France’s presidential elections in April and May stand out as the most volatile, unpredictable, and potentially earth-shattering event in recent French and European history.
In March 1968, just two months before student protests broke out in France, the famous editorialist Pierre Viansson-Ponté wrote, “France is bored.” He described a country almost sedated, made numb by state television, its young people disinterested in world affairs, and its president, General Charles de Gaulle, content with inaugurating monuments and visiting agricultural fairs. This was a nation “neither unhappy nor really prosperous,” a country wallowing in “apathy and stillness,” wrote Viansson-Ponté. But what could one possibly complain about? “Boredom, for a nation, is the closest thing to happiness,” suggested the author. “Who would miss wars, crises, strikes?” The French, he noted, “have all too often shown how they can love change for change’s sake, and at whatever cost.”
Almost half a century later, it isn’t hard to find signs pointing to a likely explosion of French outrage: 1968 France was perhaps bored, but 2017 France is entirely fed up. It is angry, frustrated, and often scared. All of these feelings will play out in the presidential election. The key question is whether that rage can be channeled into a genuine democratic renewal, or whether dark political forces will win the day.
The risks are hard to overstate. For the first time since World War II, there is real danger that a fascist-type leader will be given the opportunity to rule France. Understand correctly: This isn’t to say Marine Le Pen is the likely next president. But her chances of reaching the highest office cannot be discarded. Her victory is possible. And not just because opinion polls (which indicate she will be soundly defeated in the second round) shouldn’t be taken entirely at face value.
A strong wave of public indignation has gripped France, triggered by a financial scandal rocking the campaign of François Fillon. The mainstream right-wing presidential candidate paid his wife large sums of money from parliamentary funds. The outcry is such that there has been talk of a “regime crisis,” with the presidential vote itself at times cast into doubt. Fillon’s prior image of an “honest man,” which helped him win his party’s – Les Républicans – primaries, took a very bad beating. The current of anger toward the elites has perhaps never run as strong as it does now. Anything that smacks of the establishment seems to be a byword for fraud or incompetence. Ordinary people following the Fillon saga were thinking, “How is it that we struggle just to get by, while politicians continue to cheat and thrive?” Trust in institutions has dipped – the army an exception with its strong popular support. All of this is fodder for populist forces.
French anxieties come in three types. There is fear of globalisation, fear of losing a “national identity,” and fear of being further downgraded on the European and world stage – no small matter in a country that likes to pride itself on a “universalist” message and has always sought prestige. In his memoirs, de Gaulle famously compared France to a “Madonna” and “a fairytale princess.” “France is truly itself only when it stands in first rank: Only vast endeavors can compensate for the ferments of dispersion that its people carry within,” he wrote emphatically. Myths can inhabit a nation deeply. Many French people feel reality doesn’t reflect what they are entitled to have.
France suffers from deep domestic fault lines. Entire social groups feel pitted against one another: young versus old, unemployed versus employed, rural versus urban, unqualified versus educated, immigrants versus non-immigrants. To be sure, such divisions exist in many countries, but in France they take on a somewhat existential dimension because of the egalitarianism and indivisibility that are historically attached to the notion of the Republic. After terrorism struck on French soil in ways unseen since the Algerian War, there were stark fears that social cohesion might completely break down. But more than anything, it is the decades of mass unemployment that have taken a severe toll (the joblessness rate stands at 10 percent nationwide and 24 percent among the 18-24 age group). Some 64 percent of French people believe today’s youth have fewer chances of being successful than their parents. Surely, this is fertile ground for those who seek to designate scapegoats. A January 2017 survey showed 62 percent of those polled believe Islam is a “threat to the Republic” – although, interestingly, 55 percent believe “immigration is a source of cultural richness.”
Le Pen is getting ready to capitalise on accumulated fears. That is why the April 23 and May 7 presidential election stands out as the most volatile, unpredictable, and potentially earth-shattering political event in recent French history. Attitudes toward Marine Le Pen are deeply divided. Although 55 percent of the French find her “worrisome,” she tops the list of the politicians who supposedly “understand the problems of ordinary people.” The taboo of a far-right president no longer holds in France.
In early February, Le Pen was leading in opinion polls with a steady 25 percent of the vote in the first round of the election. That was even before she started ramping up her campaign with a rally in Lyon, where she promised to introduce a system of “national preference.” Le Pen is 48 years old and absolutely determined to reach power – unlike her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who was content to be a fringe politician. She wants to court the populist vote, left and right, with protectionist slogans and promises to save the welfare state from “neoliberal” economic cuts or from foreigners. She casts herself as a shield against external forces supposedly seeking to dictate to France, with the European Union high on her target list.
Of course, Le Pen is selling an illusion, but that doesn’t mean people aren’t buying it. She stands to gain from Fillon’s political collapse if it happens. She can also benefit from the divisions and radicalisation on the left, now that a Jeremy Corbyn-type figure has been chosen as the Socialist candidate. Benoît Hamon’s designation comes across, by the way, as a definitive indictment of François Hollande’s lackluster presidency. Hamon’s program is somewhere between utopian and maverick, including the introduction of a universal basic income, the legalisation of cannabis, and a tax on robots.
