Navigating the uncertainty of the French elections

Tens of thousands of people rallying in a Paris square on a rainy Sunday afternoon was a surprising sight, even by French standards. François Fillon had revealed a few days earlier that he was refusing to stand down despite having promised to do so if placed under formal investigation; as he is under a formal investigation for paying his family public money for allegedly fake jobs. Up to 100 leading figures in his party had publicly disavowed him and there was talk of Alain Juppé – the loser in the primary – replacing him as candidate at the last minute.

Yet the crowds came out for Fillon, creating a positive atmosphere around the main right wing contender for the first time in months. ‘If the square had been sparse; I would have reconsidered’ said Fillon on Tuesday, as he consolidated his grip on the candidacy.

This episode was the latest in a highly unusual campaign the outcome of which could – as The Economist recently put it – ‘revitalise the European Union, or wreck it’.

With fewer than 50 days to go, and many potential upheavals, the French election is making every European chancellery jittery – including Theresa May’s team. A victory from any of the three leading contenders, Macron, Fillon and Le Pen, would have very different consequences for Britain and the Brexit process.

The reigning socialist party has almost ruled itself out of the election: President Hollande has refused to stand for re-election, and the party’s primary elected Benoît Hamon, a rebel backbencher from the party’s left wing whose polls ratings have stagnated at 15%. Many of the socialist party’s centre ground are attracted by the dynamism of Macron, the youthful ex-economy minister who is running as an independent and has topped the polls for the first time this week.

Theoretically, a victory from Emmanuel Macron would comfort the current status quo. He is the only candidate to support the EU, and has made clear that he would make common cause with other member states over Brexit negotiations. However, he is currently without a party and has made the bold pledge to field at least 50% of inexperienced candidates at the June Parliamentary elections. His position would have to evolve depending on the majority he obtains.

As François Fillon has moved away from his party base to take a more populist approach, his stance on Europe has also become more uncompromising. A moderate Anglophile during his year as Nicolas Sarkozy’s Prime Minister, he has had some tough words for the EU since becoming candidate – and has been making the pledge to make France the first ‘European Power’. His victory would inevitably lead to a realignment of the EU position on Brexit.

Marine Le Pen is the most radical candidate, campaigning on an exit from the Euro and a Frexit referendum by 2017. Paradoxically, a victory for the leader of the Front National could be good for the UK – at least in the short term. A Front National president would divert the attention of European officials away from Brexit and towards a likely Euro crisis, while at the same time significantly softening France’s stance towards Britain. The obvious unknown would be the long-term economic consequences of such an outcome.

There could still be an upsurge of one of the left-wing candidates – Benoît Hamon and Jean-Luc Mélenchon – whose anti-austerity perspective would alter the balance of power within Europe.

The British Government will be watching closely as the campaign develops, as it will present the first real challenge to the conduct of negotiations and will affect Britain’s stance either way.

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