Paris Perspective #16: Let the games begin... The race for the Elysée 2022 - Gérald Olivier
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With less than 200 days to go before France elects its next president, the hustings are afoot. Paris Perspective checks out the opening salvo from potential candidates, the reluctance of parties to hold primaries and the rise of a firebrand, populist intellectual who has the French far-right in a panic.
After a summer of speculation, candidates are emerging from the woodwork to express their interest in running for the presidency in April 2022.
Over the past 15 years, the French electorate has become accustomed to the staging of American-style primaries, during which hopeful candidates openly debate why they should be chosen for the party's ticket.
Having reached its apex in a series of televised debates in the run-up to the 2017 elections, the process seems to have fallen into disarray five years on.
Author and political strategist Gérald Olivier says that while the logic of holding primaries in the US works well in a country of 50 states spanning most of the North American continent, it makes less sense for France.
Why have American-style primaries failed in France?
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"[In the US] you can't campaign everywhere at the same time," says Olivier, who works with the IPSE Institute, a Paris-based think tank that focuses on European security,
"So you go state by state, and you move on until you've covered the whole country. France is a lot smaller than the US, so there is not that geographic justification for a primary."
The introduction of party primaries in France was a politically motivated, two-fold idea. On one side, you could include people in the electoral process from the outset – a more direct type of election.
On the other, US primaries generated huge interest with massive media coverage through which parties could sort out their internal issues and energise their base.
"But that's not what it turned out to be in France," Olivier quips. "It turned out to be a lot of infighting on TV."
Candidates from extreme factions within each party would win the televised shouting match, beacause those who take part in the primaries tend to be from a more militant base.
"In the end, the parties ended up with the wrong candidate."
Dirty laundry, hanging out to dry
The process has taken a nosedive ahead of next year's presidential elections, with the Greens (EELV) the only party to hold a run-off for their chosen candidate. It was won this week by Greens MEP Yannick Jadot.
Olivier underlines that unless you have a candidate capable of uniting the party behind them, it won't work.
In 2017, centre-right "sure-shot" François Fillon took the Républicains party ticket from former president Nicolas Sarkozy in the primaries. Incumbent Socialist president François Hollande's populatity rating five years ago was so low that he didn't even risk seeking re-election.
Hollande falling on his sword for the greater good of the Socialist Party (PS) backfired when his prime minister, Manuel Valls, lost the primary to Benoît Hamon.
"When Hamon became the candidate instead of Valls, the more radical wing of the Socialist Party had the candidate. In the end, Hamon got 6 percent of the [national] vote, which was a complete disaster," Oliver says.
2017 sounded the death knell for the PS, with Hamon garnering only 2.3 million votes nationwide – the worst showing ever for the traditional Left.
The traditional Right was also sent into a tailspin once François Fillion's campaign was shot down by a scandal, when it came to light that his wife was on his public-financed payroll without actually having a tangible job.
"The whole point of the presidential election is that the candidate has to be able to garner interest beyond the party," Olivier underlines. "If he [or she] is not able to do that, you'll never make it to the second round, let alone to the Elysée."
The story behind France importing American-style primaries has its roots in the 2002 presidential election, when incumbent president Jacques Chirac found himslef facing the far-right National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen in an unprecedented second-round run-off for the Elysée Palace.
After Socialist candidate Lionel Jospin's failure to make it to the second round - essentially due to mass apathy - the "lunatic fringe" FN was now brought into France's poitical mainstream, to the horror of the political establishment.
So engaging with party grass-roots, and holding primaries to dynamise the electorate seemed like a good idea once Chirac beat Le Pen, beginning his second mandate as president with the lowest ever electoral turnout in French history.
Yet despite engaging with the electorate via primaries, the last two incumbents – Sarkozy and Hollande – weren't returned to office.
What will Macron do given that his La République En Marche party hasn’t established a grassroots following?
For Gérald Olivier, in 2017 Macron did bolster his political movement in the wake of the subsequent legislative elections that followed his sweeping presidential victory, drawing on centre-left and centre-right lawmakers.
"He [Macron] called it En Marche – EM after his initials – and got a huge majority, destroying the left at that moment," he says.
Although Macron's ratings are high, Olivier maintains that he is nonetheless unpopular: "He remains the favourite for re-election, let's be honest, because the French are very légitimiste. The incumbent has a huge advantage, so I don't see Emmanuel Macron not making it to the second round ... there is a very high chance that he'll be re-elected.
"But with the parliamentary elections afterwards, he may not get a majority of the vote because En Marche has proved itself to be an extremely weak, ineffective and incompetent political organisation. So that will be where there might be a surprise."
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The rise of Zemmour
And that "surprise" is Eric Zemmour, a far-right, populist intellectual who has been sowing panic across the political spectrum – especially on the political right.
Will this agent provacateur – who has been ubiquitous in the French media with a self-published book about his ultra-conservative vision of France selling like hot cakes – step out of the political commentary box and onto the campaign trail?
Whether you agree with his identity politics or not, Zemmour is "the most exciting thing" about this election, says Olivier.
"People call him the French Trump, which is not true with the exception that they are big media personalities. When you put Zemmour on TV, your ratings go through the roof and that's why the media loves him.
"As an intellectual and debater, he is extremely concise and is able to explain complex ideas in a way that [people] can understand. And that's the reason for his success. Right now he is a huge. And yes, he can blow up the right."
Written, produced & presented by David Coffey
Recorded, mixed & edited by Nicholas Doreau & Vincent Pora
Gérald Olivier is an author and political strategist with the IPSE Institute in Paris
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