Les enfants, it’s fast approaching squeaky bum time in France, with the first round of the 2017 presidential election due on the 23rd April.
The political situation in France is, as I see it, similar to that of 2002, when far-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen, father of present-day Marine, reached the second round to everybody’s surprise and (I hope) shame. He ended up being handsomely defeated by Jacques Chirac, of course. The 2007 race was a more classical right-left battle between Nicolas Sarkozy and Ségolène Royal, which Sarkozy won. He run for a second term in 2012, but was defeated by current president François Hollande.
I haven’t really been following the election campaign in France but I have been following the scandals. They make much more interesting reading than vague electoral promises or whimsical ideologies. What I can clearly see is that the country that I left, back in 1999, hasn’t changed one iota. In 1981, the election of François Mitterand as the first socialist president of the Fifth Republic was nothing but an illusion that the country was going to “vivre autrement” (live differently), as promised on his campaign posters. Think of it, he even had members of the Communist Party in his government. The idea was bold, but the man who described himself and his visions as “La Force Tranquille” (The Quiet Strength) soon found out that Margaret Thatcher’s market, on the other side of the Channel, was indeed “always right”. Socialist visions just didn’t work. Mitterand’s abortive attempt to limit the financing of private schools caused political chaos. His foreign policies did not differ much from those of his predecessors. His repeated choices of bungling or incompetent prime ministers left a lot to be desired, and caused more problems than they were supposed to solve. In the end, François Mitterand left his country in the same state of division and strife, as when he took office, 14 years earlier.
If French socialism needed a final nail in the coffin, to be able to disappear into the realms of fantasy, then François Hollande was the man with the hammer. His 5 years in office have been disappointing, to say the least. Rising unemployment, increased tax burden, climate change promises that will be hard to keep, confused foreign policies, and social uneasiness, have all been failures in Hollande’s mandate. The repeated terrorist attacks on French soil have resulted in a climate of fear and suspicion that have focused on the Muslim community. In tackling terrorism, Hollande wanted to be able to revoke French nationality from nationals holding a dual-citizenship, even those born in France, which was something new. He encountered strong opposition from within his own party and was forced to scrap his proposed constitutional amendments.
It is often said that, in France, people vote with their hearts during the first round of elections, and with their wallets in the second. In this year’s election, this saying will be truer than ever. Having a two-round election system, in which the first two candidates in next Sunday’s vote will fight it off in a second round, has always favoured the traditional parties, be they conservative or socialist. The problem with this year’s presidential election lies in predicting which two candidates will make it to the second round on May 7th. The very latest opinion polls suggest that there is a three-point margin between four candidates: the “liberal” Emanuel Macron, the “not-so-liberal” Marine Le Pen, the “bathed-in-scandal” François Fillon, and the socialist “surprise-package” Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Knowing the recent reliability of opinion polls, it becomes impossible to predict the outcome, especially taking into account the fact that 30% of voters are still undecided, and just as many will not bother to vote, out of apathy. The latter do have a point to be made, insofar as voting for policies that you feel are right almost invariably results in the very same policies not being acted out, or being so profoundly modified that they are unrecognisable. Dare I say that the only certainty that we have, is that the far-right Marine Le Pen will not win the second round, if she makes it, against whoever she faces. Even in fiction, she does not manage to win, as was brilliantly depicted in “Submission”, Michel Houellebecq’s controversial novel, where the socialist party joins forces with a newly formed Islamic party, in order to fight off the threat of the extreme-right.
What is more frightening, and dangerous for democracy as a whole, is the fact that this year’s presidential election has been characterised by an array of political “cardinal sins”, in the same way that the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump were. Lies, betrayal, greed, demagogy, paranoia, cheating and denial, are some of the sins that have plagued the election campaign. It all began practically before the campaign even got under way. The presidential favourite, François Fillon, was being accused of providing fictitious jobs paid with public money, to his wife, Penelope, and his two children. At the beginning of what became known as “Penelopegate”, Fillon denied any wrong-doing, and promised the French people that he would give up his candidacy, if put under investigation. At the time, he admitted that he had employed his two sons for “specific missions” requiring their competencies as lawyers. The fact they had not yet qualified as lawyers did not seem to bother him. As for his wife, although Fillon admits to having employed her since 1997, it seems that she began her “employment” as early as 1982. A formal investigation began on March 14th, and, if I’m not mistaken, Fillon has not given up his candidacy.
Fillon is not alone in skiving, scheming and plotting his way through politics. At only 39, Emanuel Macron, the maverick outsider and politically unknown only 36 months ago, has emerged as presidential front-runner. François Hollande described him as “nice”, but underestimated Macron’s machiavellic tendencies, and his desires to take over the somewhat vacant middle-ground politics. In 2014, he served with new prime-minister Manuel Valls, in an attempt to deregulate the French economy. What is known as the “Loi Macron” (Macron Law), was an attempt to promote growth by abolishing the monopoly of public services and making working hours more flexible. It goes without saying that these policies were not popular with the unions, but also with the French left. Little by little, Macron became more outspoken and independent. Even though Hollande described him as “respecting his authority”, Macron still had a go at the wealth tax that was so central to socialist ideology. The break between Macron and the socialist party became complete when he formed his own party “En Marche” (“Let’s Go”), that was clearly aimed at younger and more progressive voters. Not only did he divide the left, he took possession of it.
Or did he? Appearing on the left side of the horizon is Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of “La France Insoumise” (“Unbouwed France)”. Mélenchon’s ego has reached such a climax of perfection that he can be present in two places at once, courtesy of a hologram. How vain can you get? One day, we may be able to actually clone these guys! As for his policies, renegotiation of EU treaties, quitting Nato, the World Trade Organisation, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, all in the same week, are high on his agenda. Even getting rid of the Fifth Republic is on his shopping list. Well, ‘good luck mate’, is all I can say. I would rename his party “La France Inconsciente” (“Reckless France”), instead of “La France Insoumise”.
As for the last of our “fab four”; the less said about her, the better. Anyway, you’ve probably read all about her. Marine Le Pen will always be the daughter of her father, whether she likes it or not, and that’s no “detail of politics”, to paraphrase Jean-Marie. We can now add paranoia to her already abundant qualities. She and her entourage are being investigated on suspicion of fraud and corruption. The party headquarters, in Nanterre, was searched by French police, as part of an ongoing investigation into the financing of the party during various election campaigns. According to Le Monde, the police seized “a note found in the computer of the treasurer” (of the Front National, Wallerand de Saint-Just), “which suggests that a true system of financing of the party via the European Parliament and parliamentary assistants was thought up in high places to intentionally make the European Union pay its expenses”. Now, now, Marine, who’s been a naughty girl? Marine Le Pen obviously denies any wrong-doings and is convinced that this is nothing but a plot to derail her presidential election campaign. Well, if it works, it’s fine by me.
So where does that leave the disillusioned voter, like myself? You might think that it doesn’t matter because I don’t even live in the country anymore. Well, in the current political landscape, it does matter. The Dutch have given us a lesson in how it should be done. Political sense comprises a high turn-out and voting with your reason, and not your prejudices. Even though the far-right candidate, Geert Wilders, has progressed since last time out, he was kept at bay by the sheer intelligence of the Dutch voters. On the night of the Dutch elections, I felt proud to live in the Netherlands, even as a foreign national, and I loved this country just a bit more than I did, the day before. I will vote on Sunday, probably for the maverick candidate. Not because I believe in his policies, but because he seems to have lied less than the others. When François Fillon became prime minister in 2007, he told the press that “France can accept the truth.” A decade later, the French people can no longer stand the lies of their elites.