France — Fact is stranger than fiction. In France, doubly so. On the day I leave for Paris, the following headline adorns Le Monde’s front page: “Fillon Received $50,000 to Introduce a Lebanese Industrialist to Putin.”
Alors. A scandal to mar the French election. Anything less and they wouldn’t really be trying, would they? Of all the world’s political gods, those that serve the French are the most puckish.
And yet, the persistent rumors that have engulfed François Fillon are, in truth, the least interesting thing about this extraordinary election cycle. That Fillon’s descent has left a gaping political void is interesting, certainly. But what’s really fascinating is how it’s being filled. Late last year, it seemed all but certain that France would have a sensible, center-right president of the sort you could take home to your mother. Today? Heaven only knows.
On paper, Fillon was perfectly placed. He had the experience, having been prime minister under Nicolas Sarkozy, and he had the novelty value, having become the North Star of a new French conservatism that has embraced Catholicism in spite of laïcité, turned happily toward “Anglo-Saxon” free markets, and even rebranded its flagship party as “the Republicans.” In addition, he was well suited to bridge the gap between the sects in a country that remains as divided as ever — “How,” Charles de Gaulle asked, “can you govern a country that has 246 different sorts of cheese?” — but has become steadily more right-leaning as the years have gone by. Astonishingly for a French politician, Fillon is running on a platform would be familiar to voters in the United States: Inter alia, he wants to reduce the number of civil servants, abolish France’s “wealth tax,” abolish the 35-hour work week, reform the health-care system, and raise the retirement age; and, while he has promised to protect the legal status quo, he is vocally pro-life and opposed to gay marriage. For once, the stars seemed to have aligned: The most credible, electable option was also the most sound.
But, damn those puckish gods, it was not to be. And, alas, the alternatives to Fillon are markedly less appealing than is he. There is Marine Le Pen of the Front National (FN), who, despite having distanced herself from her father and swapped open-handed racism for implication-heavy populism, is still rather unpleasant. There is Benoît Hamon, the most left-wing candidate within the Parti Socialiste, whose big ideas are to tax robots and to add a universal basic income on top of France’s creaking welfare state. There is Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a cerebral left-leaner whose destiny is to be the best-spoken also-ran in French history. And there is Emmanuel Macron, a self-described post-ideological moderate who is a leading contender for Luckiest Man in France.
Macron, an independent with no party apparatus around him, is a former Rothschild banker who at one point seemed destined to be a footnote but after Fillon’s implosion is now the odds-on favorite to win the whole thing. Perilously untested, chronically vacuous, and ostensibly tarred by his work under the incumbent president, François Hollande (the most unpopular the Fifth Republic has ever had), Macron nevertheless seems set to take the lion’s share of a political middle that is sorely lacking in credible representatives. Cosmopolitan, pro-immigration, and publicly insistent that “there is no such thing as French culture,” Macron is precisely of whom Marine Le Pen is thinking when she lambastes the “savage globalization that has been a nightmare” for France.
Politically, France is in a bad place. Under Hollande’s feckless leadership, the country has been attacked from both without and within and seen an average of 1 percent growth for almost half a decade. Unemployment among 15-to-24-year-olds is now at a staggering 25 percent and has led to an exodus that has rendered London the sixth-largest French-speaking city in the world. The reflexively proud French are no longer sure that they have a future. They are afraid for their economy. They are afraid of immigration. They are afraid of technology. There is, almost everywhere you go, a tangible sense of ennui. It is an uncertainty that does not suit the people that produced de Gaulle.
For the establishment, the consequences have been grim. As The Economist put it, this year’s primaries brought a “bonfire of the elites.” To have a familiar name in 2017 — be it “Hollande,” “Sarkozy,” or “Juppé” — is to carry a heavy weight around your neck. As in America, many voters are in a burn-it-down mood. And without a strong, “safe” option that can hoover up the middle, the extremists and opportunists have pounced.
Blame it on what you will — “populism,” “nationalism,” the revolt of the forgotten — the traditional French alliances are disintegrating before our very eyes. Why is it that so many are so worried that, this time, the execrable Le Pen family might finally get its hands on power? Because, this time, the support is coming from a variety of different places. The Front National has always had strongholds in the rural, revanchist South, but it is now converting the socialists in the Northeast, appealing to an unprecedented number of voters under 30, and winning over some key blocs of social conservatives who would historically have gone elsewhere. And, crucially, it is making its gains for a host of different reasons.
