Thatcherism Redux in France

A pro-Putin student of the Iron Lady squares off against an anti-immigrant backer of the Big State.
Photo illustration by 731; Photos: Jeff Overs/BBC/Getty Images; Vincent Kessler/Reuters

For the past 30 years, French voters have elected leaders who tinkered around the edges of economic policy. The 2017 presidential election could be different. Former Prime Minister François Fillon, the center-right standard-bearer, is a neo-Thatcherite who wants to downsize government, slash taxes on corporations and the rich, and scale back labor protections. His leading rival, Marine Le Pen of the National Front, has an economic plan that could be mistaken for a Marxist tract, with calls to strengthen the social safety net, raise trade barriers, and nationalize the banks.

The drastic measures proposed by both candidates are a reflection of France’s malaise, with anemic growth and unemployment hovering around 10 percent for most of the past five years. Fillon is betting the French will give up some of their social protections to jump-start growth. “France will not stand for its decline,” he told supporters after winning the nomination on Nov. 27.

Le Pen is betting that voters want more, not fewer, protections. Her economic proposals, long overshadowed by the Front’s anti-immigrant, anti-European Union views, are only now coming into focus. With the Socialist Party in disarray under deeply unpopular President François Hollande, polls suggest that Fillon and Le Pen are almost certain to advance to a May 7 presidential runoff after an initial round of voting in April.

In a Nov. 27 interview on Europe 1 radio, Le Pen called Fillon’s plan “the worst ever.” Le Pen’s top adviser, Florian Philippot, compared Fillon’s proposal to cut €100 billion ($106 billion) in government spending to the “troika poison” given Greece by its creditors—a reference to the draconian fiscal measures imposed by the International Monetary Fund, the European Commission, and the European Central Bank in return for aid. “What will be left for the poorest people and the middle classes?” he asked in a TV interview.

Fillon is a social conservative who promises to uphold “French values,” take a hard line on law and order, and forge closer ties with Russia—positions similar to Le Pen’s. Indeed, in the primary, Fillon racked up some of his widest margins in regions such as the Mediterranean coastal area, where the lepénistes enjoy strong support.

Le Pen is reaching out to working-class voters who feel the system is stacked against them. That sounds a lot like Donald Trump, but Le Pen’s economic plan veers sharply to the left of the U.S. president-elect’s. She says she’ll nationalize banks to force more investment in French industry, lower the retirement age, pump up welfare benefits for lower-income households, and preserve labor protections such as the 35-hour workweek.

This platform dovetails with the National Front’s populist message that stubbornly high unemployment and sluggish growth are “the fault of others,” says Bruno Cavalier, chief economist at Oddo Securities in Paris. “They blame globalization, foreign competition, Brussels. Le Pen is saying, ‘We have a system that has failed. Let’s try something radically different.’ ”

Taking aim at two things widely blamed for slow growth, Fillon has promised to overhaul rigid labor laws and cut the corporate tax rate from 34.4 percent, the highest of any major European economy, to 25 percent. “His program is very realistic, serious for the business community,” said Pierre Gattaz, head of French employers association Medef, in a Nov. 28 interview on Bloomberg Radio. Le Pen, though, views the government “as protector of the working population,” says Stéphane Henry, a labor lawyer at Paul Hastings in Paris. “Her voters are not the people in the executive suite.”

Fillon’s next challenge is to reach beyond the 2.9 million disproportionately male, rural, and elderly voters who supported him in the primary, says Bruno Cautrès, a professor at Sciences Po in Paris. Until now there’s been no evidence of a popular groundswell for Fillon’s remedies. Yet polls suggest he may succeed. A Nov. 29 survey by polling group Kantar Sofres-OnePoint found that Fillon would get as much as 34 percent of the first-round presidential vote in April, with Le Pen at no more than 26 percent, and others, including socialists, environmentalists, and splinter parties, taking the rest. In a runoff, the poll predicted Fillon would beat Le Pen 66 percent to 34 percent. A Nov. 27 survey by Harris Interactive had similar findings, with Fillon beating Le Pen 67 percent to 33 percent in the runoff.

Although the National Front’s support has grown steadily in recent years, the party has yet to score an electoral breakthrough. It holds only two of 577 seats in the National Assembly. In regional elections last December, it won more than 27 percent of the vote nationwide but failed to win control of a single region.

One big problem for Le Pen is that many French working-class voters are longtime leftists. Even though they may not like Fillon’s free-market economics, they may like the National Front’s anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, and anti-European stances even less. While Le Pen wants to pull out of the EU, surveys show that French support for the union has grown as Britain has suffered political upheaval and a plunging pound after voting to leave. Oddo’s Cavalier asks: “Will it really attract the average leftist voter to have this kind of disorganization?”
With Mark Deen and Helene Fouquet

The bottom line: Rhetoric in the French election swings from anti-immigrant to loud calls for fiscal cuts and deep labor reform.

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