France: War-gaming the Four Scenarios

Published on April 21, 2017

With recent polls tightening, there are now four candidates with a real chance of making it to the second round of the French Presidential elections. Despite last minute jitters over a late surge by far-left candidate Lean-Luc Melenchon, independent centrist Emmanuel Macron and National Front leader Marine Le Pen are still slightly ahead of the pack. But with conservative François Fillon and Melenchon trailing by a margin smaller than the margin of error, they are still able to pull off a surprise.

With so much at stake, French state officials have been quietly war-gaming different scenarios and potential key appointments. Here is their, and our, assessment of various outcomes.  


Scenario 1: Macron

In the event of a Macron victory, the majority of Socialist Party candidates in the legislative elections are expected to indicate they are willing to support the Prime Minister Macron chooses, but only under certain conditions.


Macron will also seek support from the center-right, but the “bleeding” from Les Republicains could be much smaller than the Socialist defections. The center-right is structurally and historically the majority party in France, and they will want to protect their position to win the next legislative elections, even under a Macron presidency.


And so with no absolute majority for Macron in the National Assembly, the Prime Minister would have to find support within the reformist wing of the Socialist Party, the UDI, and the left wing of the Republicans (see SGH 3/17/17, “France: A Legislative Challenge for Macron”).


Macron could take a different path to choosing his Prime Minister: he could select a PM with a high political profile, someone experienced and knowledgeable of the arcana of the parliament. Names being floated include Richard Ferrand, current Defense Minister Yves Le Drian, and Gerard Collomb. The new President could also flip the table and appoint a woman with a political profile, perhaps Laurence Parisot, Liberal MEP Sylvie Goulard, or IMF President Christine Lagarde.


Or Emmanuel Macron could appoint a PM who combines the two qualities, while also being little known. That would point to Bariza Khiari, a woman and a senator since 2004 who has the advantage of knowing the parliamentary mechanism, without being widely known to the general public, and who would also tick an interesting diversity box.


Political insiders expect Macron to tap a slate of experienced people for other key government posts, starting with Jean Pisani-Ferry, an economist who has contributed to Macron’s program, who is expected to get an economic ministry, En Marche! spokesperson Benjamin Griveaux, who may be  appointed Minister of Health, and Laurence Haïm, who could get spokesman of the government or the ministry of culture. Macron will also draw from  a number of young local administrators with hands-on government experience who have enthusiastically supported his campaign.


Finally, the Labor Ministry could go to Christophe Castaner, who was the Parliamentary speaker for the Macron-sponsored labor legislation that was approved during the Hollande Presidency.


Scenario 2: Fillon

A François Fillon victory would very likely be the consequence of a Macron collapse, with undecided Macron voters turning to the establishment candidate Fillon’s safe pair of hands.


With Fillon as President, and a likely legislative victory, the usual power configuration of the Fifth Republic would remain intact, with a supporting strong and stable majority. Melenchon’s Party, France Insoumise, would likely replace the Socialist Party as the main opposition party.


It would also bring former President Nicolas Sarkozy and his allies back onto the political scene, as a result of an accord between the two that allowed Fillon to remain candidate of Les Republicains despite his widely known corruption and judicial woes.


We understand Fillon is expected to appoint François Baroinas Prime Minister. Alternatively, should he choose to mark the beginning of his mandate by emancipating himself from the guardianship of Nicolas Sarkozy, he could turn to his loyal supporter Bruno Retailleau.


Former AXA CEO Henri de Castries would probably begin with a small portfolio to quell any suspicions of conflict of interest, but will eventually obtain a high-level post such as Defense Ministry, which Ile-de-France governor Natalie Kosciuscko-Morizet also covets.


Valerie Boyer, former social security officer and a loyal ally of Fillon, would probably get the Ministry of Health, and Florence Portelli, the incarnation of the party’s socially conservative young generation, would get the Ministry of the Family.


Other important government posts will go to Jean Christophe Lagarde, who is one of the few UDI politicians who stayed loyal to Fillon, Eric Woerth, a Sarkozy-loyalist, and Gérard Larcher, who could get Education or Labour.


Finally, to reflect the socially conservative direction of the government, “Common Sense” activists, who have been fighting against gay marriage and abortion, might also be given some high profile appointments.


Scenario 3: Le Pen

There are serious concerns in French political circles that a National Front, Marine Le Pen victory could be followed by a period of civil unrest, and fears she could use that unrest to consolidate authority by drawing on wide presidential powers provided in the Constitution of the Fifth Republic. In the event of major disturbances, which the National Front itself could foment in the run-up to parliamentary elections, invocation of Article 16 of the Constitution (relating to full powers) should not be ruled out.


Full powers are typically limited in time to thirty days, but that, the Le Pen opposition fears, could well be enough time to weld voters through fear into a legislative elections surprise, a very Putin or Erdogan style show of strength.


If that doesn’t give Le Pen a majority, the second option for the National Front would be to conclude a government agreement with Les Republicains, which for now seems like a stretch given the differences in economic policy between the two parties.


However, we could not help but notice that in the presidential debate on April 4, Le Pen attempted a turn towards more mainstream economic policies, probably already with an eye to the second round, in proposing a reduction in taxation for small and medium-sized enterprises.


A blue-brown coalition supporting a right wing government would be put to the test from the first parliament votes and especially from the vote on the budget. The scenario of a relative majority of the FN alone in the National Assembly though seems difficult to envisage, as many regions in France remain opposed to the Front and will send plenty of candidates to the Assembly radically opposed to FN policies. For example, it is unlikely that even one of the 18 constituencies of Paris will go to the FN, and this resistance prevails in Brittany, and in parts of south-west Aquitaine as well.


