Mar 222017
 

By James Graham, 99GetSmart

France-image

The presidential race got serious at last. The first televised encounter took place a few nights ago, March 20, 2017 when the Big Five Political Lizards met up for the first of three debates.

You didn’t hear about it? What country is it? A small Caribbean island or one of those quiet socialist experiments one hardly ever talks about – Ecuador, Norway? Is Denmark voting? Holland had a primary, didn’t they? So which is it and who’s running?

It’s that bastion of liberal values, the country Americans yearn for when they need a saving dose of liberté, equalité, fraternité. The one that has been in a state of emergency for almost a year. France, indeed.

And what the interested viewer saw the other night, depending on their point of view, was either a well-moderated debate or a ghastly spectacle, a masquerade. Myself, I confess to regarding it as yet another circuit in a demolition derby where one character after another self-destructs in public. Who’s next, I wonder? The 2017 election is without precedent in the Fifth Republic, one in which “Populist Fascism” is within a bank shot of the Palais Elysée.

How did France get here? And is France really so different from anywhere else? After all, if Marine Le Pen of the National Front wins France will have its very own Trump, with the added frisson of an elderly sadist, Holocaust-denier banging around the halls of the presidential palace. (That would be Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine’s father, the founder of the Front. )

The current President, Hollande, announced in early December that he wouldn’t be a candidate for a second term. Not exactly a shock, even if it was unprecendented. But, fait accompli, his approval ratings hovering just slightly above Artic zero, what choice did he have? A living embodiment of the Peter Principle, the man who famously pledged to take on the finance sector delivered little more than gay marriage and a tell-all memoir before he left office. And yes, expanded snooping, an unending State of Emergency, involvement in Syria and… An excellent paddleboat captain, as Jean-Luc Mélenchon observed five years ago.

After his defeat in 2012 at Hollande’s hands and his announcement that he was now a private citizen, Nicholas Sarkozy formed Les Républicains from the shell of the old center-right UPM, and he did it, let it be observed, while keeping a steady stream of prosecutors and investigators off his trail. He’s a feverish, frisky sort and he gets himself in trouble, whether it be over money from Libya or L’Oreal. Les Républicains were to be his comeback vehicle in their November primaries but a funny thing happened on the way to the coronation: the employees decided they were sick of their hyper-active Boss. The annointed was then supposed to be Alain Juppé, the reasonable, grandfatherly Mayor of Bordeaux – but surprise again, François Fillon, one of Sarko’s henchmen, a man on the Paris merry-go-round for decades, pulled an upset. Austerity for all, he beamed, as if the medicine hadn’t already killed the patient elsewhere. A self-proclaimed Thatcherite with a Welsh wife named Penelope, he had the faithful cheering for what he was going to do to them, cutting here and slashing there. The man is a gift from the gods to those with a satiric bent. He looks a bit and sounds even more like our own Dick from Yorba Linda, full of snarlng, self-pity under pressure.

In mid-January, the Socialists held their primary. No hope in sight. How do you win an election with a dead dog tied around your waist? Prime Minister Manuel Valls, Hollande’s enforcer, a guy who looks like he wakes up covered in sweat, was supposed to win that one, too. The prize went instead to Benoit Hamon, a man in and out of the Hollande government twice (Economy, Education), a young Socialist (49 years old) with the dubious conviction that Socialists should project ideas other than career advancement. The Party faithful presumably couldn’t take any more business as usual but until his rally two days ago in Paris, Hamon was invisible, and he still is after the first debate.

(To watch Hamon’s rally at Bercy on Sunday was excruciating. How do you waltz with that dead dog? He had to say something about finance, he had to attack them, throttle them, repudiate them… what else are bankers and neo-cons good for at a Socialist rally? But there it was lurking in everyone’s minds, Hollande’s famous comment about his invisible enemy “finance” when he kicked off his campaign five years ago. Hamon had to say essentially the same thing but not use the same words, not invoke Hollande, not trip up, not leave himself open to charges of using bankers to get elected… Did a single soul believe what he said?)

And then came those merry days in late January, when the weekly Canard Enchainée broke the story that Mr. Austerity Fillon was in fact Mr. Largesse as far as family was concerned. No-show jobs for his reticient wife, legal assignments for his two children who had yet to pass the bar, it all came spilling out day after day in gorgeous detail. Dubbed Penelopegate, it opened a window on the Way Things Are and gave the French something to laugh about. Mr. Probity called it calumny, he called it misogyny, he called it all sorts of things but it wouldn’t go away, and the amounts kept climbing. Fillon is now officially under investigation, which means he will be charged. The question is when. Can one govern France from jail? Once touted as the safe bet to beat Le Pen, his latest speeches have been positively deranged, invoking Jeanne d’Arc and Jean Moulin, both of whom died agonizing deaths for their convictions. Fillon has not only destroyed Les Républicains and much of the right, he has made a national issue of the genteel practice of no-show jobs. He refuses to quit. Is that Presidential or isn’t it?

Meanwhile that eternal hothead, serial quitter of parties, the candidate with the sharpest tongue, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, is running on his own self-created France Insoumise. (Impossible to translate, it sounds like the party zone at a libertine club; Rebellious France will do.) Mélenchon, whom I’ve watched shove a journalist against the bar, is hard left in the jargon of papers like the Guardian. A candidate who had a far bigger rally in Paris on Saturday than Hamon did on Sunday with the whole Socialist apparatus behind him, it’ll be a surprise if Mélenchon gets more than 10 or 11% of the vote in the first round in late April. Still, never a dull moment around Jean-Luc.

A quick reading of Mélenchon’s manifesto (l’Avenir en Comun) makes it clear that he is even more of a dreamer than the nostalgic Le Pen. On matters specific to France he is astute and engaging but… the book is a lefty wish list of things that will never happen, written with a wand. Not that that sort of effort isn’t necessary from time to time but… As regards the EU, you wonder what he was doing in Strasbourg. He sees France acting independently to enact audacious changes in the script, without a hint as to how he will gain the support of 26 other EU members, also known as Countries That Aren’t France. “Europe is dead,” he announces. The problem, if that’s what it is, is that Mélenchon has ideas, some great, some mad, and while you can separate them out, few have a chance. France produced a great figure like Juarès on the back of labor and civil organizing. Who supports Mélenchon? The younger, disaffected, urban intellectual work force, who attend his rallies in numbers but are so presumably overcome with existential despair they can’t show up to vote for the man.

Ah well, bring on the Tin-Tin Brigade! Mélenchon even plans a space station on the Moon, to be shared with the Russians. It’ll probably be a paradise. Book me a ticket when it’s up, Jean-Luc. But pass the vodka now.

(Being patient and having borne with me this far, you are entitled to blurt out something like, “I don’t understand! Do you mean France of the Revolution, of ’68? Where is France’s equivalent of Podemos or Syriza or the Green-Left coalition in Holland… or anything?” Unfortunately, there’s no answer for that. Only groans in the dark….)

That leaves the winners for last, the two candidates leading in the polls: Emmanuel Macron, former minister of the Economy in the Hollande government (2014-2016), the handsome, charismatic fellow who at the head of his En Marche party is the new centrist hope to beat Le Pen. He has a program, a website, money, a ingratiating manner. How exactly does he intend to govern should he be elected, as a charming Third Way financial insider-political outsider? Legislative elections are in June and En Marche intends to run candidates fielded on-line. Seriously? He’ll be starting from zero, even fewer reps than the FN. He’s leading in the polls now and if he wins it will be a nail in the coffin of parties of all stripes. The whole thing feels like a gauzy fantasy.

Marine Le Pen is under investigation at the European Parliament for détournement of funds but as her father taught her long ago, it’s nothing to be ashamed of. (It’s known as the Farage Two-Step: take the money and then… stand there as if you bloody hell haven’t done a damn thing out of the ordinary.) The Front National is untouchable anyway: their entire existence is a scandal, an outrageous family opera that pretends to be about politics and is instead an anachronistic vision of France that stretches as far back as Algeria… and Vichy… and don’t ask. Industrial policy? Don’t ask. Marine wasted the debate getting excised over burkinis, a Moslem approximation of what proper ladies wore to the beach 100 years ago. Jews, Papa’s bete noire, are already fleeing to Israel in record numbers. There’s a good chance she’ll blow her Golden Opportunity when everyone else is in disarray.

But maybe not.

Of Le Pen and Macron there will be plenty to say as the campaign grinds on. Hopefully we can find some humor in it. France employs the antiquated first-past-post system with two rounds of voting, eleven current candidates winnowed down to two for the final on May 7. (You can check under the hood here.)

And yet “Macron surges among undecideds…” Let’s forget about parties and polls. Yesterday’s news. The Socialists look finished after Hollande and Les Republicains after Sarko and Fillon. Empty shells, hollowed out by money, avarice, lifeless ideologies. Is there a future for parties in living-breathing democracies, even the half-strangled ones? Maybe the left-right schism is over, too. Both Mélenchon and Le Pen want to drag France out of the Europe, Melenchon out of NATO, Le Pen out of the EU. Some sort of realignment awaits, some sort of opening for new energies must come about…

The early money on the horses says Macron over Le Pen but a whole slew of things can happen between now and the finish line. It feels like we’re in some species of Eternal Return, repeating things over and over without knowing it, sleepwalking towards an Apocalypse where the ponies collapse from exhaustion, panting for water. Or like the Bukowski novel where the losers always pick the wrong horses and the two factotums make off with the loot…

So, I say it’s Le Pen and not Macron. How so?

I get around a little and I meet people who’ve probably never been polled in their entire lives but who vote. Farmers, carpenters, some educated, some not. Macron with his bright and shiny future, his financial investments in this and that, his neither left nor right, Hamon with his universal income… it doesn’t touch them. They don’t believe it. Even after the first debate, they still don’t know who Macron is except a young guy in a sharp suit. Of the EU, on which everyone is dependent, they see an organization that refuses to adjust. Do they want closed borders, zero immigration and the old currency, le sacré franc, as Le Pen insists? Not one person has said as much to me but that, too, is not the issue. The issue is what they will do in early May when faced with More of the Same or Throw Them Out, and whether they decide, like a gambler down to his last desperate throw, to take the risk of a far-right candidate they don’t trust but who will administer a shock to the system. Either that or they don’t vote at all, which ends up being the same thing.

Trump will likely have an effect. As he inevitably stumbles and proves how impossible it is for a clueless autocrat to govern, his model will look less and less savoury. From the point of view of France, it’s question of when. It’s a short season. May comes soon.

Change the optics a bit and the question posed above returns: where’s the alternate current in France? Smaller countries (either land size or population), less encumbered by a domineering colonial past, seem to go in one direction (Canada, Denmark, Spain, Scotland, parts of central Europe, Latin America) while the Old Giants, the UK, Russia, China, the U.S. seem “doomed and determined” to adopt a schlerotic, oligarchic model. Which camp for France?

I realize that my form of polling and rampant speculation is unofficial, untabulated, anecdotal, probably inadmissable. But it’s as good as “Pretty Boy Macron up 3% this week, vows to woo London financiers to Paris.”

On verra, France.

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  9 Responses to “Elections in France: A Guide for the Perplexed”

  1. Just posted this to Facebook. Such a great analysis and so wittily written. This guy has NO CHANCE to land on the pages of a major newspaper. That kind of thing is not welcome. This analysis would have definitely predicted Trump´s win – that alone makes it worth reading.

  2. Barry Fay, whoever you are, I’d buy you a drink if I knew where you are. Thanks for the kind words. NO CHANCE for the majors I suppose but you read it here first so that’s not so bad. James Graham is Iddhis Bing – I was suing the NYPD at the time and thought a little camouflage wasn’t a bad idea – you can read my old stuff there on 99. There may still be surprises yet in France – there usually are – what if Macron stumbles? – so stay tuned.

  3. Can´t believe I missed this response! If you ever make it to Berlin I´ll take you up on that drink! (barryffay@yahoo.de). I ran your article by a friend of mine in Paris and think you might be interested in his reply:

    Thanks Barry. The article is appropriate ironic and deadly accurate in its descriptions if not in its prediction.

    It’s “fun” to speculate about Le Pen winning, and even intellectually challenging. But I’m absolutely sure it can’t happen. Not because people are afraid of her — that’s less and less the case — but because there will be a series of political moves between to the two rounds of the election that will define for the French “the reasonable thing to do”. Nobody knows what those moves will be, because we don’t know how the positioning of the candidates will evolve in the next few weeks, before the first round. But you can count on the system — and the media — to define that “reasonable” attitude that will limit Le Pen to a maximum of 40% and more likely the low 30s.

    I also think the writer is wrong to assume that Marine’s dad will have any role to play in government if she is elected. I wouldn’t even be surprised if, once Marine moves in to the Elysée palace, he ends up suicided. But she won’t win, so that’s mere speculation… i.e. one of those “fun” things to think about.

