Former Prime Minister Alain Juppé's announcement Monday that he has decided “once and for all” not to enter the French presidential race makes it very likely that neither the center-left nor the center-right will have a candidate in the second-round runoff vote in May, an unprecedented development in modern French politics.
Juppé lost a Republican Party primary to François Fillon, another former PM, in November, but supporters had been urging him to get back in the race as Fillon’s campaign has imploded over an ongoing corruption allegation. Fillon, who had billed himself as the candidate of morality and traditional values, allegedly arranged no-show jobs for his wife and two of his children, with French taxpayers picking up the bill, and faces possible corruption charges, but so far refuses to withdraw. Fillon was once the favorite in the race and was likely to face the far-right Marine Le Pen in the second round. But since the scandal began to consume his campaign, he’s fallen back into third place. Juppé trashed his onetime rival in his announcement Monday, saying that Fillon “had a boulevard (to the presidency) in front of him,” but that his ham-handed response to the scandal had led him to a dead end.
Though he lost the primary, polls suggest Juppé was probably a stronger candidate for the general election: He’s more moderate than Fillon, a hard-line fiscal and social conservative, and would probably have been more effective at reaching out to centrist and left-wing voters in the name of stopping Le Pen. So why didn’t he want to jump in and save the day? Possibly because he has corruption issues of his own in the form of a conviction for misuse of public funds back in 2004, for which he received a suspended jail sentence. “I do not want to submit my family to reputation-destroyers,” he said. Meanwhile, the third candidate from the Republican primary, former President Nicolas Sarkozy, may still have to stand trial over allegations of illegal funding of his 2012 reelection campaign.
The mess the Republicans are in is particularly pathetic given the current state of their rivals. Le Pen’s National Front is facing an investigation over alleged misuse of EU funds. Her party offices have been raided and several aides questioned, though she refused to submit to questioning, describing the affair as a politically motivated plot against her. She also could face prosecution for a different case, involving “publishing violent images,” over her 2015 tweeting of photos of the beheading of James Foley by ISIS. (Whatever you think of Le Pen, this charge seems a little over-the-top given how widely available these images were at the time.)
The center-left, meanwhile, is almost a nonfactor in the race. With President François Hollande’s popularity at record lows, this was always going to be an uphill fight for his party. The Socialist candidate Benoît Hamon has earned comparisons to Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn for his left-wing economic positions but appears to be too left-wing for mainstream voters and not left-wing enough for the left.
All this is working out well for Emmanuel Macron, the former Socialist economy minister and investment banker who is running as a centrist with the recently founded En Marche! Party. A poll last week showed Macron for the first time coming in first in the first round of voting, which would put him in a fairly comfortable position to take on Le Pen in the runoff.
Macron has had some missteps: He angered left-wing voters by promising to reach out to conservatives who had been “humiliated” for opposing gay marriage and angered right-wing voters by describing French colonial rule in Algeria, still a hot-button issue among former settlers and their descendants living in France, as a “crime against humanity.”
Seen as socially liberal, pro-business, but basically just flexible, Macron’s main appeal may be that other than a minor tax issue involving his vacation house, nobody’s dug up any major dirt on him yet. Which is not for lack of trying: Last week, Le Pen’s niece Marion Maréchal–Le Pen, an MP and rising star in her party, tweeted out a quickly debunked fake news story alleging that Macron’s campaign had been funded by Saudi Arabia. Macron’s party has also accused Russia of spreading false information to discredit him. (Le Pen and Fillon have both campaigned on improving relations with Moscow.)
The most likely scenario right now is a Macron victory over Le Pen in the second round, but given the political shocks around the world over the past year, the chaotic state of the race, and understandable voter frustration with a corrupt political establishment, it’s hard to predict anything with certainty