21 April 2017

France’s nightmare scenario


Only last Wednesday, answering a television host in a possibly unwise show late-campaign silliness and ingratiation, the five main French presidential candidates posed with their favourite four-legged friends. Marine Le Pen had her own cats. Emmanuel Macron admiringly showed off a pig he’d met by chance during a farm visit.

But, then, on Thursday, France’s unpredictable presidential campaign turned again on its axis, dramatically, with a terrorist attack on the Champs-Elysées that left one policeman dead, two wounded, and sent everyone’s operations into overdrive. There is no elegant way to say it; but the truth is that the question on everyone’s lips is how will this affect Sunday’s first round vote.

At this stage, 48 hours from the vote and three months into the craziest election in memory, everyone’s an analyst. The past year and a half has seen the revenge of peripheral man (it’s often men) against the elites, from Trump to the Brexit vote, to the madcap French primaries in which every single early favourite was knocked out.

Democratisation has now hit for real: nobody, but nobody knows who will be left standing for the May 7 runoff. At last those supercilious Science Po dons and expensive pollsters are on a level with the ordinary punters on the Métro.

On paper, Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron are still ahead—barely. Depending on which poll you read first, either is leading the pack at something like 22 or 23 per cent. Close behind is the scandal-ridden former PM, aka François Fillon, bloodied but unbowed.

We thought he was a dead man walking, but Fillon’s sheer pig-headedness in refusing to stand down, acknowledge actual faults or ditching his conservative Catholic allies has actually started earning him extra points. After a dive to 17 per cent, he’s now at 19 or 20 per cent.

Nearly level with him is the unlikely hero of the unreconstructed hard Left: Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a former Socialist senator now vowing to punitively tax “the rich”: 95 per cent of all income above €400,000 a year.

Mélenchon also wants to nationalise large industrial concerns, banks, insurance companies, hire 100,000 new civil servants, leave the euro, the EU and Nato – which would be replaced by the Bolivarian Alliance. (The Alliance’s other members are Cuba and Venezuela, whose geriatric historic leaders were old Mélenchon mates: all heroes of the French student movements of the 1960s that produced Méluche.)

But “on paper” means precisely nothing, largely because momentum matters. Both Macron and Marine have lost ground, from around 26 or 27 per cent. In Marine’s case, it is mainly because she has run a lacklustre campaign. Her core of committed voters is unwavering, but she has not entirely made good on her promise to “detoxify” the Front National.

She has also made some spectacularly unwise remarks. The worst of which was when she denied any French responsibility in the rounding up of Jews, in 1942, by French police, on the orders of French civil servants who were instructed by elected French Vichy politicians, and who then sent them off to German death camps in French SNCF trains.

You had to wonder how much her remarks were a Freudian act of self-sabotage: six years ago, Marine kicked out her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, from the Front National precisely because he had made an obsessive  habit of such remarks. But she did seem, in general, unexpectedly subdued in the candidates’ TV debates, less at ease in this more polite medium than at public rallies.

Unlike Marine Le Pen, Macron has led a superb campaign, largely inspired by Barack Obama’s 2008 one. (His people made a point of letting the world know Obama actually called him on the telephone on Wednesday, although the former US president stopped short of officially endorsing him.)

Macron’s enthusiastic volunteers in his newly minted (exactly one year) party, “En Marche”  — the initials are not coincidental — now number 250,000, or twice as many as François Hollande’s Socialists (est. 1905 & renamed 1971).

His social media team is second to none, quick to react to anything even vaguely negative on their candidate, analytics-aware, capable of raising shadowy armies of Twitter bots to spread the word or harry adversaries. Macron has deftly slalomed between the obstacles thrown in his way, defusing attacks with humour and well-timed candour.

His main problem has been how to deal with the announcements of support from his former Socialist cabinet pals: it’s not ideal that he was the Economy Minister of the most unpopular President of the Fifth Republic, François Hollande. Indeed, Hollande himself has been discouraged from openly expressing support.

