who are they? 
A motley crew of commies, nuts, and misfits. Jean-Luc Mélenchon of La France insoumise, or Indomitable France, which includes the Communist Party, is the man who is somehow always in everyone’s photos of any given political protest or demonstration. It’s kind of a mystery and a miracle that he’s always in front and center no matter who took the photo or from what angle. His diet, he says, is largely based on quinoa. There’s Nathalie Arnaut of the fringe-Trotskyite Worker’s Struggle Party; François Asselineau of the Popular Republican Union (he quit the mainstream conservative UMP because he’s a passionate anti-American who deplores France’s alliance with the United States--French journalist Nicolas Hénin calls his party “the most pro-Putin party of France,” which is saying something); and Jacques Cheminade, of the Solidarity and Progress party, who is -- believe it or not -- a devotee of Lyndon LaRouche. (The FBI described him as “a foreign spy in the service of LaRouche.”) He represents, he says, the struggle against the “financial occupation” of Wall Street, the City of London, Brussels, and the IMF. There's Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, of Debout la France! or France Arise!, who believes himself to be the heir to Charles de Gaulle and otherwise has difficulty disambiguating his brand from the Le Pens' (he's against the Euro, thinks Brussels has stolen France’s sovereignty, and wants stricter control on immigration). There’s Jean Lassalle of Resist! He seems like a nice man. From a family of sheepherders in a tiny French village. I don’t quite know what he believes, politically, but he once went on a 39-day hunger strike to resist the closing of a factory. And finally, there’s Philippe Poutou, of the New Anti-Capitalist party, best known for Tweeting, "#KimKardashian 9 million euros of jewelry in her room? The redistribution of wealth is an emergency.” 
I see. That doesn't sound promising. Well, who's going to win the legislative elections?
No one knows. The National Front is hoping to win many MPs, and they might. The Republicains could rebound after they get over Fillon, probably after he's eliminated in the first round. The Socialists run the real risk of becoming irrelevant -- no one even knows who'd lead the party after Hamon's eliminated. There's no established En Marche! party machine, no grassroots, and no one's quite sure what it stands for.
So if Macron wins, he'll follow the lead of the party that takes the most seats, meaning he could be quite left-leaning or quite right leaning. He might have to cohabit with the Républicains, who might be willing to cooperate on some issues with the FN.
Or there could be chaos. It seems quite unlikely En Marche! could get an outright majority. So really, apart from being sure Le Pen won't win, I'm not sure what kind of government France is apt to have, and neither is anyone else. 
Any more questions? Live from Paris, I'll be in France all day to answer them.

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