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Le Pen certain to make it into presidential runoff – French political scientist

The French presidential election is just around the corner. The latest political trend of non-establishment forces breaking into the mainstream can be seen today in the country, with the Front National dominating the polls. Can the popular appeal and shock value of the candidates outweigh the factors of experience and power base? Will Marine Le Pen be able to deliver a shock victory comparable to Trump’s win in the US? And how will the vote affect the rest of the EU? We ask Bruno Cautres, political scientist at the National Centre for Scientific Research of Sciences in Paris.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Bruno Cautres, political scientist at the National Centre for Political Research at Sciences Po in Paris, welcome to the show, it’s great to have you with us. Now, Bruno, Leaks and scandals shook up the American presidential vote just months ago, now we’re seeing the same in France. It seems there's more scandal than political discussion - what’s the reason for this? Have leaks become a campaign tactic these days?

Bruno Cautres:I  think that obviously one of the points which will come out from that campaign is going to be political scandals and, in particular, the Fillongate. What we call the “Fillongate” in France is these series of scandals attached to the former PM Francois Fillon, who is the candidate of the right wing, and since we’re at two months now - he’s under accusations of, I would say, nepotism. The basic accusation is that he had used the budget  that the French Deputy can use to employ his wife, to employ his sons. So, we have this atmosphere for that campaign, which is that it looks that every day we have new scandal. Last week, it was a member of the French Cabinet who was also accused of employing his two daughters, they were only 15 year old when they were employed as deputy assistants. So, I really think that is going to be one of the main outcomes of that elections, which probably indicates that France, after that election would face some major issues about reforming the public money use in politics and probably there will be  some new legislation about moralisation of French politics.

SS: Francois Fillon - went from scandal-free front-runner to being under investigation for money embezzlement, like you’ve pointed out. He is refusing to step down as his party’s nominee – why is he so desperate to hold on? Wouldn’t it make sense to move aside and give a less tarnished candidate the chance?

BC:So, you can explain the decision of Francois Fillon not to step down because Francois Fillon was chosen your primary elections, and the primary election was quite popular - more than 4 mn of French voters went to the polls during the primary election, and also Francois Fillon won the primary election with a big majority. I  think that’s going to be one of  the characteristics of that election, which is that it indicates that in France we do not have the political culture which is strong enough so that when a politician is accused of something so big, normally he should just step down. But in France it is going to continue. But it’s not the best service that Francois Fillon could give to his political family because since that Francois Fillon lost the status of the favorite of the election. When Francois Fillon won the primary election he was the #1 in the voting intention, and now he’s #3.

SS:I’m just thinking that some of these accusations are kind of far-fetched. Even clothes are becoming a topic for scandal - Fillon has been accused of receiving pricey suits from a friend. His reaction was ‘so what’ - and that, to be honest, is kind of my reaction - so what?

BC:So what.. The problem is  that actually the agenda of Francois Fillon is a political agenda which is a big shift in the policy issues of France, and, in particular, cutting public expenditures, cutting in public sector employment, and obviously, when you want to cut in public expenditure, and when you say that France has too much civil servants, normally, you’re expected to be super-honest in the way you’re using public money yourself. So, I think, it’s the point that has shocked most of the French voters - which is how can you be so strict when it concerns French people, and not so strict when it concerns your family?

SS:Hm. But, okay. It's hard to place the blame for the Fillon leaks on Russia this time, so who is behind this, who do you think? Fillon blames the French government, and personally President Hollande, for the scandalous leaks that prompted the investigation against him…

BC:The strategy of Francois Fillon was to say: “I am the victim of the conspiracy, they don’t want my political agenda, they don’t want my very sharp policy shifts”, and, so obviously, Francois Fillon is constantly claiming that he’s the victim of the conspiracy, conspiracy of judges, conspiracy of the media, and finally, last week, a conspiracy of Francois Hollande himself - and he just said  that there’s a “black Cabinet” which is working at the Elysee Palace advising Francois Hollande, and Francois Hollande, according to that theory, has all the connection to know who is frauding, and these kind of things, and it’s the best argument of Francois Fillon, but I would say it’s quite a poor argument. The other thing that you’ve mentioned - Russia - which is a very interesting issues, it is probably the first French Presidential election that the issue of French foreign affairs is on the agenda. Normally, the French voters like me doesn’t care about foreign policy when they are choosing their executive, but this time, we have two candidates - Francois Fillon on one side, Marine Le Pen on the other side, that are saying “if I’m elected there will be pro-Russian turn in French diplomacy”.

