Three weeks on Sunday, French voters will go to the polls in the first round of the presidential election. After the developments of the last few days, this seems as good a time as any to weigh up the stakes and try and imagine which two of the five candidates might face each other on May 7.
I say five, as only five represent large numbers of voters. The other six, all from one extreme or another, are only of electoral interest insofar as they will shave a percentage point, possibly two, from the scores of the main candidates.
There have been three significant developments over the last few days: Jean-Luc Melenchon has again ruled out joining forces with Benoit Hamon; Manuel Valls has come out in support of Emmanuel Macron to howls of protest from Hamon and his supporters and Penelope Fillon, like her husband, has been placed under formal investigation by a judge on suspicion of embezzlement.
This last event, however embarrassing for François Fillon, may, paradoxically, put an end to the endless media attention surrounding his employment of his wife as a parliamentary assistant. Unless further damaging revelations come to light, and media willing of course, the judicial investigation should now take a back seat to campaigning until the election is over.
Melenchon’s refusal to join forces with Hamon is not unexpected and probably final. A united left will not contest this election. Melenchon, after all, left the socialist party in 2008 to go his own way. My reading is that he prefers to snipe, with great talent, from the sidelines, rather than play second fiddle to Hamon and make a serious bid for power, where he would run the risk of seeing his utopian programme collide nastily with economic reality. He will do his best to come in ahead of Hamon on April 23, declare, if successful in this limited ambition, that progressive forces have won a great victory, decide not to endorse either of the finalists and then retreat to his comfortable seat in the European Parliament to ponder his next move. As for Hamon and his allies, with the Melenchon option now closed off and the right wing of the party increasingly hostile, a long period in the political wilderness looks more than likely.
The support expressed by Valls for Macron has a different significance. Although Valls is not the first leading figure of the socialist party to declare such support, he was until recently President Hollande’s Prime Minister and the other finalist in the socialist party primary. By going back on his promise to support Hamon, the winner of that contest, he has probably initiated the realignment of the socialist party, a strategy he is thought to favour. If Macron wins the presidency, Valls will probably try, with other leading socialists, to line up as many candidates as possible for the parliamentary elections in June, labelling them, possibly, candidates of the presidential majority rather than of the socialist party.
So what about the three leading candidates? The latest polls put Le Pen at 25%, Macron at 26% and Fillon at 18%. However, we are also told that 41% of the electorate remains undecided.
Things could go one of two ways for Marine Le Pen: either she will attract more votes than the polls give her credit for, as voters have often been reluctant in the past to tell pollsters who they will really vote for or, as the inanity of her economic policies becomes clearer, even to her electorate, do considerably less well. It is interesting to note that in another poll, 82% of respondents say that they do not want France to ditch the Euro, which is the key plank of her economic policy. However, whatever she polls on April 23, and assuming she is one of the finalists, she is unlikely to do any better on May 7. A question that nobody seems to have asked yet is whether voters who do find her economic policy unpalatable may choose to entrust their protest vote to Melenchon. It would not be the first time that voters have moved from one extreme to the other.
Which leaves Fillon and Macron. When given the airtime to explain his programme, Fillon does so calmly and clearly. It is not too much to hope that as the election draws near, serious political debate will take precedence over media tittle-tattle. To be sure, some voters will have been put off Fillon for good, but with 41% still undecided, it is not impossible that after surveying the alternatives, many will cast their vote on the day for the candidate whose programme sounds the most convincing and forgive his lapses of judgement.
Macron for the moment is still the darling of the polls and, it must be said, of the media. But with only three weeks to go, more searching questions are likely to be asked about what he really stands for, who is paying for what looks like a very well-oiled campaign, whether his youth and relative inexperience are more of a drawback than an advantage, whether future parliamentary battalions will materialise and from where. Is he really a clone of Hollande, as Fillon is now trying to portray him? What will be the role of his ally Bayrou, the eternal loser in French politics? A future Prime Minister? The leader of a small party seeking to cement his own position by placing as many candidates as possible into winnable constituencies? A parliamentary majority of rightward leaning socialists and leftward leaning centrists, from different political traditions and who have never governed together, plus assorted hangers-on, may prefigure a realignment of political parties in France but is likely to be a combustible mixture on which to base the bold and pragmatic programme of government that Macron has promised the country.
Without going as far as far as the parliamentary elections however, my dearest wish at this stage would be a run off between Fillon and Macron. This would be a chance, at last, to witness a real political debate between the two most serious candidates, to compare their personalities, their programmes, their respective chances of attaining a majority in parliament and to assess who comes off best. With a relatively small shift in the figures one way or another, it may still happen, I haven’t given up hope yet!