I’m back in Paris for a fleeting visit while the markets wonder whether Marine Le Pen – leader of the extreme right Front National – can win the second turn of the French presidential elections in May and destroy the European Union.
It’s a 17 hour escapade to interview Jamie Dimon of JP Morgan, former ECB chief JC Trichet and Maurice Levy of Publicis. The journey is awful, the Eurostar is three hours late but I spend this time romanticising about Paris, its cute little cobbled streets and its chic cafes.
When I arrive I’m reminded this is not the same city I knew 20 years ago, when I studied here. The vibe is different now. People are fed up and angry and you can feel it in the streets. Gare du Nord is dirty and smells. Lining the boulevards around the station are the homeless and economic refugees in makeshift tents. It’s heartbreaking to watch these hundreds of displaced people sleeping rough as stylish high heeled women try to get to the metro in the morning.
Outside Paris the vibe is even worse. Years of sluggish growth and hardly any reform have made this country difficult to govern. Its weakness as an ally destabilises Germany and therefore Europe as a whole. The Franco-German axis exists no more. The old way of doing politics in France is over.
After five very disappointing years in power, the Socialist President Francois Hollande, well aware of his unpopularity, is not running for a second term and his party – represented by a very leftist candidate, Benoit Hamon – doesn’t seem to have any chance of winning.
The right, with Francois Fillon as standard-bearer of the Republicans, had a very good chance of taking power but is imploding because the apparently austere Fillon is involved in a devastating scandal (he is accused of having given a lot of public money to his Welsh wife Penelope and to two of his five children for fictitious jobs).
Last week was a very strange one in French politics. I listened to too many statements from Fillon saying he will fight on despite half of his party abandoning him. It’s a witch-hunt according to him, and it’s unfair that he’s being investigated for the so-called “Penelopegate” .
Former Prime Minister Alain Juppe was considered a substitute for the right, but he was disgusted by Fillon’s unbelievable refusal to leave the race and a few days ago he ruled himself out as a potential candidate.
The status of the Republicans is up in the air. There is no way of replacing the candidate once he’s voted in, not even if he dies. And if he were to step down voluntarily, the money raised as part of his campaign belongs to the candidate, not the party. So in theory Fillon could depart the scene and not give the €6m he has cashed to his successor.
Fillon is defiant and it is not clear whether he is involved in a Shakespearean tragedy or a farcical vaudeville. One of his closest aides even told me that the scandal should not really be talked about during the race. How stupid does he think the voters are?
On the centre-left, the only candidate gaining traction is independent Emmanuel Macron, former minister for the economy in the Socialist cabinet of Manuel Valls. His campaign is gathering pace, with many endorsements from politicians past and present of the left and of the right. The former Socialist Paris mayor Bertrand Delanoe entered the fray saying he’s backing the 39 year-old Macron. Dominique de Villepin, a former centre-right Prime Minister, said he won’t be voting for his party’s candidate and praised Macron’s energy and audacity.
Howard Davies, chairman at RBS who also teaches at Science Po Paris almost every week, was the clearest on this: Macron may beat Le Pen in the second round, but then what happens in the legislative elections next June? He could become President but have no support in Parliament. He would be a lame duck President, which doesn’t bode well for France and Europe.
And we haven’t even touched on the big scarecrow of the markets, the eurosceptic Le Pen. The polls say she is stuck at around 40 per cent and she will lose against Macron or even Fillon. But what if turnout is low? What if the polls are again wrong? What if Putin’s infamous hackers help her hurt Macron, as apparently they hurt Hillary Clinton in the US elections?
The suspense is destined to last until the evening of 7 May.
These views are not necessarily shared by Bloomberg.