Tuesday, November 22, 2016

What Next?

The next week in French politics promises to be interesting. Alain Juppé has to decide how fierce an attack to mount against Fillon, who stands on the brink of victory. Juppé can make an open appeal to the left by pointing out that Fillon's policies promise to magnify a hundredfold the tentative baby steps toward a liberalized market economy represented by the hated Lois El Khomri and Macron. Or he can conclude that his best course is to let the left mobilize itself if it so chooses while he saves himself for what? A ministry in the Fillon regime? Would he even want it? it's hardly even a choice.

This is therefore the last shot of his career, and he should go all out for it. But on France2 last night, he seemed, to coin a phrase, "usé, vieilli, fatigué" (as Jospin famously said of Chirac in 2002, for you youngsters out there). He was trying to appear relaxed, at ease, unfazed by his defeat and its unexpected magnitude. But he failed. The cameras had caught him earlier dining with his family at Allard, a Parisian eatery I know well. Like Juppé, it is respectable but a bit "usé, vieilli, fatigué." The same segment of the news showed Fillon donning a crash helmet for a spin around the track: his hobby is racing automobiles. The contrast was unmistakable: Fillon, young, dynamic, a bit dare-devil, burning rubber off his Michelin tires, vs. Juppé, contented bourgeois at his Michelin-rated table.

Evidently, the TV news producers think it's over, then. What if they're right? Can Fillon's Thatcherism à la française really be made to seem the policy for French renewal merely by wrapping it in a Nomex racing suit and buckling on a crash helmet? Surely not in 2016, with the entire world in revolt against neoliberalism. In short, Fillon's stunning victory locks the "respectable right" into a set of policies already in disrepute and rejected by substantial segments of electorates in all the advanced democracies. Marine Le Pen must be licking her chops.

Can Fillon stop Le Pen? I'm not at all sure. She will blast him--rightly--as the representative of everything left-wing protesters have been demonstrating against for the past five years. And there will be no sugar-coating of sauce Hollandaise (to mix metaphors).

Meanwhile, a gaping hole opens in the center of the spectrum. Several contenders are available to fill it. First of all, Emmanuel Macron, le jeune espoir. He has several things going for him: youth, charm, a reputation for speaking his mind, and a je ne sais quoi of "modernism," as a French official put it to me the other day. He also has serious disadvantages: no party, an ambidextrous identity of ni droite ni gauche, association with the hated financial sector, which made him wealthy at a very young age, and a tendency to come off as just a bit too smart and cocky.

Then there is Manuel Valls, if he decides to get in. He has cultivated the left-center terrain that Macron wants to occupy for years. But he stuck with Hollande longer than was healthy for a presidential run. If he had broken with the president when Macron did, he would be in a better position now. Both men remain tainted by their long association with Hollande.

Montebourg, it is said, could beat Hollande in the primary should the president decide to run, but he is a bit too far to the left of center to attract the votes of the right that a centrist candidate would need to win. He might team up with Mélenchon to attract the votes of the far left, but there aren't enough votes there to put him across the finish line, and Mélenchon would definitively alienate everyone on the right.

And then, as my friend Greg Brown forcefully reminded me this morning, there is Bayrou, the perennial bridesmaid. It has been rumored that he had a deal with Juppé, whom he backed for president, to become prime minister if Juppé won. Bayrou also said that he would run himself if Sarkozy, whom he detests, won the primary of the right. With the Sarkozy dragon now slain but Juppé on the verge of elimination, Bayrou could decide to run himself. It's more than a little late to mount a candidacy, however. And Bayrou is also a bit usé, vieilli, et fatigué, even if it's true that Fillon, who has been in politics longer than either Juppé or Bayrou, is hardly the ingénu, despite his exploits on the racetrack.

If 3 or 4 of these potential "centrist" (Macron) or "left-centrist" (Valls, Montebourg) or "right-centrist" (Bayrou) candidates get in as Juppé substitutes, you have quite a mess in the center and a potentially divided vote, ensuring a Fillon-Le Pen face-off in round 2. If the center coalesces around one candidate, my guess is that it will be Macron, who, for all his weaknesses, combines the advantages of political virginity with important establishment backing. But until now I have thought his media-driven candidacy would collapse when put to the test of retail politicking. He has many vulnerabilities that Le Pen could exploit, but he also has the important advantage of being more acceptable to voters on the right than any of his potential rivals (except possibly Bayrou, but Bayrou doesn't have the wind in his sails as Macron does).

Frédéric Lefebvre-Naré, how do you see a Bayrou candidacy?

In short, it's a free-for-all, and a Le Pen victory is looking less unthinkable to me today than it did last week. That is of course terrible news. The worst, as Donald Trump might say. Not nice.