OPINION

Right vs far right in France

French President François Hollande’s decision to not make a bid for a second term in office is unsurprising. In the last leg of a term marred by economic uncertainty, high unemployment rates, workers’ strikes, infighting within the ruling party and personal scandal, Mr. Hollande’s approval ratings are abysmally low — as low as 4 per cent in some polls. Moreover, several former cabinet colleagues have said they would run against him in the Socialist Party primaries. It would have been humiliating for a sitting President to go through the primaries to win party nomination. Now, with Mr. Hollande deciding to keep out, the Socialists have the opportunity to put up a united fight under another candidate, most likely Prime Minister Manuel Valls, in the April presidential elections. Still, the left is likely to find it difficult to win back popularity in a campaign in which the agenda is largely being set by the conservatives and the far right. Mr. Hollande’s administration must share some blame for this. In 2012 he campaigned as an aggressive socialist, aligning himself with the unions and promising a left alternative to conservative Nicolas Sarkozy’s unpopular regime. But in office, he drifted to economic liberalism, offering tax breaks to corporations and setting out to overhaul labour laws, which pitted him against his allies on the left. His policies failed to revive the economy; he is also seen to have failed on the security front, with massive terrorist attacks in several French cities over the past year.

Mr. Hollande could neither retain his support base nor win over the other side of the spectrum, shifting the political mood in the country to the right. But the question is, who will cash in on this? Polls suggest Francois Fillon of the Republican Party and Marine Le Pen of the National Front will emerge the leading candidates out of the first round of the election, to face each other in the May 7 run-off. Mr. Fillon is a social conservative with a liberal economic agenda, and wants to overhaul the public sector, rein in unions and sack civil servants. He has the backing of a large organisational machinery, whereas Ms. Le Pen is an insurgent candidate. But so was Donald Trump. Over the past few years, Ms. Le Pen has transformed the NF from a fringe far-right group to an almost mainstream party with some grass-roots support. It now controls at least a dozen town halls and is consolidating support among the white working class, especially in the rust belt of the north and east. Like Mr. Trump, she presents herself as an anti-establishment outsider with a protectionist economic agenda. With the left in disarray and established conservatives divided, Ms. Le Pen’s chances cannot be ruled out.

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