But Macron does have weaknesses and they had already started to show before yesterday’s attacks threw them into sharp relief. Among En Marche’s local agents were a couple of sympathisers of Islamist community movements, and he had been a little too slow in “suspending” them from party activities.

By contrast, François Fillon wrote a book called “Combating Islamic Terrorism” long before he had made up his mind to run in the primary; and he has a comprehensive plan on how to deal with Islamic State inside and outside France. Macron, however, when asked this morning about the attacks, shot back that he wouldn’t construct such a plan “in 24 hours”, leaving phone-in listeners to ask why he didn’t already have one in his campaign goodie bag.

The Champs-Elysées attack has put national security at the forefront of a campaign that had, until now, concentrated on the economy, unemployment, and concerns about immigration. In this four-horse race, in which there are two “mainstream” candidates (Macron and Fillon) and two “extreme” ones (Le Pen and Mélenchon), the redrawing of positions gets even more complicated.

Le Pen and Fillon have both been tough on terrorism and Islamism, linking it to unbridled illegal immigration.

Mélenchon, however, wants to open French borders wide to refugees, is against any kind of foreign intervention, even in the case of François Hollande’s successful 2014 Mali expedition, and his all-purpose get out of jail card is, always, that America did it.

Macron has been nuanced and intelligent-sounding, but probably naïve in his belief that many of the Middle-East’s problems could be solved by more talks on the ground, and that generous social policies can stem homegrown terrorism.

Furthermore, one of the recent controversial additions to Macron’s motley crew of supporters is Dominique de Villepin, Jacques Chirac’s former Foreign Secretary and the “hero of the UN” –  the man who gave an impassioned anti war speech in New York, voicing France’s refusal to join George W. Bush’s 2003 Coalition into Iraq.

Now a barrister and a consultant, with Saudi and Qatari clients, Villepin has been heard to say that “the Middle East doesn’t like outsiders” and that “Israel [would] last less than the Kingdom of the Franks in Jerusalem” (1099-1291).

There is a feeling that Macron himself doesn’t much care one way or another. “Salafists don’t really do analytics”, a former Macron supporter told me. “Emmanuel is more interested in the future than the past.”

Macron seemed to confirm this when he said this morning that the French would have to get used to terrorism in their lives for decades. Possibly anticipating further accusations, Macron has belatedly enrolled a former head of the French police counter-terrorist unit to his advisers.

But how this will play in Sunday’s round is still anyone’s guess since the real question now is: how Lebanised have the French become? The series of outrages that culminated in the Charlie-Hebdo and Bataclan murders drew the nation together; but now France’s quiet fury has splintered and is tinted with weariness. Distrustful and sullen, they may punish instead of rewarding politicians who look like they’re capitalising on the latest attack.

So where will they go? The received wisdom is that part of Mélenchon’s seemingly unstoppable rise is due to the collapse of the Socialist candidate, Benoît Hamon: at the end of the day, weighed down by the party’s contradictions, he seemed the pale imitation while “Méluche” was the real thing.

In fact, Marine has lost more voters to Mélenchon; he is another outsider champion of the (non) working-class, le Trump de Gauche with better manners and a far wider vocabulary. Two thirds of Le Pen’s and Mélenchon’s manifestos are indistinguishable.

They’re both anti-EU, anti Euro, appeal to former Communist voters, believe in strong social services and an old-fashioned command economy to bring jobs back; both are friendly to Vladimir Putin (so is François Fillon) and send regular broadsides against “les Anglo-Saxons” as matter of principle.

Mélenchon will not make inroads among the South-East’s Front voters, for whom immigration is the chief problem of the country (he wants to attract migrants and naturalise them almost immediately). But everywhere else, he has a chance; and he will also appeal to voters who are just as angry as Marine’s core group, but remember they are from “the Left”.

That’s why in private, pollsters are seriously discussing the possibility of a Mélenchon-Marine runoff – the real nightmare scenario.

Anne Elisabeth Moutet is a political commentator based in France