Blame France’s incompetent and corrupt elite for the rise of Marine Le Pen

“Apres moi, le deluge.” (After me comes the flood)

–Louis XV

Say what you will, Francois Fillon, the disgraced former frontrunner in the upcoming French presidential elections, is no Professor Moriarty. As the investigative journal Canard Enchaine reports, Fillon paid his wife Penelope over 800,000 euros for work as a political assistant it is unclear whether she preformed. Far from being a master criminal, it seems he gave two of his children legal jobs despite the highly relevant fact that they were not yet lawyers. France is ripe for another revolution to rectify such excesses.

This is the problem with the rise of populism in Europe. The demagogues—horribly wrong as they are in policy terms over peddling impossible dreams as solutions–have all the best lines. And they are entirely correct in that Europe’s lazily corrupt, highly incompetent elite have driven the people they represent into a ditch.

There is no doubting that Marine Le Pen, the charismatic, firebrand leader of the xenophobic Front National (FN) has a great story to tell about both French elite corruption and incompetence.

The corruption portion of the populist narrative is beyond dispute. Beyond Fillon, former President Jacques Chirac and former Prime Minister Alain Juppe were given suspended sentences for corruption. Former Finance Minister and current IMF chief Christine Lagarde was found guilty of negligence for approving a massive payout of taxpayer money to a controversial French businessman. Former President Nicolas Sarkozy is presently under investigation for alleged illegal campaign funding. In reading this doleful list, sometimes I truly wonder if there is anyone left in power in France who has behaved honourably.

The other side of the coin, incompetence, is epitomised by hapless outgoing current President Francois Hollande, a leader so gormless that in November 2016 he had a personal approval rating of just 4%, a subterranean low unequalled in the history of the Fifth Republic. Bowing to electoral reality, in December 2016 Hollande surrendered, not even bothering to try to run for a re-election he stood absolutely no chance of winning.

The main reason for this was his pathetic failure to even begin to substantially reform the sclerotic French economy. During his tenure, France has lost a further 600,000 jobs. In 2016, France grew at an anaemic 1.1% of GDP, in line with its lacklustre 1.2% in 2015. Stunningly, as of January 2017, more than one in four workers under 25 is jobless. The world is simply passing the French economy by.

As a result of this dual headed monster of corruption and incompetence, Fillon has fallen in the polls, making maverick centrist Emmanuel Macron the new frontrunner to be President of France. The latest early February 2017 polls have Le Pen at 25%, Macron at 22%, and Fillon at 19% in the first round of voting. In a second round, Macron would win decisively over Le Pen with a 66-34% advantage. But while the competent Macron is now likely to win, such a victory should not be seen as a repudiation of Le Pen. Rather it is part of her long-term game plan.

For Macron is France’s last, best chance to save itself in its present form. However, if he cannot reform the heretofore unreformable French economy, France as we know it is on its last legs. Le Pen is set to take one third of the vote in the second round of this year’s presidential elections on May 7th, almost double her father’s total of 18% as the FN candidate in the second presidential round of voting in 2002. So the flood waters for the French elite are definitely rising.

All Le Pen needs are five more years of economic failure, and then she has all the chance in the world to win the presidency next time, especially as her narrative of elite incompetence and corruption hardens into certainty for the French electorate. Le Pen is merely betting on is things staying as they are, with the talented, youthful Macron (he is only 39) unable to drag his country into the twenty-first century. Given France’s recent past history, that is more than a reasonable bet to make.

And yet in Macron there is hope. A former Rothschild banker, he comes from the real world pro-business wing of the Socialist Party, serving as a marginally successful economy minister under Hollande, after the French president made his belated policy pivot back to economic reality. If anyone can reform France, Macron is the man.

However, Le Pen’s long-term bet on French elite incompetence and corruption has so far been borne out by the historical facts. It will take real French reform to stave off the terribly destructive prospect of French populism. For the main problem in French politics at present is that only Le Pen seems to have a real long-term political game plan.

Published in City AM London, February 13, 2017.