SS:For months, polls have indicated that National Front leader Marine Le Pen is going to take the most votes in the first round - with centrist Emmanuel Macron her most likely rival in the second round of the election. So how tight a race are we going to witness? Is Macron the only thing standing between Le Pen and the Elysee Palace?

BC:The situation is a bit complex. If you are looking at  the voting intentions today, the two candidate leading normally should be Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen - we don’t know who will be the first, who will be the second, but since many weeks now, altogether, they got 25-26 each. But the other thing of that election is the high level of uncertainty. Marine Le Pen voters are extremely mobilized. They want their candidate to be in the second round, they would push Marine Le Pen into the second round, but the Emmanuel Macron’s electorate is more uncertain. Half of the Emmanuel Macron-likely voters are saying that they are absolutely certain of their choice, but they could modify their choice. But it’s the same for Benoît Hamon, the socialist candidate and it’s the same for        Jean-Luc Mélenchon which is the extreme left candidate. So I think that another characteristics of that election will be that high level of uncertainty…

SS:Uncertainty, yeah, I hear you. But polls also suggest Le Pen will be defeated in the second round of the vote - but pollsters, seriously, they were spectacularly wrong about Trump, about Brexit…so what’s to say they’re getting it right this time?

BC:Yes, it’s a good question. It’s hard to say. What we know is that for Marine Le Pen to win the election it would normally necessitate two quite demanding conditions. The first one would be that she would lead the first round, and not only that she would lead the first round, but she should lead the first round with a big score. Probably over 30, 32, 33, 34 - eventually 35, which is not so easy to get. And the second condition would be big abstention in the second round. So, if the second round would pose Francois Fillon to Marine Le Pen, because of Francois Fillon scandals, it could be that many left voters would not go to the polls.

SS:It will be very interesting to observe, but like you’ve mentioned, up to half of French voters are still undecided, and it’s roughly a month before the election. Why are the French so unsure about their candidates this time around?

BC:I think it’s because of the peculiarity of this election. The context of that election is that the left is divided, and not only the left is divided, but Francois Hollande is the incumbent. So, it means that the left has been a little bit disappointed by Francois mandate, and the left is quite weak. If you accumulate, if you add together Benoît Hamon, the socialist candidate and it’s the same for Jean-Luc Mélenchon on the extreme left, altogether it’s just 25-26. So, the left is divided, they have two candidates, and the left is weak, broadly speaking. So it means that many leftist voters are a little bit disillusioned, disoriented, and they hesitate between voting Hamon and voting Macron. The majority of the left and the socialists are going to vote on Macron, actually. It is a strategic vote because they don’t want a second round between Fillon and Le Pen. On the right side, it is obviously the question of Francois Fillon and the scandals of Francois Fillon. The center-right has been extremely disillusioned, extremely disappointed to know that Francois Fillon, the ‘pure’ Francois Fillon that finally was accused of nepotism.

SS:Both Macron and Le Pen tap into voters’ frustration, but are offering completely different remedies: Macron’s pro-EU globalist programme and Le Pen’s isolationist approach - complete opposites, basically. The way we see it, those are the two candidates that gonna have the face-off at the final round. So, the fact that the two top contenders, really, indicates the division in France. Extreme division. How has it come to that?

BC:It’s because the issue of EU and broadly speaking the issue of global economy that has modified French politics since a while. Let’s imagine that the second round would oppose Marine Le Pen to Emmanuel Macron - if the second round of that election has  these two candidates it just indicates that French politics is now very organised by the anti-EU globalisation, opposition to EU and globalisation. Emmanuel Macron constantly is saying that if he’s elected French President he will take some big, very significant, Franco-German initiative on the issue of EU, to restart EU, to reconstruct EU, to make EU more popular again. If Marine Le Pen would be elected, she constantly says that she will organise a referendum on France not only going out of the Eurozone, but also Frexit - France going out of the EU.


SS:Le Pen is tapping into the French insecurities over mass immigration and culture preservation - it was the first topic to come up during the debates. Has that become more important than balanced budgets and new taxes?

