The first round of the French presidential election is coming up this Sunday, and as with all elections these days there is some trepidation when it comes to forecasting the result of asking an increasingly unpredictable electorate for their opinion at the ballot box.
Until he spectacularly imploded in a self-imposed scandal, Francois Fillon of the Republican party was the front runner, but the election has become a tight race. According to the latest polls Front National (FN) leader Marine Le Pen would win the first round over independent centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron, only to go on to lose to him in the second round. So, Macron is the favourite and Ms Le Pen doesn’t look likely to quite make it all the way to the Élysée Palace. However, it is still worth examining her policies – not least because her campaign has garnered strong support from parts of the right which also fought in the corners of 2016’s big populist political upsets; Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. We thought Brexit was a step in the right direction, and supported Trump over the disastrous Hillary Clinton. But in the French election we can’t get behind the populist candidate, and not just because of the sometimes ugly anti-immigration rhetoric. Le Pen is right in her diagnosis that the liberal immigration policies pursued by European governments, including France’s, has brought with it a heap of social problems – but the FN is a party with a very problematic past, and even with the reforms Ms Le Pen has overseen (she expelled her own father, the highly controversial Jean-Marie Le Pen, who founded the party in 1972) it still attracts unpleasant elements of the anti-immigration wing of French politics.
We have previously dealt with how a free-market approach to immigration could form a constructive blue-print for policy making, but neither the current liberal approach nor the FN policies (a moratorium on all immigration is the starting point) are in line with our ideas. So, leaving immigration to one side, what should we think about Le Pen and the FN? Here are three reasons not to vote for her in the election:
On trade, Marine Le Pen likes to compare herself to Donald Trump. Unfortunately, the worst part of Donald Trump’s political programme is his trade policies, so alarm bells should already go off. And rightly so. Ms Le Pen is committed to “protecting” the French economy from foreign investment and free it from “European constraints”. Detail is lacking, but it is clear that ideally the FN wants to take France out of the EU’s single market – not to pursue broad free trade agreements a la Brexit however, but to be free to impose import tariffs and other protectionist policies. She recons that the “EU world is [economic] ultra-liberalism” and has taken world leaders to task over “unregulated globalisation”.
On the plus side, FN wants to simplify the tax code and lower the income tax ceiling to 46%. They also want to take France out of the Euro. But these are solitary rays of light in an otherwise murky sky, because there are many reasons to reject the FN program: the party advocates lowering the retirement age to 60, imposing a tax on the employment of foreign nationals, forcing banks to lend money to French SMEs, employing more public sector workers while increasing their wages, and a whole host of other “big government” policies which would feel at home in any European left-wing party programme. Ms Le Pen is no reformer; she is largely cut from the same statist cloth which has given France generations of incompetent politicians.
Perhaps not surprisingly, being a populist anti-immigration party, the FN wants to ban “ostensible signs of religion” from public places, including traditional Muslim clothing such as hijabs. France banned the burqa in 2010, a law which was later upheld by the European Court of Human Rights, so the FN will feel emboldened to pursue policies which deny people the right to practise their religion freely – policies which go much further than a mere rejection of the (equally destructive) broad-based tolerance of the “regressive left”. Ms Le Pen is no free speech advocate either; she has called for a ban on protests against police brutality, and argued that her political opponents on the far (and, admittedly, often violent) left should be stopped from protesting in order to restore respect in the public order. And there are no signs that a Le Pen presidency would signal a relaxation in any other areas of civil liberties: on the war on drugs, for example, she has stated that “the idea of legalization is profoundly dangerous”.
The French presidential election, as with so many elections these days, really presents no good options. Francois Fillon has a basic belief in free market policies – which would do France a lot of good – but he looks like having little chance of winning. The Socialists are far out of the picture, unable to recover from the extreme unpopularity of current president Francois Hollande. But their votes are haemorrhaging to independent far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon, who has been advancing in the polls to the point where he is closing in on the leaders. In the second round, however, the choice is still likely to come down to Le Pen vs. Macron. Macron is a former economy minister in President Hollande’s Socialist government, but he is running on a much sounder economic platform than Le Pen, of cutting taxes and government spending and reducing public sector jobs. Alas, he has many other less savoury ideas; on foreign policy for example he is a strong advocate of military action is Syria, while to her credit Le Pen is of a much more non-interventionist ilk. In the end, neither is a great option by any stretch of the imagination, but one of them will probably be elected President of the Republic on May 7th. Good luck to France.