by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
A scandal to mar the French election. Anything less and they wouldn’t really be trying, would they? Of all the world’s political gods, those that serve the French are the most puckish.
And yet, the persistent rumors that have engulfed François Fillon are, in truth, the least interesting thing about this extraordinary election cycle. That Fillon’s descent has left a gaping political void is interesting, certainly. But what’s really fascinating is how it’s being filled. Late last year, it seemed all but certain that France would have a sensible, center-right president of the sort you could take home to your mother. Today? Heaven only knows.
On paper, Fillon was perfectly placed. He had the experience, having been prime minister under Nicolas Sarkozy, and he had the novelty value, having become the North Star of a new French conservatism that has embraced Catholicism in spite of laïcité, turned happily toward “Anglo-Saxon” free markets, and even rebranded its flagship party as “the Republicans.” In addition, he was well suited to bridge the gap between the sects in a country that remains as divided as ever — “How,” Charles de Gaulle asked, “can you govern a country that has 246 different sorts of cheese?” — but has become steadily more right-leaning as the years have gone by. Astonishingly for a French politician, Fillon is running on a platform would be familiar to voters in the United States: Inter alia, he wants to reduce the number of civil servants, abolish France’s “wealth tax,” abolish the 35-hour work week, reform the health-care system, and raise the retirement age; and, while he has promised to protect the legal status quo, he is vocally pro-life and opposed to gay marriage. For once, the stars seemed to have aligned: The most credible, electable option was also the most sound.
But, damn those puckish gods, it was not to be. And, alas, the alternatives to Fillon are markedly less appealing than is he. There is Marine Le Pen of the Front National (FN), who, despite having distanced herself from her father and swapped open-handed racism for implication-heavy populism, is still rather unpleasant. There is Benoît Hamon, the most left-wing candidate within the Parti Socialiste, whose big ideas are to tax robots and to add a universal basic income on top of France’s creaking welfare state. There is Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a cerebral left-leaner whose destiny is to be the best-spoken also-ran in French history. And there is Emmanuel Macron, a self-described post-ideological moderate who is a leading contender for Luckiest Man in France.