Voter dilemma: Who do French hate the least?

The race to be the next president of France could come down to voting for whoever will do the least damage, writes Noah Barkin. 

Voter dilemma: Who do French hate the least?

In Michel Houellebecq’s bleak satirical novel Submission, the French political order is turned on its head after the soul-crushing re-election in 2017 of Francois Hollande, the most unpopular president the country has ever seen.

“A strange, oppressive mood settled over France, a kind of suffocating despair, all-encompassing, but shot through with glints of insurrection,” writes Houellebecq in his 2015 bestseller.

Nine months before real French voters go to the polls, this gloomy vision - or some variation of it - no longer seems quite so outlandish.

Hollande, 62, may be a long-shot to win re-election.

But the chances of him emerging as the Socialist candidate for president remain high despite his abysmal approval ratings, now hovering in the mid-teens.

Also high, following a string of horrific attacks in France that have made security the top issue in the campaign, are the chances that his main challenger could be Nicolas Sarkozy, 61, the man who was France’s most unpopular modern leader before Hollande beat him in 2012 and claimed the mantle for himself.

So the next French election could well boil down to a choice between two failed presidents who are viewed with disdain by a majority of French voters, and Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Front.

“It would be election by elimination,” says Thomas Guenole, a political scientist and co-founder of consulting firm Vox Politica. “The choice facing French voters would be: who do you hate the least?”

Perhaps the only certainty in such a race, is that Le Pen, whose party is comfortably ahead of Hollande’s Socialists and Sarkozy’s Republicans in the polls, would make it into the second round.

The expectation is that Hollande, if he did run, would not.

But if he is up against Sarkozy in the first round and if Francois Bayrou, leader of the centrist Democratic Movement, joins the fray, he perhaps has a glimmer of hope.

Le Pen’s chances of winning a second-round run-off are seen as extremely slim. But the antipathy towards both Hollande and Sarkozy makes it difficult to completely rule out a Le Pen victory.

Unlike in 2002, when Socialist voters held their noses and backed center candidate Jacques Chirac in the second round to stop Le Pen’s father Jean-Marie, the appetite for crossing party lines to back Hollande or Sarkozy would be far more limited - in part because Marine Le Pen has spent years softening the image of the National Front.

“If elections were taking place today she would have no chance,” said Dominique Moisi, senior adviser at the French Institute for International Affairs (IFRI). “But if they are taking place in a context of new terrorist attacks you cannot exclude this scenario.”

Regardless of who emerges victorious, the choice between three deeply unpopular candidates could deepen the sense of alienation in France, fuelling a despondency akin to what Houellebecq describes in his book.

France is not the only country whose voters face poor choices.

The U.S. election campaign is playing out in similar fashion, with Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump both intensely disliked by large portions of the U.S. voting population.

In Germany, which will hold an election in the autumn of 2017, voters may feel they have little choice but to give Angela Merkel a fourth term, despite deep misgivings over her handling of Europe’s refugee crisis.

There are simply no attractive alternatives.

But the situation in France stands out because the country has such a desperate need for new ideas and leadership to pull it out of its economic malaise and spiraling crisis of confidence.

On the right, the alternative to Sarkozy is Alain Juppe, the 70-year-old former prime minister, foreign minister and defense minister.

Polls suggest Juppe would have an easier ride to the presidency. And although there is nothing “new” about him, he enjoys broader support than his conservative rival, with 58 percent of French saying they could accept him as president, according to the Ifop poll.

But the recent attacks - a mass killing on the promenade in Nice and the throat-slitting of a Catholic priest in a church near Rouen - have shifted the focus of the campaign to security, immigration and national identity, themes that play to Sarkozy’s strengths as a hardline former interior minister.

Sarkozy is climbing in the polls and Juppe, seen for months as the frontrunner, is falling as a November primary to decide the center candidate for president approaches. Whoever wins that primary will be the favorites to become France’s next president.

The attacks are also undermining the appeal of Emmanuel Macron, the 38-year-old economy minister and former investment banker who has been positioning himself as an alternative to Hollande on the left by preaching economic renewal.

A political sensation a few months ago, French media are now questioning whether Macron’s new political movement “En Marche” (forward) shouldn’t be renamed “En Panne” (broken down).

French voters may well be confronted with a choice next year that satisfies few.

In Houellebecq’s fictional world, the disillusionment resulting from Hollande’s re-election leads to the rise of a Muslim candidate who defeats Marine Le Pen in 2022 and introduces Sharia law and polygamy in France.

That won’t come to pass. But if the 2017 vote does play out as it now looks like it might, it would not be good for France or for Europe, where leaders are already struggling to inspire their citizens.

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