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French Elections: a Guide for the Perplexed

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The presidential campaign kicks off at last. The first televised encounter takes place this evening, March 20, 2017. The country’s future direction is at stake when the Big Five meet up for the first of three debates.

What country are we talking about? A small Caribbean island or one of those quiet socialist experiments one hardly ever hears about : Ecuador, Norway? No, sir. France, that bastion of liberal values, of l’exception culturelle, the country American liberals yearn for when they need a saving dose of liberté, equalité, fraternité.

And what the foreign viewer will see tonight, depending on their point of view, is either a well-moderated debate or a ghastly spectacle, to paraphrase Diana Johnstone here on Counterpunch – or even another chapter in a fascinating demolition derby in which one character after another self-destructs in public. The 2017 election is without precedent in the Fifth Republic, and one in which “Populist Fascism” is within a bank shot of the Palais Elysée.

Just how did France arrive at this ? And is France really so different from everywhere 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, nearing ninety, the Front’s founder.)

A très bref review of the last few months helps fill in the blanks.

François Hollande, the current President, announced in early December that he would not be running for a second term, itself an unprecendented act in modern French history. Fait accompli: with approval ratings hovering slightly above zero, what chance did he have? A living embodiment of the Peter Principle, the man pledged to take on the finance sector delivered little more than gay marriage and neo-liberal micro-management to the French people. Oh yes, an unending State of Emergency, involvement in Syria and… well there are other things, some better, some worse. An excellent paddleboat captain, as Jean-Luc Melenchon observed. Waterfalls ahead.

After his defeat in 2012 and his announcement that he was returning to private life, 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. The Republicans 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 off an upset. Austerity for all, he proclaimed, waving his Thatcher doll in one hand with the other around his Welsh wife, Penelope. Fillon is a gift from the gods to those with a satiric bent.

In mid-January, the sulking, depressed Socialists held their primary, with no hope in sight. How do you win an election with a dead dog tied to your waist? Prime Minister Manuel Valls, Hollande’s enforcer, was supposed to win that one, too. The prize went instead to Benoit Hamon, a man in and out of the Hollande government not once but twice (Economy, Education), a young Socialist (49 years old) with the dubious conviction that the Socialists should project ideas other than career advancement. Until his rally two days ago in Paris, he was politely known as Mr. Invisible, and he may still be after tonight.

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And then we arrive at those merry days in late January, when the paper Canard Enchainée broke the story that Mr. Austerity Fillon was in fact Mr. Largesse as far as his family was concerned. No-show jobs for his publicity-shy wife, legal assignments for his two children who had yet to pass the bar, it all came spilling out day after day, and with each new revelation a haggard Fillon looks more like Tricky Dicky. 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 keep climbing. (A million Euros, give or take.) Fillon now awaits official indictment. Once touted as the only safe bet to beat Le Pen, he rules over a wounded party and a right in ruin. Recent speeches have been positively deranged, invoking Jeanne d’Arc and Jean Moulin, so we can hope for a stellar performance this evening.

That leaves tonight’s two most interesting candidates for last and shortest shrift: 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. But is it really a party? He has a program, a website, lots of money and a honeyed smile. There are no other En Marche candidates. It feels like a scam, one people are desperately clinging to. And then that eternal hothead, serial quitter of parties, the candidate with the sharpest tongue and the fewest votes, Jean-Luc Melenchon, currently running on his own self-created France Insoumise. (Impossible to translate, it sounds a bit like a party zone at a libertine club; Rebellious France maybe.) Melenchon, whom I’ve watched shove a journalist against the bar (he later apologized), is hard left in today’s jargon, which means he may actually believe what he says. A candidate who had a far bigger rally in Paris on Saturday than Hamon did on Sunday with the whole Socialist apparatus behind him. But if Melenchon gets more than 11% of the vote in the first round in late April, it’ll be a big surprise. (That was his total in 2012.) He’s spurned all of Hamon’s overtures for a united left. “Chavez without the oil,” in the words of a Paris wit.

Macron is surging… But really, we’d better just forget about parties and polls. They’re over, done and dusted. The Socialists are finished after Hollande and Les Republicains after Sarkozy and Fillon. Empty shells. Maybe the left-right schism is over, too: both Melenchon and Le Pen want to drag France out of the EU. Some sort of realignment awaits, some sort of opening for new energies must come about…

Marine Le Pen is under investigation at the European Parliament for détournement of funds but as her father proved long ago, a dash of financial corruption means nothing to their adherents. Of her and Macron there will be plenty more to say as the campaign grinds on. France employs a first past post system with two rounds of voting, eleven current candidates winnowed down to two for the final on May 7. (You can see all the current candidates here.)

But now we must make a short détournement of our own, into the heart of France and the vices of this writer. The winner of the vote in May will be Marine Le Pen.

I travel around France. Sometimes I walk, sometimes I hitch, sometimes I do ride-share. It takes a little longer but I meet people I never would otherwise, people whose names I never learn, people who gab, who share at least a bit of their truth. They know the state of things all too well, they’re not tied to any party. They’re educated or they’re farmers and carpenters, they’re not haters, at least not in the way we have them in the States. Maybe it’s just the rides I get, but I’ve never had anyone tear off my ear about Muslims the way the rightwing Parisian zenophobes do. Macron with his bright and shiny future, his financial investments in this and that, Hamon with his universal income… they’ve heard it before. Macron’s coziness with bankers and financiers they know without reading le Monde Diplomatique : their response to class is visceral. (I don’t get rides from too many millionaries.) Of the EU, on which is everyone is dependent, they see an organization that cannot address the fundamental problem that its currency isn’t working. Do they want the franc back, 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 believe in, who can’t govern just like Trump can’t 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.

I realize that’s unofficial, uncorrelated, anecdotal and probably unadmissable. But it’s more true than “Pretty Boy Macron up 3% this week, vows to woo London finance to Paris.”

On verra, France. We’ll see just how much reality makes it into tonight’s debate.

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James Graham lives in France, where he sometimes assists Edouard Perrin in getting the news out about tax evasion and assorted financial skullduggery. (See the documentary Dans la peau d’un lanceur d’alerte.) His new novel is Rue des Cascades.

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