OPINION: No matter who wins the election, France will never be the same again

Whether it's heading into the complete unknown with Marine Le Pen, blowing apart the traditional left and the right with centrist Emmanuel Macron or be administered a stern dose of Thatcherism under François Fillon, France looks set for major changes whoever of the three leading candidates wins in May, argues professor Paul Smith.

OPINION: No matter who wins the election, France will never be the same again
Photo: AFP

Of the three leading candidates (and I’m not completely discounting Mélenchon), perhaps the most predictable is Fillon.

If he wins, he can look forward to a solid majority in the National Assembly following the general elections (11 and 18 June), comprised of his own Republican Party and their allies. This is one of his unique selling points – political stability.

All the other parties will be doing their best to pick up the crumbs, though there is unlikely to be any coherent political opposition in parliament. He is also the only candidate who has any hope of a majority in the French upper house, the Senate, half of which is up for re-election in September. 

The 'French Maggie Thatcher' will get to work quickly

With that sort of platform, Fillon will be in a position to implement the programme that, when he won the primary in November, had him being labelled as the ‘French Margaret Thatcher’, tackling France’s public debt and deficit through austerity, including a massive cut of 500,000 public sector posts and reducing regulation in French labour law.

Not for nothing is Fillon nicknamed ‘the employers' candidate’, though he has had to row back on the commitments he made last autumn regarding health and social security reform, largely under pressure from his own supporters on the ‘soft-right’.

He will also seek to keep the traditionalist Catholic electorate that carried him to the nomination onside by rolling back legislation on same sex marriage and surrogacy carried out during the Hollande presidency.

Like many of his rivals, Fillon has promised electors a series of referendums on key issues, including Europe, though he is not suggesting a Frexit or that France should abandon the Euro. In international politics, Fillon is keen for a closer relationship with Russia, though his rhetoric is less explicitly pro-Putin than Marine Le Pen’s.

It's hard to know what will happen if Le Pen wins

Le Pen will move immediately to close France's borders if elected

It’s difficult to predict quite what will happen if Le Pen wins the election.

Of course, we know what is in her manifesto, but unlike Fillon, she won’t have a majority of her own in parliament and it’s perfectly feasible to suggest that if she were to win, there would be a massive mobilisation by the opposition in the general elections.

Very early on in the process, Le Pen would introduce legislation to end the right to French nationality by jus soli, that is to say being born on French soil, to a blood right. This would reverse more than one hundred years of tradition, along with her promise to make it much more difficult for foreigners, especially non-European foreigners, to obtain French nationality.

Le Pen also said  would move quickly to hold a referendum on her proposals for a French-first policy on jobs and social housing and close France's borders by pulling out of the Schengen deal.

Frexit might take longer to achieve. While many of her supporters might feel that a vote for her means a vote for leaving the EU, and the candidate had at one time spoken of an autumn referendum, Le Pen has now suggested that she would wait until after the German elections in the autumn and the Italian ones in the spring of 2018 before staging a referendum on EU/Eurozone membership. She has promised, though, if she were to lose an EU referendum, she would resign.

READ ALSO: What Le Pen will do in her first 100 days as president

Le Pen’s promises to end immigration and get tough on law and order will almost certainly lead to a number of shop-window police operations over the summer, with the media in full attendance. Whether she can actually deliver on her promise to increase the number of frontier police remains to be seen. She has promised to recruit 6,000 new officers, but the training college in the west of France can only handle a few hundred a year. And France’s prisons are far beyond capacity, if there are to be round ups of the 5,000 gang leaders she claims French police have tabs on.

But in any case, one could expect to see any number of burkini-clad French Muslim women on France’s beaches being “liberated” by teams of gendarmes.

Macron victory will completely shake up French politics

Perhaps paradoxically, of the three leading candidates, Emmanuel Macron looks to be the one offering the greatest degree of continuity in terms of policy, which is precisely the charge laid against him by his opponents.

READ ALSO: Macron reveals his plan for France, here's what he's got in mind

Either he is the chosen heir of François Hollande or of a broadly satisfied elite that wants to protect itself from the extremes.

But a Macron win threatens to completely shake up the political shape of France. Since the 1980s, France has been governed from the centre, but alternately by the left and right. If Macron wins, it will be governed by a broad coalition stretching from the centre-left to the centre-right and probably needing the support of parties on the left or the right. French politics may be about to return to a period of coalition government that it has not known since before the return of de Gaulle in 1958. 