As a result, many French democrats have started placing their hopes on the 39-year-old former banker Emmanuel Macron – now seen as the main bulwark against Le Pen. A centrist, Macron emerged from Hollande’s presidency rather disgusted by the state of French politics and the difficulty of reforming the country. A former economy minister with a taste for theater, he runs a distinctly unconventional campaign. He’s broken with traditional left-right party politics. His start-up “En Marche!” (“Forward!”) movement claimed 170,000 members ten months after its launch. One of Macron’s characteristics, apart from his youthfulness, comes from his campaign team’s electoral techniques, which much resemble those of Barack Obama in 2008 (resorting to big data, mapping out neighborhoods, and sending out activists for targeted door-to-door action). Like Obama, Macron casts himself as a messenger of hope (he speaks of “the triumph of hope” in his rallies). Macron wants to “reconcile” French people beyond partisan, ethnic and religious lines. He appeals to an urban, connected, educated, “globalised” part of the electorate. He speaks for a France that doesn’t live in fear, but is fed up with the “old system” all the same. Le Pen, on the other hand, appeals to those who are both afraid and fed up. There are many of those.
Outside the Bubble
To get a measure of France’s mood, it’s important to get out of Paris. France has long been a strongly centralised state, going all the way back to the royal courts where aristocrats spent their whole time plotting against one another or seeking favors from the monarch. The Paris elite is seen as constantly obsessed with itself rather than with the lives of ordinary people – it’s a perfect recipe for popular resentment.
Tarn-et-Garonne, a southwestern region of lovely, rolling hills covered with orchards and vineyards and small villages, was historically dominated by the left. Now, it is Marine Le Pen territory. The number one party is the Front National, which harnessed 35 percent of the vote in the December 2015 regional elections. There is extreme frustration with high unemployment and deteriorating public services. Workshops and factories have been shuttered over the years. People are worried about having to drive longer distances to find a doctor, about whether a school will close down for lack of funding, about low wages, and a general sense that they are being neglected. People feel let down by successive governments, left and right. Le Pen has never been in power, so she gets the benefit of the doubt.
Add to that a new, deep-seated feeling of insecurity. Terrorist attacks in Paris and Nice in 2015 and 2016 have traumatised an entire nation. In Tarn-et-Garonne, xenophobia creeps up in conversations about the local North African community, made up of the descendants of 1950s migrants who provided labor in agriculture, picking fruit. A small number of young Muslims have turned to the strict and often radical strain of Islam called Salafism. They are closely monitored by security services. Although the overwhelming majority of the immigrant population is fairly well integrated, public perceptions have soured.
Of course, France’s travails aren’t unique. Anti-establishment sentiment and a disgruntled middle class are found in other Western democracies, too. They have produced Trump in America, Brexit in Britain, and the rise of the far-right in other parts of Europe. France has specific vulnerabilities, though. Globalisation has weakened the role of the state, which had played a strong role in the nation’s economic setup since Colbert in the 17th century. Identity politics and questions surrounding immigration resonate in specific ways because of the country’s colonial past (remember, the Front National traces its roots to the 1960s Algerian War). The trauma left by homegrown terrorism has reignited profound ideological and political battles unique to France because they concern its own specific brand of secularism, laïcité. Witness last summer’s much covered “burkini” dispute in which a high court had to intervene.
Some international comparisons have become painful. The French are acutely aware that their country’s economy has been largely surpassed by Germany in the last decade or so. This fuels criticism of the EU among parts of the electorate – certainly the part Marine Le Pen appeals to with her “France first” rhetoric. The European project was meant to be a multiplier of French influence, but it’s hardly seen that way anymore (although a majority of citizens do want to remain in the EU). After France lost its empire in 1962, de Gaulle had opted for decisive rapprochement with Germany. Assuming Le Pen isn’t elected, rebooting a strong Franco-German partnership could go a long way toward repairing the nation’s perception of itself.
Ironically, when you look closely at some statistics, France’s predicament isn’t quite as bad as generally assumed by its own citizens. Poverty rates, for example, are lower than in Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, and Spain. But that doesn’t prevent 87 percent of the French from believing that anyone can fall into poverty during their lifetime. Income inequality is equally lower in France than in the countries mentioned above, yet French citizens are convinced of the opposite. The golden rule of politics, however, is that perceptions matter more than realities. And some realities do bite: In the last decade, income per capita in France has stagnated in a way unseen since 1945.
France is today a deeply fragmented country, with no common national narrative driving it forward, no sense of direction, and a loss of trust in the political class. Wide gaps separate those who believe in openness and those who would prefer to erect walls on national borders. France’s upcoming presidential election is not just a battle for the Élysée Palace; it amounts to a redefinition of a collective identity and a nation’s role in the world in the 21st century. The stakes couldn’t be higher: In the age of Brexit, Trump, and populism, this will be a test case for the preservation of democracy in one country and for the survival of the EU as a whole. France today hovers on the edge of political convulsions of a very different sort from those of 1968. But there is little doubt it is heading for pivotal, tumultuous times. The French are fed up, but to use Viansson-Ponté’s words, the danger they now contemplate is “change for change’s sake, and at whatever cost.” Many will want to avoid a collective step into the abyss.
This article was first published on the Berlin Policy Journal.