Sunday, November 20, 2016

Preliminary comments on Sunday's Republican primary

I was in an airport when I learned of Fillon's stunning victory. On the flight home, I began to write a column for The American Prospect, which will probably be ready tomorrow. In the meantime, I offer these preliminary thoughts:

... The final result came as a shock even to observers aware of the last-minute Fillon surge. The candidate given up for dead only a few weeks ago won by a margin of 16 points over Juppé, while Sarkozy finished a distant third, six points behind Juppé.

What happened? Were the polls simply wildly wrong? As in the case of the Brexit and Trump votes, pollsters had picked up the last-minute change in the temper of the race and correctly gauged the direction of the trend toward the winning position or candidate, but in each case they made the wrong prediction, and in the case of Fillon the final margin was far greater than the predicted one and well beyond the usual margin of error. Of course primary polling is extremely difficult, especially when the party in question has held no previous primary, making it hard to predict which respondents are likely to vote. But poll watchers, severely chastened now three times in a row, must refrain from drawing quick conclusions.

Where does this leave the race for the Republican nomination? Having failed to predict Fillon’s victory, I should hesitate to hazard a guess, but his lead is large enough that it will presumably be difficult for Juppé to overcome. Unless, of course, it galvanizes left-wing voters, who may have stayed home in round one of the primary, to turn out in large numbers in order to put Juppé over the top. Fillon is well to Juppé’s right, so this is not impossible.

Can Fillon’s victory be put down to a “Trump effect?” Perhaps, in the sense that a Juppé-Le Pen matchup would in some ways resemble the Clinton-Trump contest. Juppé is a solid centrist technocrat, well-known after many years in politics, but linked to policies that were unpopular in the past, such as increasing the legal age of retirement. Fillon is also closely associated with retirement reform, but he is younger, and by the time he overhauled the French pension system, opposition had dwindled. Juppé’s reform effort is remembered for triggering a month-long general strike and turning the country upside down, whereas Fillon’s reform passed relatively easily. In style Fillon has nothing in common with Trump: he is soft-spoken and disarmingly mild in demeanor, though beneath the surface he is a tough and savvy political infighter.

The big question, of course, is whether Fillon, if he emerges as the candidate after next week’s run-off, can defeat Marine Le Pen. This was to have been Juppé’s role, and polls have consistently shown him as the candidate most likely to stop Le Pen—if not the only one able to do so. Because Juppé was so widely expected to win, there has been less polling regarding a Fillon-Le Pen face-off in the second round. But as yesterday’s vote showed, the polls may not be accurately reflecting the volatile mood of the electorate in any case, and the final round is still a long way off.

In any case, the left is in a shambles, and no left-wing candidate is likely to make it to the second round of the presidential election. President Francois Hollande’s approval rating has fallen into the single digits, and he is likely to be beaten if he decides to run in the upcoming Socialist primary.

There is, however, one major source of uncertainty on the left. If Juppé is knocked out by Fillon, a space opens up in the center of the political spectrum, and two other men could vie for the role of center-left opposition: Prime Minister Manuel Valls and former Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron. Valls, out of loyalty to the president, has not yet declared himself a candidate, but he is chafing at the bit, especially now that Macron has thrown his hat in the ring. Macron, who has never been elected to anything, declared his candidacy in the week before the primary of the right, and this may have contributed to Juppé’s lackluster showing, as voters who might have cast their ballot for him decided that the much younger and still untarnished Macron would make a better standard bearer. Polls show Macron doing well, but once again one has to wonder what the polls are really reflecting. He has no party behind him, which will complicate a presidential run, although he has raised a substantial amount of money from both small donors and large contributors.

It would take a foolhardly prognosticator to speculate about what French voters are thinking. The Front National is already the first choice of working-class voters in France and has been for some time, so it is hard to see her picking up more votes from that quarter as Trump is thought to have done in the United States. In order for Le Pen to win, she has to draw votes away from the center-right Republicans. Does the unexpectedly large margin of Fillon’s surprising win indicate a surge of anger among Republican voters, a rejection of the notion that what they really want is a staid and relatively pro-European alternative to Le Pen’s xenophobia and anti-EU rhetoric? Will they then take the next step and abandon Fillon for Le Pen when they get the chance next year? Such speculation goes too far. But Sunday’s vote is highly unsettling. It suggests that, just as in the UK and the US, something deeply troubling is roiling under the surface, perhaps ready to erupt with explosive force.

If that happens, the EU will almost surely collapse. The Western democracies will all have swung far to the right, except for Germany, where Angela Merkel has just announced that she will seek a fourth term. Matteo Renzi is about to lose a key referendum vote in Italy, which may force him to resign. Come next year, the political universe may look far different from what most observers would have imagined a year ago. The consequences of these changes would be incalculable.

And yet, and yet … this primary vote may well mean nothing. The Republican primary voters are not a good sample of the general electorate or even of the entire right-wing electorate. And one shouldn’t exaggerate the differences between Fillon and Juppé. If either is elected, it’s quite likely that the other will receive an important ministry. Their platforms are not that different. The styles of both are subdued, dignified, and correct. They are more similar to each other in manner than either is to Sarkozy, much less to Trump. So the significance of this vote, however surprising, should be kept in perspective.

One final note: Nicolas Sarkozy’s political career is probably over, and his legal problems may well land him in jail.