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The next French President? My money's on Marine Le Pen

It already looked possible. Then the leader of the far-right Front National softened her stance on Frexit. 

Were you reassured by the latest poll on the French Presidential election that showed independent young radical Emmanuel Macron is gaining momentum? Do you believe he will offer a challenge to the conservative frontrunner François Fillon and the far-right firebrand Marine Le Pen?

Well, tough luck. Here is why the leader of France’s Front National, Le Pen, is probably going to win the election this spring.

Firstly, as we saw countless times in 2016, the polls can get it outrageous wrong. Two weeks before the US election, the odds of a Donald Trump victory were between 3 and 10 percent, and look how that turned out. We know anti-establishment populism is on the rise in Europe and that it is hard to measure until it is too late. Le Pen represents a chance to stick it to the EU elites and give a voice to those feeling disregarded and disgruntled by the march of globalisation and multiculturalism. 

But the French election is about more than faulty polling techniques. Given the other contenders, Le Pen has the chance to redefine herself and her party, not as anti-EU fascists, but as the only option that is well and truly French.

Consider her main rival, François Fillon. A self-defined French Thatcherite, Fillon wants a “radical shock” for France. Corporate tax breaks, €100bn of government spending cuts, 500,000 public service jobs slashed and an end to France’s hallowed 35-hour working week - does this sound like the France we know? Whether Fillon’s reforms are necessary is an open question, but deep down in the French psyche, they amount to nothing short of sacrilege. 

Usually a candidate from the left would provide an antidote, but this year the Socialists will be nothing more than a footnote. It is almost certain that the final round presidential run-off will feature Fillon against Le Pen, with no left-wingers in sight. So what choice is there for the traditional French left and the powerful trade unions? Can Le Pen promise them something that Fillon can’t?

Yes: the French status quo. Fillon diagnoses an unemployment rate of 10 percent, youth unemployment at 24.7 percent, a stagnating economy and out-of-control debt, and prescribes a free-market revolution. Le Pen sees the same problems, but argues they can be cured by nationalism, protectionism, and a curb on immigration.

If you were a traditionally left-wing French voter, would you really choose the bitter medicine of Fillon’s Thatcherite reforms over Le Pen’s siren song that things can stay exactly as they are, if only the immigrants are expelled? 

Le Pen knows Fillon’s candidacy has given her real shot, and she is doing all she can to extricate herself from the toxic legacy of her father and disassociate herself from accusations of xenophobia and fascism. She is even softening her uncompromising EU-hatred. Most French voters, especially those who have investments and pensions, don’t want France to face the instability of leaving the Euro. So in her first interview of the new year, Le Pen backed away from outright withdrawal, and promised compromise. She also reframed a question about whether she supported France leaving the EU into a call for a renegotiation and referendum - a sharp about-turn for the leader of a party that has opposed the EU since its creation. Her target is no longer just the EU, but the multicultural elites whose tolerance, liberalism and relaxed immigration policies have put the fundamentals of French society at risk.

This is the rhetoric of Trump, with one key difference: Le Pen actually believes what she says. Trump promised a wall to keep out immigrants and a ban Muslims from entering the country because he thought it sounded good at rallies. Le Pen vows to deport immigrants and de-Islamify France because that is the ideology she has been raised to believe since childhood (albeit it with Muslims switched in to replace Jews). Trump is already back-peddling. If elected, Le Pen will not.

So while Fillon struggles to inspire support for his harsh reforms, Le Pen will combine the law-and-order rhetoric of the right with the union-backed protectionism of the left. She will have ample ammunition to rage against the political establishment, branding Fillon as an out-of-touch elite and herself as the saviour of jobs, welfare and ultimately Frenchness. The only thing that could stand in her way is the candidacy of Emmanuel Macron. This young and vibrant newcomer, who is currently enjoying the highest approval ratings of any candidate, may just be enough to remind voters that Le Pen is a political veteran who has spent 20 years peddling the same divisive policies as her father. That’s a lot of pressure on the shoulders of the former economy minister. My money is still on President Le Pen.

Rachel Cunliffe is the deputy editor of Reaction. Follow her @RMCunliffe.

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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.