30 April 2017

Could Le Pen Win and Could Either of Them Govern?

My longtime readers will remember that I am not very good at predicting electoral results.

For instance, given his effective fear campaign, I thought Sarkozy might overtake Hollande in the last week before runoff and it didn't happen. I still think he would have been victorious if he had another week but that is immaterial.

So, this time around instead of making predictions let me make a few observations about what might shape the outcome.

As you probably know, the candidates of the left and the conservative right lost in the first round. The Republican Francois Fillon never recovered from a self-inflicted wound. He might have survived the scandal about paying family members almost a million euros if he hadn't emphatically branded himself as Mr. Clean.

Every politician does that sort of thing and French people are rather jaded about such accusations. What did him in was not shoveling money to his wife and children but the hypocrisy of doing so while condemning such practices.

Socialist candidate Benoit Hamon stood no chance as his idea of universal wage (which actually makes a lot of economic sense) was universally derided. In an increasingly polarized society, this was perceived as my tax euros will be used to give "the others" you know, Africans, Arabs and a bunch of Muslims, money they don't deserve.

He got just 6 percent of the vote.

The other leftists candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon did much better than expected by getting 19 percent of the vote and tying Fillon for third place. Credit the holograms and a slick media campaign.

The two candidates left for the runoff in ten days (7 May) are the far right Marine Le Pen and centrist Emmanuel Macron. Currently Macron polls around 60 percent and looks to be the inevitable winner.

But there is more to it than that.

Polarization and Abstention

Michael Moore's prescient prediction about five states giving Trump the presidency notwithstanding, the real reason the Orange Man won was because a lot of Democratic voters stayed home, including many millenials.

The math is unassailable: 60 percent of millennials voted for Obama in 2012 and 37 percent backed Romney. This time around 55 percent came out for Clinton while the same 37 percent voted for Trump.

5 percent of that block of 60 stayed home. The same thing happened with Hispanics, women, blacks. People hated Clinton and instead of voting for her, they stayed home. She received fewer votes than Obama in 46 states.

A similar dynamic could affect French elections. Think about this: If only 65 percent of Macron voters go to the polls and 90 percent of Le Pen supporters do the same, she will win by 0.7 percent.

It is not as far-fetched as you think. The runoff election will take place on a long weekend. People vote on 7 May, which is a Sunday and Monday, 8 May is a holiday. French people live for those long weekends. They called them "ponds" or bridges. Everyone marks them on their calendar a year in advance daydreaming how they will leave the polluted city behind and rush to the campagne.

Macron voters (24 percent) are mostly urban-based and they much more likely to take off that weekend. Whereas Le Pen's base is in rural France.

More importantly, would Fillon supporters or Socialist voters or Melenchon folks who feel no allegiance to him, stay in to vote for a guy they more or less despise.

Here is a graffiti that sums up the situation.

There is trending hashtag #SansMoiLe7Mai and millennials marched to express their disgust with both candidates, chanting "neither Le Pen, nor Macron."

But there is a tie-breaker: an ISIS operation.

Another Bataclan

I have been telling to my French friends about the possibility of a terrorist attempt just before the election, first round or runoff. ISIS enjoys making grey areas disappear and a terrorist attack is one sure way of pushing people to the the opposite sides.

What happens if another Bataclan or Nice attack takes place? Predictably, ordinary French people would turn towards one candidate who unequivocally promised to deport anyone who seems to sympathize with Islamist terror groups.

Before the first round two men were arrested for planning a terror attack before or after the elections. On election day there were police officers and soldiers everywhere. I am sure it will be the same for the runoff.

But it is not impossible for some idiot to pull off a bloody stunt and if that happens, Le Pen stands a decent chance to win.

Russian Connection

If reports are correct, (and I always approach these things with a chunk of salt grains in my palm) the same hacker group that successfully breached the DNC servers and bolstered Trump's electoral chances, had attacked Macron campaign computers. And apparently, they failed.

Now, I would not be very surprised if Putin backed Marine Le Pen. There is some interesting history of collusion there. On 24 March Le Pen went to see Putin in Moscow. It is very rare for him to grant an audience to someone who is not an elected politician.
"I know that the presidential campaign is developing actively in France," the Russian president said, adding: "Of course, we do not want to influence events in any way." 
The Russian president appeared to be suppressing a grin as he spoke those words. Marine Le Pen appeared unperturbed.
For her part, just like Michael T. Flynn, Trump's former National Security Adviser, she reaffirmed that, if she is elected President she will make sure that sanctions will be lifted.

But there is more.

In 2013, National Front was looking for a loan and no French bank would lend her money. So she arranged for "Jean-Luc Schaffhauser, an energy consultant turned MEP, who has called himself "Mr Mission Impossible"" to find another source.

They first tried Dubai, which fell through at the last moment. Iran was willing but Le Pen didn't want to risk it, given her public Islamophobia. So it was Russian banks that lend her a little over €11 million.
One of the loans, for €9m, came from a small bank, First Czech Russian Bank, with links to the Kremlin. 
 And there is this little wrinkle.
The negotiations over the loan coincided with Russia's annexation of Crimea. EU governments condemned the annexation. Marine Le Pen publicly took the opposite view, leading some to question whether the loans were a quid-pro-quo.
Were she to win, it would be two for two for Putin.

Can They Govern?

This is a valid question for either candidate as they have no parliamentary presence.

France has a funny presidential system which is referred to as quasi or semi presidential system in undergraduate political science textbooks.

There is both a President and a Prime Minister. Technically, the president is the President of the Republic and he represents everyone, whereas the PM is a politician representing his (there has been no woman holding that position) political party.

If they belong to the same party, there is no problem. The President is the alpha-dog and what he says goes. Plus the Assemblée nationale is a weak institution and the President can rule (mostly) by decree. But if the President and the PM belong to two different parties, we have what is known as "cohabitation" a term coined during Mitterrand's second term.

There are legislative elections coming up in June. Macron has no political party. Le Pen has one. She is unlikely to get a huge number of MPs, but whatever that is that will be more than what Macron will get.

Therein lies the rub.

If Le Pen passes, there is almost no incentive among established parties to help her govern. Both the Left and the Right fear that she could steal voters from them, the infamous "populist pull."

In that case France could quickly become ungovernable.

If Macron passes, he will need to form a legislative alliance with the party that gets the majority vote in June as they will have constitute the backbone of his government. If this is the Republican bloc, his presidency will shift to the right accordingly.

If this is the Socialist-Melenchon bloc, which I seriously doubt, he will kiss his labor reforms goodbye.

Either way France is facing a shaky future.

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