France’s first round of voting for President remains unpredictable as three men and a woman battle for victory

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By Axel Krause

Paris, April 20, 2017

With two months to go, Britain’s Economist noted the heated, divergent, infighting among the leading four, plus seven fringe, candidates had made it the most uncertain in recent history. And that the only certainty was that the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, 48, would win one of the two slots in the final round May 7. 

Today that prospect and then her actually winning the presidency remains possible, but not probable – raising the fatal spectre of her withdrawing France from the EU and NATO, – she faces strong, determined opposition leaders gaining strength in the final days of the first-round campaigning.

Among the strongest, according to polls, is Emmanuel Macron, and at 39, dashing and dapper, the youngest, who served briefly as economy minister under Socialist President Francois Hollande,who supports him.

He is a neophyte, business-friendly, former Rothschild investment banker who established a new, pro-European centrist party En Marche ! (Moving Forward) that has drawn wide support, notably among leftist-leaning and some conservative voters, who are pleased with his reform-bent business-friendly program.

Then there is right-wing, dour, scandal-plagued, 63-year-old former prime minister Francois Fillon. He served under former conservative president Nicolas Sarkozy from 1976 to 2012.

Far to his left, there is Jean-Luc Melenchon, 65, a former Socialist, who in some ways resembles Bernie Sanders, who like Le Pen favors improved, close relations with Russia’s Vladimir Putin and withrawal from alliance organizations, such as the European Union and NATO.

While France’s relations with Moscow have by no means been at the center of the many debates and discussion about France’s future, nor have trans-Atlantic relations and those with the Trump administration, both have made headlines on several occasions, raising questions about how Le Pen in particular, assuming she wins, will handle foreign relations. There isn’t much to go on.

Not known for her admiration if any for the United States, but an open admirer of President Trump and his policies, notably regarding immigration and protection of national interests, Le Pen’s first experience with gaining access to the president-to-be was something of an embarrassing failure.

Invited in January to Trump Tower in New York, presumably to meet Trump, by his neighbor, Italian businessman George Guido Lombardi who considers himself the key link to Europe’s populist, right-wing leaders, Le Pen accepted, presumably hopeful of a meeting the president-elect. According to a profile of Lombardi in Monday’s International New York Times, (INYT) the two only met over coffee in the Tower lobby, with Lombardi suggesting « there was always a remote possibility of seeing the then president-elect. » That didn’t happen and her spokesman did not return a call for comment on the meeting.

That incident came in sharp contrast to a recent meeting in Moscow with Putin that produced mutual praise and support for her cause that also has included substantial bank loans from Russian banks close to the Kremlin for her National Front party.

Far more troubling about her support from Moscow, and that of Fillon who also has made highly upbeat statments about Putin’s leadership and the need for restoring strong, friendly relations with Moscow, was the INYT account on page one under the headline « Is Russia meddling again ? ».

Hacking, but also fake news about the campaign organized by the Kremlin-backed Sputnik news service and a new French-language service of RT (for Russia Today) television station, has been cited by French media and governmental sources as deliberate Russian interference in the campaign ; backing Fillon and even claiming – falsely – that Fillon had emerged as the favored leader among the four candidates.

As our American colleagues concluded : « Squalls of (such) fake news reports and a barrage of hacking attacks on the computers of Mr. Macron’s campaign have left many in France – and Washington – with an unnerving sense of familiarity. » It is no secret that Macron, as the INYT editorialized today, is « strong on maintaining Russian sanctions and strengthening the European Union which Mr. Putin would dearly like to see weakened. »

Such controversy has not in any way stopped Le Pen from pressing ahead with her program, which would, in her view, restore France’s position in the world by drastically stopping the flow of immigrants seeking homes, jobs, security ; restoring protectionist barriers to imports of goods and services, enhanced by withdrawing from international trade agreements and the euro ; calling for a referendum on EU membership, with a view to following Britain’s example ; while boosting spending on defense and police forces.

Brushing off widespread criticism from many quarters that her program would only lead to a disastrous isolation of France and a deep economic crisis, Le Pen has also drawn widespread criticism for her recent statement about the rôle of the French during the Nazi occupation during World War Two, in effect indicating that, she has not renounced her father’s well-known views regarded as anti-Semitic, such as his claim that the death camps were but a « detail » of history.

