Distrust of politics and institutions now runs deep in France. We are at a crossroads where no option seems good
Friday 21 April 2017
Thursday’s terrorist attack on the Champs-Élysées – a police officer shot dead in the heart of Paris and two others injured by an attacker claimed by Islamic State – is the most dramatic in a series of unexpected twists that have disrupted the French presidential campaign.
It is the very scenario many feared in the run-up to Sunday’s first round of voting, assuming that the right – in the guise of François Fillon and Marine Le Pen, will see their chances of success greatly improved. But, for all the speculation, it is too early to say whether this will actually happen.
During the last presidential election in 2012, Mohamed Merah’s killing of three soldiers, three children and a teacher at the Ozar Hatorah Jewish school in Toulouse six weeks before the first round did not prevent the defeat of the former president Nicolas Sarkozy, despite the ramping up of his law-and-order campaigning. Thursday’s attack might stem Le Pen’s recent plunge in the polls – the fruit of her surprisingly dull campaign – and assist Fillon in his view, reinforced yesterday, that “absolute priority” must be given to the war on terror. Both sought yesterday to capitalise on the attack. But this is unlikely to change the basic facts of what is happening in this election and in France.
The left is divided between the Parti Socialiste candidate, Benoît Hamon, and the more radical Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of La France Insoumise (Unbowed France), a disunity that may cause its elimination at the first round of the election for only the third time in 60 years. The right is weighed down by Fillon, charged with corruption and favouritism. Attacked from all sides, he has turned his campaign into a Trump-style, anti-system diatribe against the media and the judges to cover his own misdemeanours. This is an ironic position for someone who claimed to promote morality in politics, before scandals involving his own probity were revealed a few months ago.
Still, like it or not, the extreme right has the upper hand in this campaign. Whoever emerges as the winner, Le Pen succeeded in making the election revolve mostly around her party and her ideas. Emmanuel Macron, former banker and ex-economy minister, is seen by some as riding to the rescue of the French political system, and is high in the polls. But he has yet to convince voters that he isn’t a French version of Hillary Clinton – an incarnation of the economic and elite system that so many now reject, in France and most western democracies.
Meanwhile bewilderment, anxiety and fatigue dominate public opinion: nearly 30% of voters remain undecided or hesitant about participating at all.
As in Gabriel García Márquez’s novel Chronicle of a Death Foretold, a complex web of mishaps and unforeseen events coalescing into drama and farce has led us to this point. Although Fillon still has a shot at victory, his campaign has involved nothing but endless penitence, preventing him from proposing a clear political platform. Hamon’s victory, on a Bernie Sanders-style agenda, in the primaries led to an internal crisis within the Socialist party, which was torn between fidelity to a candidate more leftwing than most of its members, and the temptation to support Macron, a mix of François Hollande’s prodigal son and Brutus, who left the government to start his own political movement.
Only one candidate has made the most of this campaign: Mélenchon, whose spectacular rise in the polls over the past two weeks could yet make an unpredictable campaign even more unpredictable.
It seems unlikely that – despite Thursday’s attack, and barring new pivotal drama – Le Pen will be elected president. Unlike the Brexit referendum and the American election, the presidential voting system in France has two rounds. If the leader of the Front National takes pole position on Sunday, a union of forces against her is likely to facilitate the victory of her challenger. But for whoever wins, the honeymoon will be brief, and relief short-lived. Fear of terrorism, resentment towards the elites and the ‘system’, distrust of politics, institutional fatigue, a restless search for a providential leader to save the country, mistrust of globalisation, and bitterness towards the EU – all the conditions that feed the Front National – will still exist after 7 May.
And most analysts forget that just as important are the legislative elections in June, which are supposed to provide a majority for the newly elected president. For the past 40 years, this has happened. But for the first time it seems unlikely that any of the four favourites will be bolstered by the traditional majority. This raises the spectre of unprecedented coalitions, or even a cohabitation between a president from one party and a parliament from another. Either way, the institutional order that has prevailed since the beginning of the Fifth Republic in 1958 will most probably come to an end.
France has reached a crossroads from which political life in each direction resembles a vast and ruined battlefield. No path is easy; none of the options are good. It is too early to say whether the country will face a shock as severe as Brexit, but like Brexit this election is taking us somewhere else: to the twilight of an old world and the dawn of a new one. The question that frightens so many of us is: how long will the bleak night last?