France’s hopeless politicians will determine all of our futures

Allister Heath
WHAT a race. And what a mess. The useless Nicolas Sarkozy was given a bloody nose; the awful, economically illiterate Francois Hollande is in the lead ahead of the second round of the French presidential elections; and the horrendous national front grabbed almost a fifth of the vote.

Listening to the candidates last night, it was clear that there is no pro-capitalist, pro-globalisation, low-tax, eurosceptic, outward looking party in France – there is no equivalent to the British Conservative party’s Thatcherite tendency. What passes for the centre-right in France is social-democratic and fanatically pro-EU; it is very different to the centre-right parties seen in English-speaking countries and many emerging markets. The “right-wing” eurosceptic candidate (who was crushed) is a protectionist who wants to tax the rich – and hates French workers who have moved to London. The only successful eurosceptics are the hard left who believe Brussels to be a capitalist plot and fascists who hate foreigners, the free market and multinationals.

Most shocking was Marine Le Pen’s 18 plus per cent share of the vote. She inherited her National Front party from her extremist father Jean-Marie, and has proceeded to normalise it. But beneath her smooth exterior, she remains a dangerous demagogue. Her mission is to take over the mainstream conservative vote; she wants to remake it in her own, poujadiste image. Her strategy is working: she grabbed a remarkable chunk of the working class and the youth vote. In 2002, her father came second with 16.86 per cent in the first round. She has done substantially better and scored the best ever first round share for the National Front. But it is not just extremists on the right who gets votes in France – those on the left do too. Jean-Luc Melenchon, a communist candidate, got 11 per cent of the vote – and there were other extreme left candidates.

The trick now for Sarko and Hollande is to carve up the votes of the failed candidates. The communists and greens will back Hollande. The question is what happens to centrist candidate Francois Bayrou’s 9.1 per cent and to Le Pen’s. The polls suggest Hollande will end up winning with 54 per cent of the vote. Sarko will attempt to play the populist card on immigration, law and order and protectionism – he said last night that he understood public concerns on outsourcing – while Hollande will focus on bashing globalisation, banks and the rich.

If Francois Hollande wins, the parliamentary elections which take place in a few weeks time may also deliver a left-wing majority. UK commentators usually argue Hollande will never implement his manifesto. That is nonsense – Francois Mitterrand nationalised much of French industry in 1981 and it was only near-economic collapse that stopped him. Hollande won’t be as bad – but he loathes austerity, globalisation, finance, the current EU structure and will impose cripplingly high tax rates. He says he will merely delay balancing the budget but is bound to spook investors.

He would help London by triggering a fresh exodus of workers and capital from France. But he would seek to hurt the City even more via Brussels, making the UK’s relationship with the EU even less tenable. It is unlikely that he would back real austerity next time an EU country goes bust, triggering a massive row with Germany. Ultimately, that is the real story: an Hollande victory, coming as it would in the midst of the Eurozone’s endlessly drawn-out crisis, could destroy the Franco-German alliance that has powered European integration for so long. And if it does, all bets are off.
Follow me on Twitter: @allisterheath