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Weissman writes: "If you find US politics bizarre, keep your eye on the French presidential election."

On Sunday, November 27th, Francois Fillon clinched the Republican party's presidential nomination, having beaten his closest rival Alain Juppe in a second-round vote. (photo: EPA)
On Sunday, November 27th, Francois Fillon clinched the Republican party's presidential nomination, having beaten his closest rival Alain Juppe in a second-round vote. (photo: EPA)

France’s Next President: Catholic Nationalist Francois Fillon Threatens “a Blitzkrieg” Against the Welfare State. Neo-Fascist Marine Le Pen Would Save It.

By Steve Weissman, Reader Supported News

07 December 16


f you find US politics bizarre, keep your eye on the French presidential election. The first round of voting will be on Sunday, April 23, 2017, nearly five months away. But the race already threatens to change Europe and its relations with Donald Trump’s America.

Who will French voters choose? The candidate of the increasingly right-wing Les Republicans, former prime minister François Fillon, who all-too-glibly promises to be a French Margaret Thatcher? The neo-fascist Marine Le Pen, who has turned her father's anti-Jewish Front National into Europe’s leading anti-Muslim political force? Or someone from the left or center who could beat them both?

Failing divine intervention, I would not bet on that someone. The incumbent Socialists, former minister Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s Party of the Left, which has the backing of the once-powerful Communists, the Lutte Ouvrière, the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste, the Parti Radical de Gauche, and the Greens will all put up their own candidates. Inevitably, they will devour themselves and each other.

If one includes President Hollande’s wunderkind protégé and former economics minister Emmanuel Macron, 38, a millionaire Rothschild investment banker who is running as an independent centrist, the combined forces of the anti-right could easily win the first round of the presidential election with as much as 35 to 40% of the total vote. But, splitting the vote as they will, none of them except perhaps the economically liberal, socially progressive Macron have any chance to reach the second round of the election on May 7.

The splintering within the Socialist Party makes juicy front-page news. The current president, Françoise Hollande, whose nationwide approval rating dropped to 4%, has announced that he will not run for a second term. His right-leaning prime minister, Manuel Valls, who openly schemed to push Hollande out, is now widely seen as a Brutus, while the left wing Arnaud Montebourg, a former minister, creates little enthusiasm among his peers.

Conflicting egos and ambitions naturally play a role. But the sad truth is that too many of the party’s leading figures are about as socialist as Hillary Clinton or Tony Blair, whom Valls sees as a role model.

Whoever wins the party primary in January, how do they explain away Hollande’s failure to create the jobs he promised? As one of France’s best-educated economists, he knew he would he would need a massive program of Keynesian deficit spending to stimulate the economy. But that would have forced him to break dramatically with the fiscal restraints of the European Union and the austerity-minded economic orthodoxy of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Among the hard left, the gauchistes, the vice is versa. Mélenchon and most of the others are committed one way or another to Marxist ideas. But they have neither the following to make an anti-capitalist revolution nor the flexibility to lead worker-friendly reform efforts that would create jobs and make France more competitive in the existing global economy. Revolutionary hopes, reformist possibilities – a conundrum the left forever faces, not least in our very American debate over Bernie Sanders.

Enjoying a big boost in the polls from his overwhelming primary victory over both Sarkozy and the less extremist former prime minister Alain Juppé, the 62-year-old Fillon is now heavily favored to beat Marine Le Pen in the second round of the election. I’m not so sure.

Fillon lives in a bubble, blatantly favoring business while reflecting the traditionally ultra-conservative social values of the provincial Catholic bourgeoisie. Those are his roots. He and his Welsh wife, Penelope, still divide their time between Paris and a 12th century chateau in the countryside. He regularly demonstrates his sang-froid as an amateur racing driver. He burnishes his undeniable establishment credentials in ministerial offices and as one of the longest serving members of the French parliament. And, since leaving office if 2012, he has worked as a part-time business consultant, raking in an average of €17,000 a month.

