European Affairs

jacquelinegrapin2015cThe prospect for general elections in 2017 is adding to the challenges that France is facing. The various parties and political leaders are already campaigning. The governing socialist party will choose its official representative in a primary to be held in January 2017. The first round of the presidential election is scheduled on April 23, with a second round on May 7.  Legislative elections that take place every five years are scheduled to follow on June 11 with a second round on June 18.
Incumbent president François Hollande is eligible to run for a second term. But while his behavior and speeches indicate that he wants to do so, he has not yet confirmed his intention, and said that he will not make his announcement before December. With his recent approval rating of 13%, he is the most unpopular President in French history. Most voter surveys predict that if he competes he will lose early in the first-round, leaving only the two main opposition parties in the second round:  the conservative Republicans political party (i.e., Les Républicains) headed by former president Nicolas Sarkozy who was defeated by François Hollande in 2012, and the far right Front National headed by Marine Le Pen. More generally the left is seriously weakened by a split between those who perceive the government as moving towards the center and those preferring vocal dissident groups. 
In addition to the numerous second tier candidates who will participate in the socialist primaries, a variety of self-nominating candidates will compete independently. The communist party, the “parti de gauche” (leftist headed by Jean-Luc Melanchon), various ecologists, are now announcing their participation and will add to the already spectacular dispersion of votes. Arnaud Montebourg, former Minister of Industrial Recovery, will also compete. Emmanuel Macron, the popular former minister of Economy, Industry and Digital Affairs, has not yet announced his intention, but is expected to play a role. Both have quit the government of François Hollande. The Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, would compete only if the President does not run. Some fear that with so many candidates and no recognized leader, the left may find itself “orphaned”. 
“The Republicans”, will have no less than seven official candidates in their primary (1). For months, opinion surveys have indicated that the most popular candidate is the successful mayor of Bordeaux Alain Juppé, 71, who was prime minister under President Jacques Chirac from May 1995 to June 1997. He has also been minister of foreign affairs, minister of defense, and a young minister of budget. For “The Republicans” the primary will in fact be a duel between Alain Juppé and Nicolas Sarkozy, whose rate of popularity increased significantly since the terrorist attack that killed 86 people and sent 303 people to hospital in Nice on July 14. His campaign is heavily focused on security and counterterrorism issues while Alain Juppé presents a more balanced program including economic reforms. At age 71, he has assured voters that he will run only this once, and would not be president for more than five years so that he would be able to promote reforms without worrying about his reelection. Opinion surveys indicate that the public appreciates it.
Meanwhile, the far-right Front National (FN), has become the third-largest political party in France since elections held on16 January 2011. Marine LePen, its president, is expecting to reap the benefits of mounting discontent against the government and critics of the European Union. Opinion polls show that she will probably qualify for the second round of the presidential elections, facing either Nicolas Sarkozy or Alain Juppé. She has said that if she were to become the President of France, she will call for a referendum on the European Union, declaring : “People in Britain chose to leave the European Union. They made the choice to be independent with the European Union referendum, I will do the same in France” Terrorism, immigration, education, security and French identity are at the top of Marine Le Pen’s campaign. The likelihood, however, is that whoever will be elected to lead The Republicans (Alain Juppé or Nicolas Sarkozy) will end up being the President of the French Republic. The outcome of the election will be determined in large part by whether the electorate choses to put the economy or security at the top of its priorities.
In the meantime, this electoral time does not contribute to encouraging the existing French government to resolve pending economic problems as 6 million French people are unemployed or under-employed, and the French public debt reaches unprecedented levels. Recent “electoral gifts” announced to special groups amount to 10 to 13 billion euros (salary increases for civil servants, tax reductions for specific groups, etc...). In order to complete its 2017 budget, the finance ministry is studying the possibility of asking anticipated payments in 2017 for taxes that will be due in 2018 (when this government will have been gone for months). Public spending amounts to more than 57 % of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in France, the highest level in the European Union and one of the highest levels in OECD. Part of it is funded by increasing the debt. France has more elected legislators than the United States and an army of civil servants. The country suffers from taxation fatigue (before the French revolution in 1789 the level of taxation was no more than 15 % of Gross Domestic Product ....). The responsibility for financing most of the recent increase of the deficit will fall on the next government. That deficit will inevitably be higher than authorized by European Union rules, as it continues to increase.
This situation in France does not facilitate the work of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Jean-Claude Junker, President of the European commission. They refrain from criticizing publicly the very lack of rigor in French economic governance that they deplore, as the growing weaknesses of France make the traditional Franco-German dialogue more difficult at the very moment when the “couple” should be providing leadership for the European Union in transition after the British Brexit vote. Still, the French and German defense ministers have been able to elaborate a new plan for Common European defense that has been widely approved at the Bratislava summit. Even in times of criticized immigration policies, security issues, as tragic as they prove to be, also serve to keep members of the European Union together.
Jacqueline Grapin is the Founder and Co-Chair of the Board of Directors of The European Institute.   
(1) Nicolas Sarkozy; Alain Juppé, Bruno Le Maire, François Fillon, Jean-François Copé, Jean-Frédéric Poisson, Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet.