By James Graham, 99GetSmart
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.