How much will all this appeal to ordinary French voters who famously hate business and rarely darken the inside of a church except to be hatched, matched, or dispatched? How will Mr. Establishment’s improbable call to “fight the system” play after months of attack from left, far-right, and center?

“France is more right wing than it has ever been,” Fillon declares from his bubble. The people are “on the verge of revolt.” He then offers “the people” the same harsh austerity that much of Europe is now rejecting. His promises include:

  • A two point or more increase in a regressive sales tax (VAT)

  • Cuts in unemployment insurance, social benefits, and public spending

  • A vast reduction of hard-won worker rights

  • Huge tax cuts for the rich

  • Loosened regulations, protective tariffs, and subsidies for business

“I’ll do everything for entrepreneurs,” he enthuses, exhibiting a faith in trickle-down economics worthy of Donald Trump and American Republicans.

Fillon promises to cut 500,000 public sector jobs. As others point out, nearly 60% of those jobs are in education and most of the rest are in the armed forces and security services. Which does “Mr. Austerity” plan to cut – teachers, soldiers, or policemen? I can hardly wait for him to tell the voters.

He promises to eliminate the 35-hour work week, which is mostly symbolic, since French industry has already found ways to extend the normal work week to over 40 hours. He would also eliminate overtime pay, force those in the public sector to work 39 hours for 37 hours pay, and increase to 65 the age at which retirees could begin to draw their pensions.

He promises to shut down hospitals and restrict the country’s highly prized universal health care to severe and chronic diseases. People would have to pay for private insurance to cover anything else.

Worse yet, he plans to introduce these sweeping changes in his first two months as president, creating a strategic and immediate “shock” to the French system, likely provoking a job-killing recession, and bringing a large part of “the people” onto the streets and barricades.

This is the business side of Fillon’s project. His Islamophobia and Catholic Nationalism are no less severe.

“There are no problems with religion in France. There is a problem linked to Islam,” he argues. The “bloody invasion of Islamism in our daily lives could provoke a third world war.”

Vigorously rejecting any idea of multiculturalism, he believes that France is and should remain “a Christian country.” He defends the colonization of North Africa, saying “there was nothing to be ashamed about France just wanting to share its culture.” He wants schools to teach pride in the way he sees history. He would force immigrants to respect his Christian cultural heritage. He promises administrative controls on Islam in France, including a legal ban on the Salafi movement, preaching in Arabic, and wearing a burkini full-body swimsuit on French beaches.

Fillon’s views clearly echo Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” and the eagerness of Donald Trump, his Evangelical supporters, and the Islamic State to promote such a clash. They reflect the rising tide of racial and religious nationalism sweeping Europe, from the Britain of Brexit to the Germany of Angela Merkel and Russia of Vladimir Putin. And they reinforce anti-Muslim intolerance, competing directly with Marine Le Pen for right-wing Catholic voters like those in the Manif pour Tous demonstrations opposing same sex marriage. Le Pen is far more open than Fillon to gay rights, and welcomes her deputy Florian Philippot and other gays into the top ranks of the Front National.

Fillon and Le Pen also differ at the margins on foreign policy. Both back Vladimir Putin and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, who has protected Syrian’s Christian minority. But, echoing Gen. de Gaulle, Fillon blames “American imperialism” for Europe’s problems, while Marine Le Pen and her niece, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, are now caught up in a love-fest with Trump and his white nationalist strategist Steve Bannon.

But the major clash between Fillon and Le Pen will be over his pro-business economic program, which she has already condemned as “the worst that has ever existed.” However bizarre it may seem, Fillon will make Le Pen the prime defender of the French welfare state and could legitimize the neo-fascist Front National as an acceptable player in European and trans-Atlantic politics.

A veteran of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and the New Left monthly Ramparts, Steve Weissman lived for many years in London, working as a magazine writer and television producer. He now lives and works in France, where he is researching a new book, Big Money and the Corporate State: How Global Banks, Corporations, and Speculators Rule and How to Nonviolently Break Their Hold.

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