As France’s flagship pollster, IFOP, has shown, there is agreement among fans of Le Pen and Co. that the streets are too dangerous and that there are too many immigrants. But, outside that, the coalition is intriguingly divided. For the young, the main issue is the economy — remarkably, between a quarter and a third of young voters now claim to support the FN. In the South, it is culture and taxes that drive passions, as well as a latent opposition to gay marriage that its entrenchment in the culture and the law has not dispelled. In the North, the stories echo those from the American Rust Belt: Having seen their industrial jobs disappear, lifelong left-leaners are looking elsewhere. For the first time in their history, reports the news station France 24, the FN’s politicos “have been tailoring their message.”
Outside Marseille Provence airport, in France’s southernmost region, there are Le Pen posters on every pillar. Some feature the veteran fascist Jean Marie Le Pen, and read Avec Le Pen. Contre l’arnarque Européenne! (With Le Pen, against the European scam!). Others show Jean-Marie’s daughter, Marine, and carry a populist slogan: Au Nom du Peuple. Next to them are flyers for another hopeful, an anti-American conspiracy theorist named François Asselineau. His taglines are more paranoid in nature — Suivez votre intuition! (Follow your intuition!) — and there is a contrived heroism in his language. Participer à l’histoire! reads one of Asselineau’s affiches. That’s History with a capital H, one suspects.
Along both the Autoroute du Soleil and the hairpin roads that flirt with the imposing Mount Faron, this pattern continues. For mile after mile I see craggy mountains of chalk and green; the usual array of Tuscan-orange roofs; and, everywhere, posters for the Front National. In the South, this disposition seems to be more ideological than anything else, for there is little obvious poverty in this region. (A decade or so ago, my Malawian cousin was turned away from a restaurant in this area on the open grounds that she was “noire.”) My fellow drivers are retirees, soccer moms, and businesspeople, and they are safely ensconced in Audis, BMWs, and Mercedes. While rural, the area is no backwater. Nearby Toulon has an important enough port to have hosted the scuttling of the French fleet in both 1942 and 1793, and figures prominently in both Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables and Joseph Conrad’s The Rover.
A few miles from the city border, I stop for a break at one of the many pizza places that litter the roadside. The owner of the joint has pasted a Marine Le Pen poster onto an electrical box outside his property. After ordering a Coke, I ask casually about the election: “You think Le Pen has a chance?”
This should have been a straightforward question. Toulon, after all, has a long history with the Front: In 1995, it was one of the four French cities that shocked the world by electing a Front National mayor. And yet, to my immense surprise, I immediately regret the inquiry.
“Who wants to know?” the proprietor asks immediately, cocking his head to the side.
I tell him that I am a British journalist who lives in America, and that I’d seen his sign and been intrigued.
“What do they think in America?” he asks, trying to change the focus.
I say that America probably hasn’t given the French election much thought, which is half true and half a dodge designed to leave me on the fence.
“D’accord,” he says, deftly. “So what do you think?”
I flirt with the idea of explaining that I loathe Marine Le Pen, that I’m one of those dastardly Anglo-Saxon Atlanticists, and that I haven’t truly liked a politician since Coolidge. But, wanting to stay alive for a few more years, I think better of it, pay for the drink, and move on.
An hour away in Orange, a similar dynamic obtains. Once a major seat in the Roman Empire and home to the best Roman theater in Europe, Orange is another of the towns that elected a Front National mayor in ’95. This year, it will almost certainly go for Le Pen.
In a backstreet near the center of town, I meet a man putting up flyers that are covered in tall capital letters: IMMIGRATION! TERRORISME ISLAMIQUE! FRANCE!
I introduce myself and again ask whether Le Pen has a chance.
“Oui,” he says, looking around.
I encourage him to say more. As he speaks, I am again struck by how seedy the whole thing feels. This is a man who is putting up political posters on the street, and yet his eyes dart nervously as he talks, he declines to give me his name, and he speaks of the candidate he supports as Mr. Rochester spoke to Jane Eyre about his wife. The flyers behind him say “For the people!” and, in this town at least, a majority of those peuple seem to agree with the complaints his literature is making in unabashed 60-point solid caps. And yet he behaves like a naughty schoolboy who has been caught watching pornography in his bedroom. The New York Times tells me that the Front National is “no longer spat upon,” and I see ample evidence of this. Still, there’s a defensiveness at play in the South that smacks more of la résistance than la majorité.
