In the United Kingdom, where politics is concerned, we have become used to those professing to lead us having no plan. Muddling through now lies at the core of British public policy. In French politics the idea remains that there should be a plan but it is rare, as with any other contact sport, for any plan to stay on the rails for long. I have been trying to start this piece on the 2017 French presidential election for more than 10 days. However, the situation surrounding the candidates and the major issues has been too fluid for me to be confident that my summary would not become obsolete within minutes. As I write, my hope is that things have calmed down to the extent that I can offer a stable and accurate snapshot of current events.
This election had an unusual beginning as both mainstream party groupings of left and right agreed to select their candidates through open public primary elections. While this was intended to avoid the public’s long-standing perception of candidate selection by horse-trading in dark corridors, the process left the parties involved at the mercy of more committed and extreme elements within their ranks and a wide range of unknown non-members whose motivation for taking part remains unclear.
I'm not sure if the open primary selection process was such a great idea. It produced considerable heat, air and theatrical media coverage. It offered the public extended TV coverage of some of the world's smuggest politicians, mostly educated at the elite institutions of Paris, lined up in debate. In current global conditions, where there is clearly a strong populist backlash against the elites who have created the current globalised world, a carefully stage-managed barrage of smirking did not go down well.
Consequently, the most experienced mainstream candidates who were expected to win, didn't. Furthermore, and as we have seen in the USA in recent times, the primary process bitterly divides parties and makes it more difficult for broad electoral coalitions to gel just before the proper campaign begins.
The right, Les Republicains, who held what many considered to be a successful event, chose M Francoise Fillon as prime minister during M Nicolas Sarkozy's rumbustious presidency. M Fillon is billed as a Christian conservative who was quick to express his belief that state-socialist, benefit-happy France is long overdue its own 'Thatcher revolution'. This is a recipe for prolonged unrest in large parts of the country and M Fillon asked for a great deal of loin-girding if elected.
The left chose the rather fundamental socialist M Benoit Hamon, a comparatively Jeremy Corbynish figure, earnest yet harmless who wants to legalise soft drugs and extend the generous activity of the state. Few believe he will get beyond the first round. The retiring socialist president, M Francois Hollande, has become what all politicians dread more than anything, a general figure of fun and he has taken his party with him. History may be kind to M Hollande in the long run but the current damage is deep-rooted and will take some time to repair.
Two major candidates refused or found it unnecessary to subject themselves to the lottery of the primaries.
M Emmanuel Macron resigned last year from his position as an economy minister in Francois Hollande's government to found his own party, En Marche, with the express intention of running for the presidency. He is not a member of any other party, he says that he is neither left nor right. This makes him a representative of the Blair/Clinton 'third way' and his campaign thus far bears this out. I heard him described on the radio the other day as 'la chameleon politique', standing accused of being all things to all men in this, until recently, very traditional left/right political culture. M Macron's Blairite credentials are therefore confirmed and the Socialists might be relieved that he is not a member of their party and cannot wreak the havoc that Mr Blair visited on the British Labour party.
The redoubtable Marine Le Pen, a lawyer by profession, continues to lead the family business, Le Front National, unchallenged for the moment. She loves being the one most feared by the centre-right and their establishment colleagues on the left. She is considered by many to be France's worst-case scenario, who will do to France what Donald Trump is doing to the United States and for mostly the same reasons. Anti-immigration and free movement, sworn to 'clear the swamp' of the self-serving elite, opposed to the globalisation that she believes has ravaged the French economy and the lives of French workers and determined to take France out of the European Union: Marine Le Pen sits at the heart of this crucial election.
If she does not win this time, so the narrative goes, with the influence of Trump’s victory and the extraordinary success of those in favour of Brexit, she never will.
At this particular point in the campaign there are three serious candidates and four overriding questions. Who can stop a surge for Le Pen in the second round of voting, assuming that she wins the first round on 23 April? How can France be protected from further terrorist attacks? What, if anything, should be done about the perception of massive immigration? And how can the slow French economy be revived, encouraging a more dynamic enterprise culture while keeping the current balance of social protection?
M Fillon has tried to be tough on all four points; he is after all the Thatcher candidate and being tough is part of the profile. However, his campaign ran into considerable difficulty when the weekly Le Canard Enchaine (The Chained Duck), France’s long-standing sister to Britain's Private Eye, published allegations concerning the bogus employment of his family as administrative staff paid for by the taxpayer. It is normal for family members to work for politicians in France but fraud involving public funds is very badly received. Fillon's campaign, whose narrative attempted to portray him as the moral candidate, has stalled badly and he now lies third in the polls. Where he once was a very close second behind Le Pen he now trails her and M Macron.
