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France’s choice between bad and terrible

Le Pen closes on Macron

23 April 2022

9:00 AM

23 April 2022

9:00 AM

So often Western democracies offer awful electoral choices. Boris Johnson for example offers a woeful record on border protection (let’s see if the Rwanda plan works), capitulation to the 2050 zero carbon agenda, absurdly high overseas aid spending, plus the limpest possible resistance to the Left’s culture wars and march through the institutions. Yet Keir Starmer would be much worse. Scott Morrison also in some ways is tending to Labor-lite, but that’s clearly preferable to the full-on Labor-Greens agenda.

The choice faced by France’s voters at the presidential run-off vote on 24 April is even more awful. Emmanuel Macron marketed himself as a breath of fresh air after alternation for decades between the Gaullists and their successors, and the Socialists. In fact he’s an establishment énarque, a product of the École Nationale d’Administration, France’s training ground for its political and bureaucratic élite, and served as a senior minister in the government of his Socialist predecessor, François Hollande. On many issues he shares the Paris left-liberal outlook, including in his enthusiasm for the EU project. Still, on some issues he’s been to the right of the woke consensus: expanding France’s network of nuclear power stations; declaring that, unlike in Britain, he wouldn’t allow statues to be torn down; shutting down extremist mosques; and reducing taxes on savings.

On the negative side, France’s economic performance on Macron’s watch has been mediocre – it’s telling he’s tried to sell the unemployment rate, 7.4 per cent, the lowest for 20 years, as an achievement. His 2018 climate-motivated increase of diesel prices set off the gilets jaunes (yellow vests) protests by France’s battlers and the authorities’ enforcement of Covid rules has been heavy-handed. Outside the metropolitan bourgeoisie, he’s seen as arrogant and is widely disliked.

Still, at the beginning of March he appeared to be cruising to a comfortable re-election. Polling pointed to him as the clear winner – around 60 – 40 per cent – in a run-off with Marine Le Pen. So he didn’t bother until recently to campaign, instead strutting the diplomatic stage trying to negotiate with Putin – achieving nothing except to give the murderous tyrant some respectability.

But while Macron remained loftily aloof from domestic politics, the political momentum suddenly seemed to shift to Le Pen.  Stressing crowd-pleasing if fiscally irresponsible bread-and-butter policies, she’s committed to cutting the minimum retirement age to 60, scrapping income tax for those aged under 30, axing GST on a range of food and other essentials and reducing it on electricity and petrol from 20 to 5.5 per cent. At the same time she’s kept policies popular with her nativist base, including giving priority to French nationals in jobs and housing, cutting welfare benefits for immigrants and banning public wearing of the hijab (full face-covering garments have been banned in public since 2010). Le Pen hasn’t repeated her unpopular 2017 promise to take France out of the eurozone.

Opinion polls showed Le Pen’s support rising from about 18 per cent to around 23 per cent recently and, most eye-catchingly, to a sharply narrowing lead by Macron in a run-off – around 53-47 per cent – meaning the real possibility that she could squeak across the line, especially if she does well in the 20 April debate with Macron. The polling proved accurate in the 10 April first round,  although Macron won by a larger margin (28 – 23 per cent) than many predicted.

Never has the French Right enjoyed so much support and been so close to power.  Le Pen’s rival anti-Islam firebrand Eric Zemmour’s seven per cent of first round votes will mostly go to Le Pen in the second. Another factor favouring Le Pen is that in 2017 the ex-Gaullist mainstream conservatives, Les Républicains, won 20 per cent of the first round vote and those votes largely went to Macron in the second. This time, their vote collapsed to 4.8 per cent. Similarly, most of the 20 per cent of the vote which in 2017 went in the first round to the one significant surviving Leftist party, Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise (France Unbowed), flowed to Macron in the second.  Mélenchon’s vote improved this time to 22 per cent. But his supporters’ now strong dislike of Macron – and the attractiveness to them of some of Le Pen’s economic policies – means perhaps a third of them might vote for her in the second round.

The Russia-Ukraine war isn’t a priority electorally for most French, but it could prove to be Le Pen’s Achilles’ Heel. She’s gone to much effort since 2017 to ‘detoxify’ her party but she hasn’t done that in relation to her cosy relationship with Putin. In 2017, after his first attack on Ukraine and long after it was clear that he was a murderous despot, she met him in Moscow and said she shared his values. Earlier her party accepted a €9 million loan from a Kremlin-linked Russian bank. She and her party have consistently opposed sanctions against Moscow.

It would have been politically smart for Le Pen to neutralise the issue by condemning Putin and his atrocities, but she hasn’t. She’s condemned Russia’s invasion but won’t criticise Putin personally. Worse, she’s hinted she’d stop sending arms to Ukraine (France has sent €100 million worth so far) and, bizarrely, says she wants a ‘rapprochement’ with Russia after the war with Ukraine, apparently even if Putin were still in charge. Combined with her commitment to repeat De Gaulle’s withdrawal from Nato’s integrated military command, the champagne corks would be popping in the Kremlin if she won on 24 April. Le Pen’s stubborn Putin-friendliness is disturbing, unlikely to win votes and plays into Macron’s hands in sowing doubts about her judgment.

The opinion polls predicted Australians would elect Bill Shorten in 2019, that Americans would put Hillary Clinton in the White House in the 2016 and that the Brits would vote to stay in the EU. There’s much to dislike about Macron. And some of Le Pen’s policies – challenging the EU’s march to federalism, ending France’s decades-long immigration free for all, dismantling wind farms and Hungarian-style incentives for couples to have children – would make a refreshing change from Europe’s woke orthodoxies. But her election would be a major blow to the West at a time of dangerous confrontation with Putin. On this occasion, this columnist hopes the opinion polls are right and that the French choose bad over worse.

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Mark Higgie: Twitter at @markhiggie1

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