When Les Républicains held the first round of their primary to select a candidate for the French presidency, I was happy enough with the result. The last thing I wanted was to see Sarkozy make a comeback.
A week later, and I'm much less happy. The choice between Juppé and Fillon was a choice between a relatively centrist, inclusive candidate and a candidate who, both in economic and social terms, has shown himself to be as rabidly right wing as Sarkozy.
With the left in France in disarray, I tend to go along with the consensus view of most political commentators: namely that the two candidates who will now make it through to the second, deciding round in May next year will be Fillon and Le Pen. However, where I disagree with that consensus is that it will not be, as so many have described it, a contest between the "right" and the "far right".
The landmark political events this year, particularly the votes for Brexit and Trump, are not easy to understand. Our accepted ways of thinking have been turned on their head. But I would say this: that although UKIP, the prime movers behind Brexit, and Trump both advocate unmistakably right-wing policies, they have pitched their appeal at the disillusioned working class (the Americans use the term "middle class" to refer to the same group) who normally think of themselves as being on the left, and both won because a large percentage of this traditional left believed that narrative.
The essence of their appeal, in both cases, was to identify who/what to blame for their current predicament. Immigration and globalization were close to the top of the list with sub-text that both the UK and the US, if left to their own devices, would do better on their own than by interacting and being integrated with the wider world.
It is not hard to see how, with even a modicum of savoir faire, Marine Le Pen and the Front National will not pitch the same sort of appeal to the same group in France. And I believe that, if she does so, she will win in the same way as the Brexiteers and Trump have won. Make no mistake, Fillon is very right wing and has just won this primary precisely because he is so right wing. Getting rid of half a million public sector jobs and doing away with the 35 hour week and the workplace protections that make it extraordinarily difficult to get rid of employees is dismantling the very things that make France one of the most civilized countries in Europe. In my opinion, he has made a fundamental mistake by positioning himself more and more to the right in order to match Le Pen. Le Pen is as unscrupulous and inconsistent as Trump, and she will now respond by switching her appeal to traditionally left-leaning voters instead, leaving him flat-footed.
So, on the one hand, there will be a candidate who says: France is in trouble, and we can only solve our problems by making radical economic reforms which will hurt, but will make France more competitive in the long term. But on the other hand there will be a candidate who says: France is in trouble, but we don't have to give up the things which make France a civilized and humane place to live and work, we can achieve the same thing by stemming the immigration which drives down your wage levels and makes it harder for you to find work ... and instead of having to open ourselves up to unfair competition from poorer parts of Europe and the world, we can, if we leave the EU and the trade arrangements with the rest of the world that the EU forces us to accept, take steps to protect our jobs and industry. Of course I don't believe that either of those arguments holds any water, but the appeal won't be pitched at people like me.
The conundrum is that—by any objective measure—UKIP, Trump and Le Pen espouse right-wing policies. But two of them have now won what they wanted by getting those who traditionally saw the left as best representing their interests to switch sides, and I'm afraid that we are going to see it happen three times in a row.
We who comment on politics find it hard to appreciate the raw appeal of unscrupulous politicians who direct their appeal to gut feeling rather than reasoned argument ... but we can get a taste of how well it works by reading the comments section of the Mail or Express. I'm quite sure that the intellectual left in France will hold their noses and vote for Fillon rather than Le Pen in the final round next May, but they would be mistaken to think that the angry, marginalized and disillusioned working class left will do the same. In their complacency, they just won't see it coming. A simplistic, but superficially convincing, narrative aimed squarely at the gut rather than the head is likely to result in Le Pen becoming the next French president.