The tsunami of populism, nationalism, and antiestablishment sentiment, exemplified by the Brexit referendum and U.S. presidential election, may break again in France’s two-round presidential election in April–May 2017. On December 1, Socialist president François Hollande (with polls indicating his support was in single-digit range) announced that he would not seek a second term. The conservative Les Républicains party, considered the odds-on favorite to win the presidency, has just finished its primary process. The conventional political wisdom that former French prime minister Alain Juppé would win the day was once again overturned by the overwhelming selection of former prime minister François Fillon as the party’s candidate. Five months out, the Republican candidate would seem to be the likely winner, but during this fraught political season, we are reminded that nothing is certain.
What do Hollande’s decision and Fillon’s victory in the Republican primary convey about politics in France and the possible outcomes in the 2017 presidential vote, and what are the implications for transatlantic relations?
By standing down, President Hollande has shaken up the presidential race for the left. He expressed his desire that the left would be able to unite around a single candidate who would present a clear alternative to the right and the far-right. The decision clears the way for Prime Minister Manuel Valls to run without an outright challenge to his boss. But the left remains no less divided than it was before Hollande’s self-sacrifice: several candidates will compete for the Socialist Party nomination, and others will run as independents, diluting the center-left vote in the election. Hollande’s withdrawal may have been necessary, but it alone will not be sufficient to raise the left’s chances of prevailing.
The result on the conservative side is striking first of all in the definitive rejection of former president Nicolas Sarkozy, who was eliminated in the first round of the primary. Sarkozy had cut an aggressive profile, attempting to repeat his past success in usurping themes of the far right and deploying a high-energy style to outmaneuver opponents. He failed, losing to his former prime minister, Fillon, whom he frequently disparaged during his five years in office (2007–2012). The other loser in the Republican primary was Juppé, who had been tipped to win and was expected to attract centrist voters in an anticipated second-round matchup against far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen. Juppé’s meager vote total—about 33 percent in the second round—indicates a rejection of the political center and a clear rightward shift in the Republican core electorate, although one must not overinterpret the views of 4 million primary voters in a population of 66 million (of which approximately 46 million are eligible to vote).
Although Sarkozy was personally rejected, his policies were not. Fillon’s policies are characterized by strong law-and-order views, skepticism about multiculturalism, and very tough antiterrorism messages after the July terrorist attack in Nice. By French standards, Fillon is an economic iconoclast, with Thatcherite views, including cutting 500,000 civil service jobs, limiting the scope of the social security system, and strengthening free market measures. He has been critical of Islam, called for cooperation with Russia in fighting radical Islamists, and advocated restrictions on immigration. Fillon also staked out socially conservative positions, expressing his personal opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage. His policies are on the right of the Republican party, and France’s leading candidate is farther from the center than many had expected.
The 2017 presidential election, in a way similar to the U.S. Republican primary, will be marked by a multiplicity of candidates. In addition to Fillon, a Socialist candidate, the National Front, and independents of various stripes will round out the field, with as many as half a dozen potentially able to garner double-digit support in the first round of the presidential election. The race for the top two positions could be quite close, which could produce surprises for the second-round runoff. In the past, a candidate typically has needed upwards of 20 percent of the vote to advance, but in years with a wider field, such as 2002, 17 percent was sufficient for then-National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen to advance to the second round. Opinion polls immediately after the Republican primary showed Fillon leading all other candidates, with Marine Le Pen securely in second place and no other candidate within 10 points. In an atmosphere of frustration and malaise, turnout is likely to play a key role in the outcome.
Fillon’s strong conservative positions on crime and immigration may succeed in pulling votes away from the far-right National Front, and he will portray himself as a reformer on the economy. His right-wing views, however, could turn off left-leaning voters and potentially open up room for a centrist candidate. That could be the Socialist candidate, depending on who emerges from their January 2017 primaries. An “outsider” challenger, such as former economics minister Emmanuel Macron, could potentially draw centrist votes, although Macron has no political base. Le Pen probably will attack Fillon’s call for eliminating civil service jobs, appealing to broadly held pro-state sentiments. She will likely label Fillon as another example of an elite that has led to France’s “decline,” and depict Macron as a “globalist” and a representative of finance that undermines the French economy and its workforce, in an attempt to attract left-leaning voters. It is unclear whether French voters will be receptive to these calls. There is simply no guarantee who the two final candidates will be in the second and final round.
Foreign policy issues have not played a prominent role in the campaign thus far, but some of Fillon’s views, if implemented, would put France at odds with its partners. On Europe, Fillon favors intergovernmental approaches over further powers for the European Commission, and he is skeptical of austerity measures as well as debt and deficit targets. He has supported an “uncompromising” stance on Britain’s departure from the European Union. Regionally, Fillon has expressed understanding for Russian actions toward Ukraine, criticized EU sanctions on Russia over the annexation of Crimea, and described NATO enlargement as a provocation toward Russia. While Russia was not a centerpiece of the Republican primary debate and probably was not the motivating factor for primary voters, Fillon’s positions raise the prospect of a dramatic shift in French policy and the potential end of EU sanctions against Russia at a time when a new U.S. administration could be pursuing its own rapprochement with Moscow.
Russia’s stunning intervention in the U.S. election process raises concerns about whether Moscow will also attempt to interfere in the French contest, the objective it would serve, and what form such interference might take. Russia could follow its pattern in the U.S. election and orchestrate the exposure of potentially damaging information about particular parties or candidates, or it might try new techniques to influence the course of the campaign. If the Kremlin’s goal is to have a more favorable government in Paris, it could simply step back and allow the election to run its course, because the two leading candidates both seek closer relations with Russia. Fillon has advocated improved ties; and Le Pen, whose party has received financing from Russian sources, has voiced favorable views of President Vladimir Putin and advocated closer relations. If Russia saw an interest in further weakening the European Union, it could be tempted to try to put a thumb on the scale for Le Pen, who has called for a referendum on France’s EU membership—a “Frexit”—if she wins the presidency advocating that France “can again be a free, proud and independent people.” There is no European Union without France.
In six months, the French people will have an historic decision to make. Will the antiestablishment, populist wave continue? It is clear that France—America’s oldest ally and, alongside the United Kingdom, the most capable and active security partner the United States has today—is heading for a shift in direction, making 2017 as consequential year for Europe and the transatlantic relationship as 2016.
Jeffrey Rathke is a senior fellow and deputy director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).