BC:Yes. This issue of immigration comes on the top of the political issues in France since about 20 years, actually. But, obviously, in the context of that election, and the refugee crisis in Europe, with France’s massive level of unemployment, Marine Le Pen, she’s making the connection between these two. I think it’s a traditional statement of the Front National which constantly is making a connection between unemployment and immigration. But if you look carefully at the voting studies, unemployment, economic issues are also on the top of the agenda of that election.

SS:I’m just wondering if the traditional and right and now dead in France? Is it, from now on, going to be integration versus isolation, open versus closed from now on? Is this how it’s going to be?

BC:You know, most of the time in French elections, recently, some people are claiming that the left and the right are dead. Actually, when you look carefully, it is not so true. Yes, many voters have the feeling that you take a left or you take a right government and it is exactly the same policies, but in fact, it’s not true. When you look also at the policy preferences of French voters - would you like to spend more on education, or on the contrary, would you like to spend more on police or security, control of the borders of France - they you see perfectly a left-right divide which is there, but it is true that with two consecutive executives - Francois Hollande now and Nicolas Sarkozy before - many French got the feeling  that you take two very different executives with very different personalities, policies that are very different - and in the end, the same problems.

SS:I think like a lot of things psychologically changed for France during Hollande, because of the terrorist attacks that Paris experienced, that France experienced. The terrorist threat is not going anywhere, it just happened in London, in Belgium, so with security concerns growing, are the French going to be wary of voting for more openness and globalisation - exactly what Emmanuel Macron is offering?

BC:Yes. It is true that the French electorate is probably still under the shock of the terrorist attacks that we’ve got in France in 2015 and 2016, and it is probably one of the reasons why Marine Le Pen because so popular. I wouldn’t say that it’s going to block, eventually, the victory of Emmanuel Macron, because at the same time as France and French are extremely preoccupied with security, at the same time, we know that we cannot close the borders, that the majority of the French are not anti-EU. They want another Europe, they want a Europe that would be more effective economy-speaking, but the majority of the French are not for going to going out of the EU and blocking the borders of France, despite that we’re still under that mood of the terrorist attacks and the Franec is still in the state of the military emergency, you know that.

SS:I’m just wondering, what effect will the French vote have on the EU? Say Macron wins - will it silence Eurosceptics everywhere? And if Le Pen wins - will that be the end for Brussels?

BC:I think that if Marine Le Pen would win the election and in particular if she would organise the referendum about France getting out of the EU, it would obviously be very very bad news for EU. I think that Berlin and Brussels, at the same time, they are probably expecting Emmanuel Macron to win the election. It will be good news for Berlin and Brussels if Emmanuel Macron would win the election, and Emmanuel Macron is constantly saying that if he’s elected there would be big Franco-German initiative.

SS:Macron said once that the French don’t work enough, and he’s open to reexamining the issue of a 35-hour working week in France - aren’t people offended by the disdain, as well as the infringement on their labour rights?

BC:I think it has been a constant attitude of Emmanuel Macron when he was the Minister of Economy. Emmanuel Macron was responsible for new legislation which authorised shops to be open in the more flexible way on Sunday’s for instance. Also, Emmanuel Macron, when he was saying that probably we should reform the status of the French civil servant, and it’s a constant attitude of Emmanuel Macron which is claiming that France should become more mobile, flexible, adaptable to globalisation. He’s also constantly mentioning that the uberisation of the French economy is not negative news.

SS:If the French detest Francois Hollande, who couldn’t breathe new life into the French economy, why would they like Macron, who was in charge of the economy all this time?

BC:Because, first, Emmanuel Macron said some months ago that he’s not a socialist. He said, “My political family is one the left, but I’m not a socialist”. Also, Emmanuel Macron managed to organise his exit from the French government in a very spectacular way, by saying “I’m absolutely independent from Francois Hollande”. Francois Hollande is saying that Emmanuel Macron is the product of Francois Hollande, but Emmanuel Macron has shown many times that when he was a minister for economy, that he was quite independent from Francois Hollande and Manuel Valls, the PM, as well, and the big point of Emmanuel Macron is that he looks the fresh new guy in that French politics, where most of the French perceive the same faces, same names for 20-25 years. Most of the French politicians are there for a while, and Emmanuel Macron benefits from this atmosphere that we want someone new.

