Food Fight!

The French Presidential Debate

France will hold its presidential election in just over two weeks and last night was the big debate. These usually only pit the leading candidates against each other.   This tends to weed out the extremists and make for a more reasonable debate.

Not this time. And it sure was fun to watch.

I guess the folks at BFM TV decided that since there were already extremists among the leading candidates, what’s a few more? So for the first time, every presidential candidate was on stage together, all 11 of them, ranging from the extreme left to the extreme right.

Want a Trotskyist? No problem, there were two – the candidates from the Worker’s Fight and New Anti-Capitalist parties. Plus there was Jean-Luc Mélenchon of France Undefeated, who had nice things to say about Karl Marx.

Want a proto-fascist? Ok, we’ve only got one, Marine Le Pen of the National Front, but she comes by it honestly – her dad is one, too. I guess it’s the family profession.

And what’s an election without a man of the people? My favorite was the guy whose main qualification was, “I’m the son of a shepherd and the brother of a shepherd.” He’s definitely got the shepherd vote locked up.

Eleven candidates on stage together reminded me of the early Republican primaries in the US. But unlike those debates, in France no single candidate can dominate the debate because each gets the same amount of time to speak. It’s a nice way to let the minor party candidates show their stuff. Except when some of them are crazy.

The winner was Emmanuel Macron, who currently leads in the polls. He didn’t say anything remarkable but he didn’t make any mistakes, either, which was the most important thing. He came across as smart, centrist and ready for the big leagues.

The loser was François Fillon, the once-leading candidate who has been laid low by a corruption scandal. He has the most experience and has some excellent ideas about the French economy. He may still make a comeback. But last night he tried to look calm and above the fray and instead came across apathetic.

Plus he had to deal with the itchy hands guy.

The candidates stood at podiums at the bottom of an amphitheater full of their supporters. It was so steep that when a candidate spoke, you could see just a few of the people sitting behind them – the faces of people in the first row and the laps of people in the second row.

Unfortunately for Fillon, when he gave his opening remarks some guy in the second row decided to scratch an itch on his hand. And scratch. And scratch. So while Fillon spoke, you saw this pair of hands just to the side of his head, scratching and scratching. It was mesmerizing – you couldn’t look away. I thought maybe we should call a doctor for this poor guy.

The Trotskyists were the most animated candidates. The woman from Worker’s Fight had only one volume level – shouting – and blamed everything on capitalists who exploit workers “because it’s in their DNA.” The man from New Anti-Capitalists spoke so fast it was unbelievable. And he never seemed to take a breath. I’m pretty sure he had twelve espressos right before coming on stage.

The debate was less than edifying, with lots of finger pointing. Everyone and everything you can imagine was blamed for France’s ills. Except for the French themselves, of course.

It was the fault of capitalism, immigrants, big bosses, Romanians, “the system,” the European Union, globalization, Muslims, and bankers. There were so many scapegoats milling around on stage that at one point they had to shoo some off to make room for more.

A few solutions were proposed and some were, um, interesting. One was to reduce the workweek even further, from its current 35 hours down to 32. Another was to make layoffs illegal. A third was to “temporarily” nationalize some businesses.

And we wonder why the French economy suffers.

The high point came when the New Anti-Capitalist guy went after Le Pen. She’s a populist and presents herself as the “anti-system” candidate. She’s also caught in a corruption scandal of her own, accused of taking public money for fake jobs. But she can’t be personally prosecuted because she is a member of the European Parliament and has immunity.

Pointing his finger and talking even faster than usual, the Anti-Capitalist guy said, “You steal from the till. And then you, who are anti-system, protect yourself with Parliamentary immunity. But when we, the workers, are summoned by the police, we don’t have worker’s immunity – we have to go.”

“You’re anti-system? That’s bullsh*t!”

For once, Le Pen was at a loss for words. Which was nice.

Can the Radical Centrists Win in France?

A wave of populism has been washing over the political world – first Brexit, then Trump, and soon perhaps the Netherlands.