    One of the points the author failed to develop is that Le Pen would be considered a leftist in the US. A leftist opportunist to be sure, but unlike Trump her “identification” with the working class isn’t just a game of smoke and mirrors. On the other hand, she doesn’t have the professional political base to effect any of her working class policies. Which is probably why she will lose, since the French are capable of backing a revolution but not an inarticulate, nebulous pseudo-rebellious movement (think Trump).

    Still, with the “affaire Fillon” we’ve reached a stage of crisis of institutional faith that could lead anywhere.

    It should be an interesting month ahead of us. When I say interesting, I mean the same thing I find interesting about the US: all these electoral shenanigans are revealing what’s long been hidden: the levels of hypocrisy and vacuous showmanship all of our politicians are not only capable of but dedicated to acting out in public.

    Peter

    James, I sincerely hope this isn´t all too late. I also hope a post-election post is in the offing!

    • Hello Peter and Barry, My turn to duck out of sight. Currently back in Paris, after hitching from the south. Nobody does it? I do. Good way to meet people.
      I’m not going to use my extra three weeks leisure time to rank on Peter’s response, except to observe that here it is Sunday, the big day, Macron hasn’t stumbled, he’s faded a bit, Fillon “l’ogre” is still there and … nobody knows. The press is wailing away about “les indécis”. Mélenchon has surged but probably not enough.
      I didn’t take any pleasure in predicting a Le Pen victory but it’s in the cards.
      Take a look at this: http://www.lemonde.fr/les-decodeurs/article/2017/04/23/les-fractures-francaises-tout-comprendre-aux-inegalites-dans-l-hexagone_5115782_4355770.html or for that matter the Guardian’s trip to the French countryside a few days ago. All the makings of an angry protest vote. The farmers with no money (and high suicide rates) and the people in the abandoned villages know little about Trump or the catastrophy of Brexit… they’re fed up.
      The current thinking goes like this: If Macron gets through to Round Two, he beats anybody he’s up against.(So they say, I don’t believe it.) If LePen, whoever goes against her wins. The most interesting fight card looks like Le Pen vs. Mélenchon.
      In any case, however it shapes up, it will only be a victory for uncertainty, confusion, a historical moment with no clear options.
      Feel free to have Peter get in touch. Always like to have somebody to argue with at a café. I started a new article at 1 a.m. … but better to wait. jg

      • ACTUALLY, I’d like to see Mélenchon tear that smart young puppy Macron to shreds in the second round… Big IF.

  4. “Being patient and having borne with me this far, you are entitled to blurt out something like, “I don’t understand! Do you mean France of the Revolution, of ’68? Where is France’s equivalent of Podemos or Syriza or the Green-Left coalition in Holland… or anything?”

    You can say the same about Germany.
    No equivalent of anything.
    Only idiots in empty suits.

    • Germany is simply a vassal state of the American Empire. Nothing to see here, move along please!

  5. Hi James,
    It’s the morning after and I’m sitting in a lovely Airbnb in the Charentes Maritime listening to the cuckoo outside and meditating what life will be like with President Macron and PM Bayrou. I voted “par procuration” (for Mélenchon) and will be back in Paris tonight.

    It should have been predictable that the right would back Macron for the second round and that should do it for Le Pen. One thing we seem to be forgetting is that the Front National is ALSO an establishment party. We’ve seen the Democrats and Republicans both self-destruct in the US and we are watching the demise of the Socialists and the protean right (currently called Republican) in France. It’s amazing that the Tories are the last traditional party standing in the trio of so-called stable democracies that we could sum up with the acronym “FUKUS”.

    So here’s what I’m watching for the next two weeks:
    . the struggle of the right to define its relationship with Macron after endorsing him and the positioning of certain individuals with regard to the new president,
    . the consolidation of Mélenchon’s moral victory by turning it into a movement, one which could potentially drain away a significant number of Le Pen voters in future elections,
    . the power struggle between what’s left of the Socialists and Mélenchon’s embryonic movement,
    . and of course the circus that will be the redefinition of loyalties in the runup (for June) to the legislative elections.

    It should be high comedy, but in contrast to the US, we will be listening to a lot of articulate people, many of whom are endowed with a real sense of irony.

    As for Le Pen, she will be shadowing Hillary Clinton. Whether the Front National can gain traction again depends on what Macron does or doesn’t do.

    Let’s get together for a drink, whenever convenient for both of us, and go over these and other hypotheses.

  6. Contact attempted through facebook. Not sure this is the proper place to be handing out emails or phone numbers! En route to Paris today so will spare everyone a too quick reply!

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