Boiling a Frog

BY ALEX STORY

The French Presidential elections are about to run their course. The two round election was introduced by General De Gaulle as the Fifth Republic was installed in 1958. It will be the eleventh such election since then.

The first round would enable the populace to vote with their hearts. They would be able to vote for any and every party under the French spring sun. Only the top two would then be allowed to feature in the final round.

In so doing, the voter would be forced, in a manner of speaking, to vote with his head and give, through the ballot box, the Presidency his consent.

De Gaulle was inspired in part by the First Past the Post System. He saw the British Political system as guaranteeing continuity and political stability.

The idea was designed to inject these two attributes into France’s political DNA, and thereby move away from the perennial parliamentary instability that plagued the III and IV Republics from 1870 to 1958 – with a short collaborationist break between 1940 and 1944 with France’s neighbour to the East.

So, as per the plan, two weeks ago, the French went to the ballot box with their hearts on their sleeve. They had choice aplenty. Twelve Parties, many with different names but surprisingly similar policies worded differently, postulated for the top political job in France.

From this Dirty Dozen, Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen rose to the rim.

Out of chaos, order.

Indeed, since 2002, the French public has had to contend with the Family Le Pen in the last round three times out of five.

For a country that likes to proclaim her Progressive credentials, it seems a bit sedentary.

When not in the last two, Marine Le Pen comes close enough to give the right people heart palpitations. She came a close third in 2012 for instance.

In other words, over two decades, the Le Pen name has become the regular feature of French Presidential elections.

As time passes, this regularity seems inexorably to be morphing into some kind of inevitability. It seems increasingly a question of when not if.

The Presidential Debates of Wednesday April 20th 2022 were tight. As the Figaro, France’s largest daily, reported “the Macron-Le Pen debate was much tighter than it was five years ago”.

The survey shows that “on average, 48% of French people believe that Emmanuel Macron was the most convincing, against 47% who give the advantage to Marine Le Pen.”

It adds that nearly half (47%) of those surveyed either ignored the debate or wouldn’t pick a winner.

The top line data says it will be 53% to 47% to Macron; the granular data is much more circumspect. It is on a knife edge.

Those hoping for the status quo should be a little worried, given the areas of the debate the voters felt each candidate won.

For his part, Macron did better on the theoretical and esoteric fronts: such as running institutions, GDP growth and the “international” scene, meaning the European Union and the Euro – this Currency of Doom to which so many nations in Europe are unfortunately tethered.

Macron knows though that the French voting public is possibly more Eurosceptic than the British one. In January 2018, he said himself that the French would vote for a French exit of the European Union if only they were given the chance. Little in the last four years has happened to change this deep-seated truth.

Le Pen, for her part, did better on the practical and homely issues. She was ahead on security, immigration and pensions. She came across as calmer and more in control of herself.

To add to this multi-layered picture, on the subject of inflation Le Pen is seen as a realistic candidate for change by a large segment of diverse people. In fact, in a reversal of the usual “narrative”, the young seem increasingly likely to vote for what some might consider more extreme options such as Marine, as are, incredibly most age cohorts.

Reflective of this phenomenon, for instance, is Irdrielle Mounet, a student in Paris. She said she was prepared to cast a vote for change, as the Financial Times reported: “Le Pen says she is more focused on helping young people — so maybe it is worth a try.”

One has to go to the over 65-year-olds to see a clear gap between incumbent and challenger. At over two to one in this age category, Macron has a very clear advantage.

In an aging democracy such as France, this is in all probability the most important age group. They are more likely to vote and they are more numerous.

Macron, in other words, has seduced the older folk more thoroughly and professionally than Madame Le Pen – perhaps, given his life choices, they feel that they too are in with a chance.

Another significant change is the way the press has covered the elections. While the usual mud has been slung in Le Pen’s face, it is noticeable that the election coverage has been much fairer than it might have been.

The debate itself was a case in point. For anyone who had the endurance to watch the Cockfight for close to three hours, the two judges did their utmost to keep the contest watchable.

This might be an indication of two things.

Firstly, Macron still is favourite to win but he is not a popular president. There is a sort of a Macron ennui.

He has made too many enemies and has behaved in an unforgivably haughty manner, so many French people think, towards many of his country’s poorest.

Secondly, as habit is wont to do, Le Pen in the second round is no longer seen as an aberration. Perhaps, the press might think, she ought to be given a chance?

Too many other parties have been tried, too many promises left hanging, and so little tangible delivered over time – so much so that every passing second makes an eventual Le Pen victory ever more plausible.

Worse though is the President’s visible impotence on a crucial topic: Macron has no real mechanism to deal with the cost of living crisis and inflation. He has little to no influence on monetary policy. The tools to fight inflation have been given, in an act of absolute folly, to a Centralised European Bank.

That institution has no need or requirement to work on behalf of the French.

Macron’s second presidency therefore will be at the mercy of institutions fully outside of his control.

There is a sense, and herein lies the danger for him and his re-election prospects, that the Little Napoleon has no clothes.

Indeed, why, many will think, suffer another five years of this painful purgatory when, unable to effect any actual change, Macron’s victory on Sunday seems predestined to clear Le Pen’s path to victory in 2027?

It is fear of Le Pen that will keep him in; it is hope for change that will see him lose.

Alex Story is Head of Business Development at a City broker working with Hedge Funds and other financial institutions. He stood for parliament in 2005, 2010 and 2015. In 2016, he won the right to represent Yorkshire & the Humber in the European Parliament. He didn’t take the seat.