It is a different story in Hénin-Beaumont, a former mining town near the Belgian border that once reliably voted for the Parti Socialiste but has turned lately to the Front. As of 2014, Hénin-Beaumont has a Front National mayor, Steeve Briois. In an interview with Paris Match, a town assemblyman described meetings under the mayor as a “circus” but conceded that Briois had been tactically flexible enough that “a very large majority of the population has no objective reason to complain.”
Even the Communists are impressed. Jacques — I’m calling him Jacques because he doesn’t trust me and won’t give me his real prénom — tells me that he is voting for Le Pen, whom he calls “Marine,” as if they are friends. But, as a former member of the now-routed Parti Communiste, he also likes Benoît Hamon’s idea of taxing robots, which he regards as insidious traitors that are stealing human jobs. Jacques seems smart and put together, and in trying to figure out how someone as lucid as he is could have arrived at the viewpoints he has, I have to remind myself that this is a country in which SWAT teams go on strike if they aren’t permitted to drink at lunch.
Jacques is typical. Writing from Paris in 2007, Christopher Hitchens observed that “there is a reason why the French Communist Party, which used to dominate the working class, the unions, and much of the lumpen intelligentsia, is now a spent force that represents perhaps 3 percent of the electorate. And that reason, uncomfortable as it may be, is that most of the Communist electorate defected straight to the National Front.” Indeed. And in getting there, many have walked straight past center-right candidates such as Sarkozy and Fillon, just as many Rust Belt Americans skipped past Mitt Romney on the way to Donald Trump. Realignments, lest we forget, tend to change things from the ground up.
One can overstate the case. Marine Le Pen is unlikely to become president of France, if just because the system is explicitly designed to prevent people like Marine Le Pen from becoming president of France. According to polling aggregated by The Economist, Le Pen has an excellent shot of getting to the second round — a 93 percent chance, in fact — but after that her odds drop to just 5 percent. The reason for this is simple: In the first round of French presidential elections, the sheer number of non-FN candidates serves to fracture the “normal” vote into small pieces. In the second round, however, that vote regroups behind the most palatable non-FN candidate and vastly outstrips the FN’s 25 percent average.
This is, make no mistake, a Good Thing. Marine Le Pen is not her father, but she is not much better, all told. Like Nigel Farage in Britain, she has a point on the EU, and she is sensible to express concerns about crime and immigration that nobody else will touch. And yet she has an emetically close relationship with Vladimir Putin, takes skepticism toward immigration and trade to unpalatably farcical levels, and, as a Gaullist admirer of dirigisme, is no friend to the market reforms that France so desperately needs. She is, in short, bad news.
And yet that so many “what if?” stories are being written in earnest should indicate that something is afoot. The socialists are no longer winning their voters. The young are becoming radicalized. The political are giving up on politicians. To combine a lack of economic growth with an impermeable elite class is, we are learning, to develop an especially toxic brew — especially when that elite class is perceived to disparage all that the voters hold dear. And in France, of all places?
On the plane from New York, I am struck again by the chasm that has opened between the jet set and everybody else, and by the scale of the opportunity that has presented itself to the iconoclasts. I am on a British airline, and the in-flight magazine is aggressively cosmopolitan. The “Editor’s Note” celebrates, among other things, that a third of Londoners were born abroad. The featured interviewee argues that British television should shed its famous and traditional period dramas in favor of shows about immigrants. And the most prominent advertisement describes “dual citizenship” as “the insurance policy of the 21st century.” If “globalization” were to be parodied by the sharpest minds in the West, it would look a little like this. This, to paraphrase an American refrain, is how you got Brexit. It’s how you’ll get Frexit, too.
Which brings us to Monsieur Macron, the likely next president of France. There seems little doubt that, for now, the French will choose the bloodless option over the crazy option — as well they should. But that Macron will likely prevail will make him no less bloodless, and that he will remain bloodless will, in turn, create a new set of frustrations in a French polity that is moving inexorably rightward. Over dinner in Paris, an anti–Le Pen friend of mine puts it this way: “There is no question that if we get Macron, we will get a Trump, because Macron is the worst possible person for this moment.”
And so he is, which is why even in Paris you see dismissive, desperate signs — Tous sauf Macron! (“Anyone but Macron!”) — and why otherwise sober people are muttering about the coming end of the Fifth Republic. Had his scandals never surfaced, one suspects that Fillon could have taken some of the sting out of this peculiar moment. In his absence, there seems to be nobody else who can. What that means for the French and their system remains to be seen.