But the big country to watch is France, which has long had a strong populist party in the National Front. Its leader, Marine Le Pen, currently leads in polls for the upcoming French presidential election. France was one of the founding members of the European Union and today is arguably the lynchpin. If Le Pen wins, it could signal the end of the European project.

Most people are focused on the French presidential election. But the legislative election, which happens right after it, could be even more important. Let’s look at both.

The Presidential Election

To start, it helps understand how the two-round French electoral system works. Phineas Rueckert recently wrote an excellent article about this in Frenchly, which you can find here.

There are four candidates who could plausibly win the presidency. Arrayed across the political spectrum from left to right, they are: Benoit Hamon of the Socialist party, Emmanuel Macron of En Marche !, François Fillon of the Republican Party and Marine Le Pen of the National Front.

Normally, the election would feature a runoff between the candidates of the two main political parties, the Socialists and the Republicans. But this is no normal year.

The Socialists are the party of current French president François Hollande. He is widely considered a failure, with the lowest ratings of any French president, and is not standing for reelection.

This has thrown his party into disarray and led to the election of a candidate who represents the left of the left. Hamon campaigned on a platform of a universal minimum income and a 32-hour workweek. While this thrills the activist base of the Socialist party, it marginalizes him with the larger electorate. Hamon will be lucky to get 15% of the vote.

The Republicans would normally be expected to profit from this turmoil in the Socialist party. Their candidate, Fillon, is a respected former prime minister. He is deeply conservative and moved even further to the right in the Republican primary.

Fillon was positioning himself to appeal to supporters of the extreme-right National Front in the general election. It was a reasonable strategy when he was the favorite to win the presidency. But then the Pénélopegate scandal engulfed his campaign.

Pénélope is Fillon’s wife. Fillon has presented himself as a kind of Mr. Clean, but then evidence emerged that Pénélope and two of their sons have been paid over $1 million in government funds for possibly fictitious jobs. The ensuing scandal has tarred Fillon as “just another corrupt politician” and he has plummeted in the polls.

With both major parties in bad shape, this should be Le Pen’s moment. She is an outsider at a time when conventional candidates are disdained. She is a populist at a time when populism is ascendant. Her party has been gaining in strength over the last several national elections and she currently leads in the polls. But three things will probably cause the presidency to elude her grasp.

First, while she has a solid base of support – approximately one third of the electorate – the opposing parties tend to team up against National Front candidates in the second round of elections. This has cost her party victories in the past and is expected to do so again in the presidential election.

Second, Le Pen is facing her own fake job scandal. Her party has a history of corruption and has been the target of numerous government investigations. Le Pen has been able to shrug these off in the past by arguing that it’s just “the system” out to get her.

But that tactic won’t work this time because of Pénélopegate, which has entrapped a leading member of “the system.” The more news coverage Pénélopegate gets, the more it reminds voters that Le Pen, as well as Fillon, is just another corrupt politician.

Third, Le Pen is no longer the new new thing. Since taking over her party in 2011, she has benefited from being the fresh face in French politics. But that role is now being played by our last presidential contender, Emmanuel Macron.

At 39, Macron is young for a presidential candidate. He has had a limited political career, serving as Economy Minister for just two years under Hollande. He has never held elective office.

While this thin resume would normally disqualify Macron, it is helping him in this year of outsiders. He is independently wealthy and does not seem to have been touched by the usual political corruption. And the French find his personal life fascinating, as he is married to his former high school teacher – who is 24 years his senior.

Most importantly, Macron benefits from the political space left vacant by his opponents. The leftist party has moved to the left and the rightist party has moved to the right, leaving a gaping hole in the political center. Macron is a classic centrist, a pro-business former banker who served in a Socialist government. He doesn’t have to contort himself in order to stake out a position between the major parties.

Macron has recently joined forces with François Bayrou, the leader of the centrist MoDem party, further cementing his position in the political center. Macron has been climbing in the polls and is pulling close to Le Pen. The combination of his political positioning, his clean record and his status as the shiny new face of French politics make him the current favorite to win the presidency.