Like Fillon, he aims to reduce the number of public service employees, though on nothing like the same scale. Public health, he has promised, will not be touched.  Yet, at the same time, Macron insists that on his watch, the state will take a leading role in the (un)employment system, which until now has been managed by consortia of employers and the unions. State leadership, combined with the sort of deregulation for which he first became prominent as finance minister, form the key prongs of Macron’s plans to tackle unemployment and slow economic growth.

Macron is also acutely aware of two aspects of their lives that create enormous anxiety among the French: a tax system of Byzantine complexity and a pensions system of many and varied regimes. His aim is to simplify the former and to attempt to introduce a single state pension regime that will close the huge gap between workers in different professions.

Macron is often accused of a lack of ideological underpinning to his programme, to talking a lot about ‘renewal’ and his ‘project’ and even of ‘revolution’ without supplying much technical detail.

His reforms certainly sound less dramatic than those of Le Pen and Fillon, but if he is even half way through simplifying the French tax and pensions system by the end of the quinquennat in 2022, then he will have begun a revolution.

For the French, Sunday May 7th will only mark the beginning.

Paul Smith is an Associate Professor in French and Francophone studies at the University of Nottingham in the UK.

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Le Pen narrowly tops European election polls in France in blow for Macron

The far-right National Rally party led by Marine Le Pen finished top in European elections in France on Sunday, dealing a blow to pro-European President Emmanuel Macron.

Le Pen narrowly tops European election polls in France in blow for Macron
Marine Le Pen and Jordan Bardella. Photo: AFP

Results released on Monday morning by the Ministry of the Interior, which have yet to be formally verified and declared by the National Voting Commission, showed that the far right Rassemblement National (RN) party topped the polls with 23.3 percent of the vote, beating French president Emmanuel Macron's La Republique En Marche.

They were closely followed by Macron's party, which polled 22.4 percent.

Emmanuel and Brigitte Macron at a polling station in Le Touquet earlier on Sunday. Photo: AFP

The allocation of seats in the European Parliament has been complicated for France by the UK's delayed departure from the EU.

The Parliament had already decided that after Brexit, some of the seats that had been occupied by British MEPs would be reallocated to other countries, with France set to gain an extra five seats

However, last minute delays to Brexit meant that the UK had to take part in the elections, with the result that France will not gain its extra seats until Britain leaves the EU.

On last night's polling results, the RN will get 22 seats in the European parliament immediately, and an extra seat once Britain leaves.

Macron's LREM will get 21 seats now and 23 after the UK leaves.

The green party lead by Yannick Jadot was placed third with 13.4 percent of the vote, gaining 12 seats now and 13 after Brexit. 

The two parties that between them had dominated French politics for decades until the rise of Macron both polled in single figures. Nicolas Sarkozy's old party Les Republicains polled 8.4 percent, while the Socialist party of Francois Hollande was on 6.31 percent, winning them eight and six seats respectively.

Meanwhile the 'yellow vest' candidates scored just 0.54 percent of the vote, below the Animalist party which polled 2.17 percent.

Nathalie Loiseau with LREM party workers. Photo: AFP

Although a total of 34 parties fielded candidates in the European elections in France, the election had largely been framed as a contest between Macron and Le Pen.

Macron's La Republique En Marche party, its list headed by former Europe Minister Nathalie Loiseau, was contesting its first European elections.

Marine Le Pen, on the other hand, was hoping to replicate her 2014 European election victory with her Rassemblement National party, its list headed by a political novice, the 23-year-old Jordan Bardella. Bardella called the results a “failure” for the LREM ruling party and sought to portray Macron's defeat as a rejection by voters of his pro-business agenda in France and pro-EU vision.

Macron had made no secret of the significance he attached to the results, telling regional French newspapers last week that the EU elections were the most important for four decades as the union faced an “existential threat”.

Jordan Bardella, head of the RN list. Photo: AFP

He has jumped into the campaign himself in recent weeks, appearing alone on an election poster in a move that analysts saw as exposing him personally if LREM underperformed.

The score of the National Rally is slightly below the level of 2014 when it won 24.9 percent, again finishing top.

Le Pen had placed herself towards the bottom of the RN list, so she will be returning to the European Parliament, where she served as an MEP from 2004 to 2017.

Turnout at the polls in France was the highest in recent years, with 50.12 percent of people voting, significantly up from 35.07 percent in 2014.

Veteran France reporter John Lichfield said: “After six months of 'yellow vest' rebellion, that Macron list has 22 percent is respectable. Much better than President Hollande did in 2014 (14.5 percent).

“But he made the election all about himself and lost. His hopes of emerging as de facto EU leader or enacting more French reforms are damaged.”