At current prices the French outsider could be worth a small wager. When Francois Fillon, the man who served as Prime Minister under President Nicolas Sarkozy, saw off his old boss in the battle to be the standard bearer of the right/centre-right in next year’s presidential elections, he was catapulted into a run-off against long-time favourite for the presidency, Alain Juppe. In the event, Fillon, the darling of the so-called “right of the right”, saw off his more moderate rival very handily. In doing so, he seemed to have reflected the mood music sweeping politics more generally across Europe and the USA.
With the left in disarray, Fillon, a man often tagged as something of a French Margaret Thatcher, became the instant favourite to win the presidency when it is held later this year. In those elections, he will be pitted among others against the candidate of the National Front, Marine Le Pen, daughter of nationalist firebrand and president of the party for almost 40 years, Jean-Marie Le Pen.
There will indeed come a point this Spring when it will boil down to a binary decision, a face-off between just two candidates. That point will come in a second-stage election when the candidates finishing first and second in a national ballot of all presidential candidates will face off against each other.
In the last national ballot, Marine Le Pen came third behind Francois Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy. In the run-off, Hollande defeated Sarkozy by more than 3 per cent of the vote. This time Le Pen is expected by many to reach the run-off where she is expected to face Fillon. There is some optimism in the Le Pen camp that she might go all the way, based on recent events in the UK (Brexit) and the USA (Trump). If this nationalist, populist surge translates into votes in France, so the argument goes, Le Pen will sweep into office against any rival. At a best–priced 11/4 with the bookmakers, this optimism is not without support.
She would certainly have preferred to face the more centrist Alain Juppe than the man whose hardline credentials against immigration and radical Islam steal much of her own clothing. They are also both very much social conservatives. And this could be the problem for both of them. In particular, neither is likely to attract much support from the left or centre-left of the political spectrum, and they will definitely split a considerable section of the votes of those whose main concern is immigration. Might this be enough to let another candidate slip into the run-off? Quite possibly.
If so, it is likely to be either Emmanuel Macron or Manuel Valls. Macron is a charismatic former investment banker, who until recently served as Minister of Economy, Industry and Digital Affairs. He is running on an avowedly centrist, outsider ticket, based on a promise to lead a “democratic revolution” against a “blocked” political system. Manuel Valls is, like President Hollande, a member of the ruling Socialist Party, and until recently the Prime Minister of France in the Hollande government. To proceed to the next stage, Valls must see off his rivals on the left and centre left in a run-off primary. Macron has no plans to take part in the primary, but instead to run on an independent ticket appealing squarely to French Europhiles and those looking for a totally new direction.
Recent opinion polls show Macron trailing both Fillon and Le Pen, but his support has been growing and he records a higher approval rating than any of his rivals.
Can this momentum take him all the way to the run-off? To some extent this depends on events outside his control, including whether perennial centrist candidate Francois Bayrou runs again and peels off some of his base. If he does make the final two, and finds himself up against Marine Le Pen, I would expect him to be the clear favourite to win. Even against Fillon, he would pose a genuine threat, attracting many votes from the social and economic centre and centre-left. But he has to reach the final two first.
If I am asked to tip who I think will win, it is Francois Fillon, currently a best-priced 4/6, which is probably fair. Macron is available at a much tastier price, which compensates for his smaller chance.
To a small stake it may be worth siding with Emmanuel Macron, the outsider, at 6/1 or better, and hoping that he goes all the way to becoming the next Elysee Palace Insider.
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