If Le Pen aims at luring more traditional Gaullist voters, she could decide to give the post of Prime Minister to a right-wing personality like Gérard Longuet, Philippe de Villiers, Thierry Mariani (who is also in the race for foreign minister) or Claude Guéant.


Other hard-right personalities like Eric Ciotti, Guillaume Peltier, Geoffroy Didier, Henri Guaino, Nadine Morano or Lionnel Luca could also join the government team.


Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, another right wing Presidential candidate who is credited with bringing in 5% of the votes, could also obtain a ministry – the importance of which will depend on his score in the first round – in exchange for his support for the second round of the presidential.


Finally, a former adviser of Nicolas Sarkozy, Patrick Buisson, could return to the Elysée or a ministry, along with cadres of the micro-party “Common Sense,” now close to François Fillon.


However, in the event of a short victory and with a view to seeking unity within her party, Le Pen is expected to also be obliged to appoint a good number of more “mediocre,” extreme party loyalists.


The Ministry of the Interior could be given to David Rachline or Steeve Briois, with the latter also in the race to be appointed Minister of Finance.


The Justice Department would seem likely to go to Gilbert Collard, but his strained relations with several executives of the FN could work against him to the benefit of an experienced personality like Jacques Bompard, despite announcements to the contrary by Marine Le Pen.


Marion Maréchal-Le Pen will also get a ministry, probably Education or Social Affairs, a gesture that would be crucial to healing fractures within the party.


All that being said, there could be surprises, with the appointment of people who are not well known to the public but who have important networks, particularly in the regions or in the European Parliament.


It is also possible to envisage that, initially, important members of the FN like Florian Philippot will not be in the governmental apparatus in order to prepare for parliamentary elections, and to guarantee the unity of the party and carry out campaigns for the critical planned referendums, which Le Pen is very serious about calling (See again SGH, “France: A Legislative Challenge for Macron”).


Philippot is incidentally the creator of the economic policy currently proposed by Ms. Le Pen, the “intelligent protectionism” that precludes the conclusion of an agreement with the establishment Republicains. The FN could abandon its “social” discourse if it is to try to rule together with the center-right.


There is concern that the strong social tensions caused by blue-collar workers who feel betrayed could lead to FN deputies faithful to the Philippot line eventually seeking to break away from the party.


Scenario 4: Melenchon

Despite his recent rise in the polls, far-Left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon’s advance to the second round is deemed unlikely by our French political sources.


But in the unlikely event of a victory, President Mélenchon would probably be the one who, together with Le Pen, would have the most difficulty in constituting a stable majority in the Assembly.


Like Le Pen, his election and the implementation of his radical program would lead to major uncertainties in the short term, both at the national and European levels.


Should he become President, Melenchon plans to set up a Constituent Assembly to be elected and/or selected to draw up a new Constitution of the Sixth Republic.


Under the current Constitution, this is possible only through the revision of the 1958 Constitution. Melenchon would therefore propose to hold an Article 11 referendum as soon as he is elected to initiate that process. France would therefore almost immediately enter into a new electoral campaign for this referendum, as well as for legislative elections.


In this context, it is possible to imagine the establishment of a “war cabinet” for this turbulent transitional period. For staffing, Mélenchon would probably look for personalities from the PS, left-wing radicals, environmentalists, and the unions. If he succeeds in negotiating his first steps as President of the Republic and rallies the left-wing forces hostile to the policy of Francois Hollande, Mélenchon could enjoy a relative majority following the legislative elections.


He is expected to entrust the post of Prime Minister to a woman. Candidates include Cécile Duflot, Christiane Taubira, or Ms. Danielle Simonnet, who has the advantage of being a faithful of Jean-Luc Mélenchon while enjoying a relatively uncontroversial profile.


If Benoît Hamon, as some expect, shows his support for Melanchon after the first round, he could also be rewarded, in an effort to seal a legitimate alliance with the PS left.


The Foreign Affairs Ministry could change its name (and become Ministry of International Relations), and be presented to Pierre Laurent, in order to underscore the weight of the French Communist Party in the new presidential majority.


The Ministry of Economy is expected to be transformed into a “Ministry of Ecological Transition,” and could be entrusted to a personality like Thomas Piketty, or to the socialist Marie-Noëlle Lienemann. Arnaud Montebourg, benefiting from a few networks in the industry following his tenure as economic and finance minister, could also return to government, like Jacques Delors did in 1981, in order to play the role of the “reasonable” voice that  reassures financial markets, or alternatively as foreign minister.


As a symbol of the fight against corruption, Melenchon is believed to be eyeing Eva Joly for Minister of Justice.


Other posts will be given to loyalists such as Clémentine Autain, who should get a place in the ministerial machinery perhaps in the fight against exclusion and poverty.


The Defense portfolio could be given to Alexis Corbière under the supervision of Djordje Kuzmanovic, who has been moving closer recently to Melenchon.


Finally, the establishment of the Constituent Assembly could be coordinated by Mathieu Dupas and Charlotte Girard.


Alternatively, in the event that Melenchon doesn’t do as well in the legislative elections, and with the Socialist Party in tatters, the center-right could get a majority in the Assembly.


In that case, if necessary, an LR government headed by a loyalist such as Mr. Baroin would implement François Fillon’s program while Mr. Mélenchon would concentrate on overseeing the work of the Constituent Assembly.

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