Then What? The Legislative Election

France has a political system that is kind of a cross between those of the US and UK. Like the US, it elects its president directly. Like the UK, it has a prime minister who is elected by the legislature. Together they run the country, with the president playing the role of CEO and the prime minister the COO. The prime minister runs the government and the cabinet reports to him or her.

French parliamentary elections take place a few weeks after the presidential election. Normally, the party that wins the presidency also wins a majority in the parliament. When this happens, the president nominates a prime minister, who is then approved by parliament. The prime minister then names a cabinet, in consultation with the president.

But sometimes the president and the prime minister come from different parties, creating “cohabitation.” Cohabitation is usually a recipe for conflict and inaction, as our own experience in the US shows.

What is interesting about Macron is that he is an independent candidate. There is no party behind him. He has created what he calls a “movement,” En Marche !, that functions like a party. But it is still immature and is not yet organized enough to win a national legislative election with hundreds of seats in play.

While Macron is actively recruiting candidates and will win some seats, it is hard to see En Marche ! gaining a majority in parliament. And given the state of the other parties, it is hard to see one of them winning a majority, either. This opens the path to a functioning parliamentary coalition.

Macron is uniquely qualified to make this happen. Running as a centrist, with relatively weak ties to the Socialist party, he can make deals without fear of treading on party orthodoxy. Together with Bayrou, I expect him to build a cabinet with members from multiple parties. This team would then drive a legislative agenda with support from centrists from all parties.

This will require both skill and luck. With his limited government experience, Macron will need to team up with someone who is skilled in the dark arts of legislative sausage making. And there is always the risk that a fractured legislature falls into bickering and stasis.

But the people of France, like those in the US and other countries, are tired of division and extremes. People want to see policies enacted that are reasonable and are not driven by ideology. There is a real chance that France will be the country where the populist wave dissipates and a radically centrist government shows a new way forward.

The Pollsters Blow Another Election

And Now François Fillon Looks Like France’s Next President

french-republican-polling

The primary of the conservative French Republican Party was always seen as a two-horse race: former President Nicolas Sarkozy facing off against former Prime Minister Alain Juppé.   Former Prime Minister François Fillon languished back near the pack of “other” candidates.

But Fillon took off like a rocket in the last two weeks of the campaign, almost winning the first round outright and crushing Juppé in the runoff round. No one saw this coming.

How did the pollsters get it wrong yet again?

For one thing, a lot of voters made up their mind at the last minute.

When they looked at Sarkozy they remembered him as “President Bling Bling.” He liked to show off his love of the finer things if life while in office – during the deepest recession in decades. Oops.

In Juppé, voters saw someone who had once been convicted of abuse of public funds, a felony in France. Not something you really want on your résumé. Plus he was running as a centrist, and primary voters don’t like centrists.

That left Fillon.  He is dignified in the way the French like their presidents. And he is traditionally conservative. Plus he spiced up his platform by edging closer to the positions of the populist National Front party.

But the biggest reason the pollsters got it wrong is because they didn’t know whom to poll.

This was the first primary the Republicans have ever held. And it was an open primary, so any French citizen could vote, regardless of party. Prior to this year, Republican candidates have always been chosen in the proverbial smoke-filled room (this being France, they were probably Gitane cigarettes.)

Even the Socialist Party held its first primary just five years ago, in the last presidential election.

So the idea of party primaries, well established in the US, is still very new to France.   And if you don’t know who is going to vote, it’s hard to poll them.

Now Fillon is considered the front-runner for the presidential election to be held next spring. Like many French elections, this will have two rounds. If no candidate gets a majority in the first round (not expected with nearly a dozen candidates) then the top two will square off in a second round.

Fillon is expected to face Marine Le Pen, leader of the populist (and extreme right) National Front. Socialist voters hate her. They are expected to hold their noses and vote for Fillon in a second round, putting him over the top.

But maybe not.

Fillon has campaigned with an usually detailed platform, calling for large cuts in the French bureaucracy and the end of the infamous 35-hour work week.

