Off with their heads! How French politics went topsy-turvy in 100 days
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With François Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy already out of the picture, Manuel Valls’s crushing primary defeat on Sunday capped an astonishing one hundred days that turned the race for the Élysée Palace into a quagmire.
In hindsight, one could say of Valls’s doomed presidential run that he got everything wrong except his opening plea: he asked not to be handed the favourite’s tag, knowing it must be cursed. In an age of electoral upsets, it certainly was. The former prime minister endured a wretched campaign. He was flour-bombed, slapped in the face and derided for his spectacular policy U-turns, before eventually settling for continuity – when everyone wanted change. He was duly trounced by leftist rebel Benoît Hamon, the man pundits had written off as an also-ran with a wacky manifesto.
Valls was merely the latest casualty of France’s rollercoaster pre-presidential campaign. Le Monde, the respected daily newspaper, has likened it to a Quentin Tarantino film, “a pastiche of a B-movie in which every new character destined to be the hero ends up zapped with a single bullet”. The cast – featuring the likes of François Hollande, Nicolas Sarkozy, Alain Juppé, Cécile Duflot, Arnaud Montebourg and Valls – reads like a who’s who of French politics. Now every one of them has been zapped.
Casse-toi pauv’ Sarko
One hundred days ago, a dreary repeat of 2012’s three-way contest between Sarkozy, Hollande and far-right leader Marine Le Pen was still a distinct possibility. At the time, only the keenest observers took notice of the first presidential primary, an intimate affair organised by the smallish green party, Europe Écologie-Les Verts. On October 17, its former leader Duflot – a minister under Hollande and arguably the only Green with a national profile – was unceremoniously dumped out in the first round of voting. Though largely anecdotal, her drubbing was a sign of things to come.
Next up were Sarkozy’s rebranded Les Républicains, whose primary had been billed as a showdown between the former president and his foreign minister, Alain Juppé. In a year of electoral shocks that brought pollsters on both sides of the Atlantic into unprecedented disrepute, the first round of France’s conservative primary largely confirmed the trend – but with an important caveat: in France the loudmouthed agitator, who had dominated headlines by playing on voters’ fears, was humiliatingly beaten into third place. With Sarkozy out of the picture, Juppé was in turn trounced in the run-off by “third man” François Fillon, who surged from outsider to hot favourite for the presidency in a matter of days.
Hollande throws in the towel
The incumbent Hollande, whose approval rate sunk to an unprecedented low of 4% in October, had little time to revel in Sarkozy’s demise. The release of a tell-all book of interviews with journalists – which included classified information and candid remarks on the sensitive issue of Islam and Hollande’s troubled private life – proved the last straw for many of his remaining supporters. Alone and discredited, the Socialist president surprised the nation on December 1 by announcing he would not run for re-election, becoming the first sitting president of the Fifth Republic not to seek a second term in office.
Just days after Hollande’s momentous “renoncement”, Socialist “rebel” Hamon got a phone call from TV channel France 2 inviting him to its prime-time talk show. The hosts had been scrambling to find a replacement for Hollande, who cancelled his appearance, and then Valls, who politely declined. All they could find was the Socialist primary’s dark horse with his supposedly far-out platform. Hamon proved to be a hit, convincingly pushing his radical agenda for social change, and crushing another guest – a member of Le Pen’s National Front – in the process. It was the turning point in a remarkable campaign that propelled him to the Socialist nomination.
While Hamon has succeeded in breathing new life into France’s moribund ruling party, he will have a hard time holding it together in the coming days and weeks. The former Frondeur (rebel) in chief is now poised to face his own Fronde, with a string of embittered centrist Socialists already pledging to jump ship and join the new “Noah’s Ark” of French politics: Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche ! movement (loosely translated as On The Move!).
The former “maverick” economy minister has continued his steady rise in the polls, campaigning under his own banner and with the enthusiastic support of an army of young volunteers. A one-time investment banker with a rather sketchily defined liberal agenda, Macron promised nothing short of a “revolution” to “pull France into the 21st Century”. Experts warn that he will struggle without the support of a mainstream party. But with polling institutes in disarray and the Macron media bubble showing no sign of bursting, the 39-year-old’s campaign is causing anxiety among his rivals on both sides of the political divide.
Best thriller since 1974
“Not since 1974 had we seen such a gripping campaign,” said writer and political analyst Thomas Guénolé, noting that Macron’s centrist pitch was reminiscent of Valéry Giscard D’Estaing’s successful run to the presidency four decades ago. It is no surprise the old guard is being junked, he argued, adding: “With mass unemployment and half of all young workers confined to insecure jobs, anyone associated with the status quo is effectively doomed.”
“Sortez les sortants” (“Out with the outgoing”) has indeed been the campaign’s mantra so far, which of course plays into the hands of Le Pen’s far right. The National Front leader has opted to stay out of the fray, biding her time as her opponents are swallowed up one by one in the shifting sands of French politics. Le Pen has her own sword of Damocles in the shape of a €298,000 lump sum she is meant to return to the European Parliament by midnight on Tuesday – part of an ongoing investigation into possible embezzlement of EU funds. But the next casualty of this absorbing obstacle race could well be her most formidable foe, Fillon.
When he routed Juppé and Sarkozy back in November, Fillon must have believed he had more than a foot in the Élysée Palace. With the Socialists all but written off, opinion polls suggested the winner of the right-wing primary would go on to beat Le Pen in the May 7 run-off. But by the end of these extraordinary 100 days, the former prime minister was left dangling on the edge of a cliff, his squeaky-clean reputation jeopardised by suspicions his wife Penelope had been paid €500,000 from state funds for a “fake job” as his parliamentary assistant.
Fillon, who was questioned by investigators on Monday, may yet be cleared of wrongdoing, but the damage is done. Surveys carried out during the conservative primary showed that “integrity” was the main factor behind the Fillon vote. It was the contrast between his austere, un-divorced, father-of-five persona and the scandal-plagued Sarkozy that swayed so many social conservatives. “His candidacy rests on three pillars: probity, a strong work ethic and an aversion to state handouts – all three of which are blown away by PenelopeGate,” said Guénolé. “It’s as if the candidate of moral order was caught at a BDSM play party.” The rollercoaster goes on.