SS:But, okay, let’s say Hollande doesn’t personally come out and support him, but Emmanuel Valls just did, he showed his support towards Macron and people from Hollande’s government support him - how can he overcome this Hollande problem?

BC:We have seen very recently some leaders of the Socialist party and also some members of the French Cabinet who are saying that they're supporting Emmanuel Macron and Emmanuel Macron managed that in an extremely strategic and I think quite clever way, which is, at the same time to benefit from that because the benefit is good for him, is it just showing that there’s a dynamics in favor of Emmanuel Macron, but at the same time Emmanuel Macron, every time he’s saying “I am still independent - thus people who are supporting me, they will not negotiate with me that they would participate in my government” and Emmanuel Macron is constantly saying that “because you’re supporting me it doesn’t mean I’m supporting you”.

SS:While most give victory to Macron in the first debate, Le Pen was right behind him... a poll by Le Figaro actually found that most of its readers saw Francois Fillon as the most convincing candidate - is it too early to write him off just yet?

BC:I think that we should always a little bit careful with these polls that are just after a debate. It’s very subjective impressions and we know that…

SS:No, what’s you take - do you think it’s too early that Francois Fillon is not going to make to the second round?

BC:It’s a little bit early, because one of the big question marks of this election, something that we really don’t know today is finally - what is the reaction of the right? Finally, do they say that Francois Fillon is a bad candidate or are they going to react at the last minute by saying “That election was for us! It was election that normally you can’t lose when you’re a rightist.” Two or three months ago everyone was saying that Francois Fillon is going to win easily the election. Maybe, there would be, at the last minute, a reaction of the right voters that may reconsider and finally go to the polls to support Francois Fillon. It looks a bit difficult today, because center-right really badly reacted to the scandals of Francois Fillon, but who knows.

SS:But the way I see it, all of the candidates have their pluses and minuses, but Fillon is the most experienced one, because he has been in the government, and Le Pen is not experienced, but that’s what attracts the French voters. But when it comes to foreign policy, dealing with major diplomatic crisis, undoubtedly, Fillon is the most reassuring. Le Pen comes out as tough, but Macron - he’s really young. That’s what attracts the French to him on one hand, but can it undermine him on the international arena? Can you picture him holding his own with Putin, or Trump for instance?

BC:It is probably the last card that Francois Fillon can use, which is “I have the profile to be the big boss for France, when Emmanuel Macron has no experience and Marine Le Pen has not a credible agenda” - it is probably what Francois Fillon is going to explain in the last row of that election, but  you know, we did a recent survey in Science Po and we were asking the French who has a profile to be the chief, to be the executive - Francois Fillon was performing, still, well, but not so well, but only 8% was saying that Francois Fillon is an honest person, so we know that we can vote for someone who’s effective, who's good, who is an executive, but we don’t trust that he’s not an honest, and 8% is really-really low. So, I think that the last card of Francois Fillon is probably to say this kind of thing: “Okay, I made some mistakes, but I have the profile and I am the only one to have the good experience”.

SS:If Le Pen wins, she still won’t have a majority in the National Assembly, and if Macron wins - well, he barely has a party to back him up at all. Both candidates are bound to face difficulties enacting their agendas, so will the voters get the much-longed for change in reality?

BC:The legislative elections are just five weeks after the presidential election, so normally, the legislative election is ratification of the President, the new President, this sort of majority is going to be probably the reaction of the French voters. For Emmanuel Macron, I think, he could do it, because some center-left and some center-right deputies are joining Emmanuel Macron, and Emmanuel Macron would probably benefit from the dynamic of this election, if he would be elected. Marine Le Pen, it’s much more difficult for her, I cannot see a majority in the Assembly, a majority of Front National deputies. Even if she’s going to have much much more deputies than before. So it could be that the situation would be very tricky, just after the presidential election with the issue of getting a majority for the new president. It’s going to be tricky.

SS:Thank you very much for this interesting insight. It will be really interesting to observe what’s going to happen in your country. We were talking to Brun Cautres, political scientist at the National Centre for Political Research in Science Po in Paris, discussing the twists and turns of the French presidential campaign and the effect it will have on the whole of Europe. That’s it for this edition of Sophie, I will see you next time.