But all those bureaucrats he plans to lay off tend to be Socialists. As are the union members who are rather fond of those 35 hours.

So while today Fillon looks like he is blasting into orbit, remember one thing:

What goes up must come down.

Read more at www.keithvansickle.com

 

 

 

 

The Power of Cheese to Sway French Elections

runny-cheeseElections are different in France.

A few years ago my wife and I were there during the election for seats in the European Parliament. About a dozen political parties had slates of candidates running.

A few days before the election, the conservative party had a televised rally to fire up the troops and get out the vote. We decided to watch it, figuring it would give us insight into the important political issues of the day. Plus it would be good for our French.

Most of the speeches were boring, with the usual applause lines. There were shout-outs to dignitaries in the audience, potshots at the competition, promises to lead France boldly into the future. The crowd clapped politely but there wasn’t a lot of real enthusiasm.

Then things got exciting.

The final speaker was wrapping up his speech and wanted to go out on a high note. “We will work together with the European Union on initiatives like the electric car,” he thundered, “but we will defend ourselves against those bureaucrats in Brussels when it comes to important French interests like”…(dramatic pause)…”RAW MILK CHEESE!”

Suddenly, the crowd went wild, cheering and stamping their feet, throwing things in the air. It was like Charles de Gaulle had just liberated Paris from the Nazis or something.

My wife turned to me. “Did he really say raw milk cheese?” she asked. “That’s crazy!”

The next day we asked some French friends about this. It’s true, they said, and they were outraged. They explained that there was a move afoot to force cheese makers across Europe to pasteurize their milk. “This will make the cheese tasteless!” they cried. “Tasteless food – the English must be behind it! “

Sometimes it is in the most unlikely places that you find what really moves French hearts.

A few days later the results came in and the conservative party was the big winner. They far outperformed the pre-election polls.

Never underestimate the power of cheese.

France is About to Pick a New President, Too

french-election-photo
I’m sick of hearing about the US presidential election, aren’t you? Let’s talk about France instead.

France elects a president every five years. And the next election will be in April 2017. But everyone in France knows that the country is really picking its president this month.

Wait, what?

First, a quick explanation of the French electoral system

The president is elected in two rounds of voting. The first round is a kind of free-for-all, with nearly a dozen candidates from parties large and small.   The big parties are the Socialists on the left, the Republicans on the right and the National Front on the far right. But these are boring. My favorites are the New Anti-Capitalist Party (so French) and the Royal Alliance (bring back the king!)

Usually, no one wins a majority in the first round and so the top two winners face off a few weeks later.

Normally, this second round is between a Socialist and a Republican. But right now the Socialists are in disarray, with their leader President Francois Hollande regularly setting new records for unpopularity. And the National Front, led by demagogue Marine Le Pen, is on the rise.

All indications are that the runoff will be between the Republican candidate and Marine Le Pen.

This happened once before, in 2002. In that election the National Front’s Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine’s father, edged out Socialist Lionel Jospin and made it into the second round.   Fearing a National Front victory, Socialists went overwhelmingly for conservative Jacques Chirac, who cruised to victory with 82% of the vote.

This is expected to happen again, with Socialists holding their noses and voting for the Republican. So whoever is the Republican candidate will almost certainly be the next president of France.

And who is that?

Until now, the Republicans have chosen their candidate in the proverbial “smoke-filled room.” But this time they are holding their first-ever primary election.   And it takes place this month.

The favorites are former President Nicolas Sarkozy and former Prime Minister Alain Juppé. The election is expected to be close.

Interestingly, the Socialists may tip the balance. The Republican have decided to hold an open primary, meaning anyone can vote. And large numbers of Socialists are expected to do so, with most of them plumping for Juppé. Their thinking is, why let the Republicans pick the next president all by themselves?

So while the electoral calendar shows the French president being elected next spring, the real action is this month. Keep an eye on it.

As a bonus, the President of France also becomes Prince of Andorra, the only elected monarch in the world. So the French are picking a prince as well as a president.

Interesting country, that France.

Read more at www.keithvansickle.com