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Terrorism and Europe: weak links in Fillon’s bid for Elysée | Simon Heffer

With all eyes turning to April 2017, and the first round of the presidential elections, there remains one largely irrelevant detail to be dealt with before we proceed. 

The primary for the Parti Socialiste is not really to find a candidate for them – for whoever it is will be thrashed, and may possibly even be beaten into fourth place by Emmanuel Macron – but to see who is the new top dog in a party that, along with France, has been led by a limping one for the last five years.

While the socialists stew in their private grief, the rest of France, Europe and, in time, the world will watch the real battle: François Fillon versus Marine Le Pen.

We know in outline what their policies will be, and these will be fleshed out in the weeks ahead – and I shall analyse them here when they are. For the moment, after the year of Brexit and Donald Trump, an obvious question needs to be considered: can Mme Le Pen win? The answer is probably not, but M. Fillon, of whose capabilities and character I have long been an admirer, needs to prepare himself against all eventualities. And the world is such a topsy-turvy place, with electorates seeing that the unsatisfactory way in which they have been governed need not last forever, that anything can happen. And France has problems that make predicting the outcome of the election a mug’s game.

The first thing M.Fillon must remember is that the term most often used to describe Mme Le Pen and her party, the Front National – ‘extreme right’ – has become meaningless. She has one or two things in common with that label, notably her nationalism, but the rest of her programme is more old left. Her protectionism and her desire to impose immigration controls that will, in her theories, allow the French working class better access to jobs, are policies aimed at millions who traditionally vote for leftist candidates.

And she has tempered her social policies to sound quite unlike her father, a neo-fascist. I wouldn’t be surprised if she won the first round of the election; then I would expect her to spend the fortnight before the second round appealing to left-wing voters with a promise to end austerity and get jobs back for them.

M. Fillon could argue that states cannot create jobs: they can only create conditions in which it is easier for the private sector to do so. He would have plenty of scope – over-regulation and excessive taxation are holding France back, and too many resources are being poured into unproductive sectors (notably the enormous bureaucracy).

The gamble he must take is that the French understand the need for economic restructuring.

Implementing such a policy would be bloody and would require real courage, for it would mean tearing up 70 years of consensual politics dating back to the early days of the Fourth Republic, and facing down the unions. The result would be lower unemployment, higher growth and greater prosperity.

In economic terms, M. Fillon’s weak link, and Mme Le Pen’s trump card, is Europe.

She can blame austerity on Brussels and Frankfurt, and promise to take France out of the euro and, quite possibly, out of the EU. M. Fillon could close her down swiftly by promising a referendum, but he won’t. For a start, he believes in France’s destiny in the EU – though he is more sceptical of it than most in the mainstream political class.
To the white working class, ditching rule from Brussels is immensely appealing and Brexit has made it seem possible. If Angela Merkel has learned anything from Brexit, it will be the need to throw M. Fillon a bone in his campaign, either on immigration or on a serious devaluation of the euro.

Neither looks remotely possible at the moment, and he may have to go through his campaign supporting an increasingly unpopular institution while his opponent makes hay tearing it to shreds.
There is a potentially even uglier problem: terrorism. The Front National’s rhetoric on this subject has been ferocious for years; successive governments, one of which M. Fillon was prime minister for five years, have failed to get a grip on it.

Various atrocities – Charlie Hebdo, the Bataclan, Nice and the murder of an elderly priest last summer – have caused a state of emergency that will extend to July.
If extremists wish to destabilise Europe there could be few more effective ways of doing so than to target France during an election campaign in the hope that voters flock to Mme Le Pen, in response to her hard line. It hardly matters that she may prove no more effective at handling the problem than anyone else: by then the damage would be done.

For all the obvious reasons, France’s police and security services must be on the alert against radicalised fanatics. They must know that any failure on their part would be the surest way to deliver an upset that would change the direction of France and the continent.

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