Commenting on the Nazi-led roundup by French police of some 13,000 men, women and children of the Jewish faith at the Val d’Hiv center near Parison July 16, 1942, who were subsequenly sent to the concentration camps. Le Pen declared that « France is not responsible. » Meaning in her view, that the cooperating power at the time was the Vichy regime that did not represent the entire nation, a view that sharply contradicts the widely-praised admission in 1995 by former President Jacques Chirac that France as a governing state did in fact actively, regretfully, participate in the Holocaust.

Meantime, though Le Pen’s views on withdrawing from the EU and other alliance institutions correspond to those of Melenchon, her right-wing, nationalist agenda contrasts sharply with his, which is clearly far-left, supported by the nation’s now-small Communist Party – calling for massive, government spending for everything from public housing (45 billion euros) to renewal energy (50 billion euros) while boosting taxes on the wealthiest, making him in the view of his advisers « France’s Bernie Sanders. »

And while expressing his admiration for Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez, Melenchon, like Le Pen and others vying for the presidency, has provided only vague, details on how his plans could work and be financed and with what majority, if any, in the National Assembly following parliamentary elections later this spring.

But like Sanders, and though described widely as a « far-left firbrand, » Melenchon, with his own party, has overtaken the official Socialist Party candidate, Benoit Hamon, who has dropped to fifth place in the polls, amid wide division among most left-wingers, many of whom say they find Hamon dull, uninspiring and represents at best a continuation of the heavily-criticised policies of President Hollande, who earlier this year decided that he had failed to unite the party, and was unable to deliver on reform promises, and so dropped out of the race.

The third candidate, Fillon, is a classical French, neo-Gaullist conservative, who is supported by Sarkozy, and most centrist leaning right-wing French voters, who look to severe restrictions on immigration and social justice in the name of « family values. » He also has promised to eliminate many thousands of public-sector jobs, but without specifying where the cuts might come.

And though Fillon says he is, at heart « European, » he voted against the EU Maastrict Treaty of 1992, and has repeatedly criticized EU institutions for having non-democratic powers that he pledges to reduce if not eliminate if he is elected president.

His major handicap is an unprecedented series of accusations and indictments involving payments, manly to his Welsh, lawyer-trained wife Penelope, while holding supposedly consulting jobs, while he was in power. He has brushed off documented accusations that she and their chldren were paid as assistants wth governmen funds, while he was holding office, but were not doing much if any work.

But by deliberately avoiding and directly refuting the allegations, he has cast serious, widespread skepticism about his credibility, ethics and honesty, that have eroded his supporter among many voters.

The fourth candidate and and viewed by many pollsters and observers as the strongest on supporting the EU and traditional alliances, while reforming, streamlinng the French economy is Macron.

The Washington Post Paris correspondant James McAuley last week succinctly expressed the central queston facing Macron : « The question is whether Macron, long considered the favorite in the race, and his romantic, often lofty proposals can persuade a largely undecided and disillustioned electorate to join his march…Macron’s careful center is not sure to hold. »

He compares Macron’s current challenge to that of the final days of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, who, he notes, « shares with Macron a similar establishment pedigree and a comparable neoliberal economic worldview (that) failed to win over struggling voters and motivate her more apathetic supporters to turn out. »

Some of us view Macron as something of a John F. Kennedy, noting Macron has drawn large, enthusiastic crowds, many drawn by his repeated support for bolstering the EU and its many success stories, such as the highly-popular, Erasmus program for subsidized study within the member states’ centers of learning.

There is no easy conclusion, nor prognosis regarding the outcome Sunday, given that some 30% of voters are undecided, many telling pollsters they could change their minds come election day.

But one observation is noteworthy : France’s highly-respected daily Le Monde asked on its front page yesterday if the four leading candidates had anything in common? And the answer is yes, accordng to Le Monde, and would apply to the seven fringe candidates as well – they are all in varying ways anti-system, critical of the establishment ; meaning the nation’s elite, like-minded, governmental leadership, in France and at the EU institutions. The problem here is that they hardly agree on what matters more – the solutions. 

 

Axel Krause is the Paris-based contributing editor of TransAtlantic Magazine and has covered France for decades, and also served as correspondent, bureau chief and editor in Moscow and Washington for Business Week and the International Herald Tribune. He is the author of Inside the New Europe.

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