M Fillon’s party, Les Republicains, are currently seriously split over the fundamental issue of whether to continue to support him or ask him to stand aside. However, those wishing him to do the decent thing cannot identify a credible replacement candidate. None of those defeated by M Fillon in the primary wish to step into the breach and, in particular, ex-president Sarkozy will himself shortly appear in court to answer charges related to the financing of his last failed re-election campaign in 2012.
M Fillon appears to have no intention of backing down. He seems to believe that by carrying on and waving the sword of truth in the face of his 'politically-motivated' accusers, he will display the strength of character that will be recognised by the French as being what they need in a decisive leader at this time. This may be true but many remember M Sarkozy calling him 'M Nobody' when he was prime minister and M Fillon torpedoed this fantasy himself one week after the scandal broke by first denying everything and then offering a vague apology in the hope of calming things down. Naturally his candidature is now all about the drama and not his and his party's vision for the future of France.
Les Republicains are running out of time, patience and hope.
If M Macron, 39, was standing for office in the United Kingdom he would already have been destroyed by the tabloids. Not only does he represent the 'third way', while in today's Britain there seems to be only one way, but his wife, Brigitte, is 24 years older than him. They met at the school where she was a teacher and became a couple, officially, when he was 18. In Britain this sort of personal history would kill a campaign stone dead but, thankfully, in France it is considered very French, notwithstanding some sniggering at the back.
M Macron is young, dynamic and new. His rallies are very well attended and he is an energetic orator delivering absolute reasonableness in simple terms. He is aggressively pro-EU, pro-globalisation, pro-engagement with the world and stands as an early and much-needed antidote to the Trump/Brexit world view. He wants to continue the work he started, under Hollande, of modernising the French economy without the brutality promised by M Fillon and to co-operate with everyone except the Front National, which he is trying to present as being against the fundamental values of the French revolution.
Naturally the old French political establishment distrust him as he has circumnavigated their privileged system, and Marine Le Pen fears him as her only credible opponent now that M Fillon's campaign is sinking fast with all hands. M Macron is positioning himself as the light in opposition to the darkness of the Front National and, as he now lies second in the early polls for the first round, he has a sound narrative with which to back up forecasts of a clear victory in the second.
At the moment, M Macron is the candidate with momentum and is working hard at building a coalition of voters from the broad centre to take him into the second round. Even though Michel Houellebecq, arguably France's most important contemporary writer, describes M Macron as a 'mutant'.
Marine Le Pen's enduring problem is that she obtains her maximum vote in the first round of the election but cannot raise it any higher in the second, thus allowing the other parties' voters to coalesce around her opponent and consign her perennially to the position of gallant loser. As such, until now, the Front National has been seen as something of a cult, the representative of France’s dark side.
Her 'France first' campaign is following a predictable if stable and consistent national socialist path. It's all relatively reasonable so far, compared to the ranting campaigns led by Ms Le Pen's father in the past and the chaos being preached by the right in both Britain and the US.
Many commentators see everything going in her favour at the moment and she certainly appears confident as she watches most of her opponents implode. The continuing threat of Islamist terrorist attacks are a Godsend allowing her to quietly say, 'I told you so'. The present state of tension in the suburbs of most French cities only adds to the sense that France is under a siege laid by illegal immigrants whose poverty is the fault of no-one but themselves. M Fillon's transformation from serious contender to disgraced representative of the elite provides a strong focus for her campaign against the French establishment.
And yet politics is a cruel game, often stealing the prize from one's grasp at the very moment of apparent victory, imperceptibly turning strengths into weaknesses.
The French are not natural admirers of Donald Trump. In general they may accept that some of his actions are designed to fix real problems, particularly the economic. However, Trump's style is as un-French as you can get. And the chaos of his initial period in office is unacceptable. Similarly, Brexit has mystified many people in France and, again, Britain is not and never has been greatly respected by the French. There does not yet seem to be a popular head of steam in favour of France leaving the EU but things can change quickly in these strange times. However, Marine Le Pen should be careful when looking for her models for the future of France; the people here take pride in not following examples set abroad.
The Front National's main weapon is, as ever, immigration. It remains to be seen how many more French voters are attracted to them as a result of recent events. Bombs, machine guns and mass murder by truck on the promenades of Nice can have a profound effect on a population. That is, after all, the general idea of terrorism.
This year's presidential election in France is historic. If M Fillon fails to recover then the second round will most likely be fought by Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron who represent diametrically opposed visions for the future of the country. Both are outsiders and take the country away from the comfortable certainties of the last 50 years with power being shared by an elegant right and an equally elegant left. That consensus has shattered and now we all hold our breath to see what happens next.