If the final three months of the French presidential campaign are anything like the past three, Marine Le Pen could win by acclamation. The careers of several politicians once considered top contenders to take on the National Front Leader have gone up in flames in recent weeks. Now, the candidacy of the last of the Républicains still standing is on fire – and not in a good way.
Such are the twists and turns of this presidential race, the most unpredictable in the history of the Fifth Republic, that it's likely to hold many more big surprises before the May 7 final ballot. One reason is an electorate, fed up with politics as usual, that wants to break things. Another is the adoption of U.S.-style primaries, leading to even more toxic polarization in French politics.
In the past, France's leading parties left it to top brass to designate their presidential nominees. That changed in 2012, when the Socialist Party opened up the process to give everyone a voice in crowning their nominee. This time, both the Socialists and Les Républicains (the new name for the old centre-right Union pour un mouvement populaire) moved to open primaries, allowing anyone who paid a nominal fee to vote.
Instead of leading to the selection of centrist candidates, as intended, it did the opposite. In their November primary, the two candidates favoured by the Républicains establishment were humiliated by the insurgent candidacy of former prime minister François Fillon, a strict Roman Catholic who preaches traditional family values and Thatcherite economic policies.
Last weekend, it was the Socialist rank and file's turn to upset the apple cart by choosing as their nominee Benoît Hamon, a previously minor party figure whose main claim to fame had been his 2014 decision to quit President François Hollande's cabinet to protest his ex-boss's centrist drift. Mr. Hamon is a younger version of British Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders who would shorten France's 35-hour workweek, introduce a basic-income guarantee for every citizen, tax factory robots and make France radically green.
He also stands almost no chance of winning the presidency as moderate Socialists flee into the arms of Emmanuel Macron. The latter also quit Mr. Hollande's cabinet – but precisely because he thought his former boss was not centrist enough. The debonair former investment banker tried to steer Mr. Hollande into adopting even more business-friendly policies before leaving to launch his independent candidacy.
The staunchly pro-Europe Mr. Macron has benefited from glowing coverage from a star-struck French media, even though he has yet to outline any concrete policy proposals and has been accused of using his expense account as a minister to plot his presidential candidacy. But French elites are desperate to get behind a credible candidate who can stop Ms. Le Pen on the final presidential ballot.
For a brief period, it looked like Mr. Fillon might be the one to do that, despite holding views far to the right of the average French voter. That was until allegations surfaced that he long used public funds to employ his wife as a political assistant, to the tune of almost €900,000 ($1.27-million), even though it appears she did little or no formal work. His support within his own party and the broader electorate is sliding. His attempt to blame his troubles on a left-wing conspiracy is not helping matters. Républicains brass talk openly of finding a new nominee.
As for Ms. Le Pen, the National Front Leader has carried on her choleric way as the candidate to beat, spreading her anti-immigrant, anti-Europe and pro-worker message, in what she calls the Year of the Patriots. She brushes off demands from the European Parliament, where she leads the Europe of Nations and Liberties faction, that she repay EP funds allegedly used to hire aides who did party work. Unlike Mr. Fillon, the allegations only lend credence (among her supporters) to her charges of an establishment plot to suppress her.
Ms. Le Pen dreams of facing off against Mr. Macron on the final ballot. A graduate of France's elite schools, the former Rothschild & Co. banker is the perfect foil for the National Front, which rails against globalization and the bankers who reap its benefits at the expense of the working class. But given the past three months, it's anyone's guess who, if anyone, will be left to take on Ms. Le Pen three months from now.