A Complete Breakdown Extremists on Left and Right Push France to the Brink
With only a few days to go before the first round of voting, a systemic crisis is dominating the campaign in France. It is no longer inconceivable that a Euroskeptic radical leftist or a far-right populist could become the country's next president. This bodes poorly for the French, but also their neighbors in Europe.
It sounds like a political parody -- or like a badly overwritten European take on "West Wing." A right-wing populist party has spent months at the top of the polls, neck-and-neck with the former rising star of an entrenched party who decided to bolt and found his own political movement. Right on their heels is the far-left candidate who is experiencing a late surge and outpolling the centrist establishment. Meanwhile, the incumbent, having governed his way to historically low public opinion ratings, has decided not to run for re-election and his party is dead in the water. And the center-right candidate, who looked strong out of the gate, has become embroiled in multiple embarrassing affairs involving greed, his wife and more greed. But he has remained in the race anyway and still has a shot.
It is, of course, a completely unrealistic scenario, but it is the thrilling truth in France in April 2017. The main players are Marine Le Pen, Emmanuel Macron, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, François Hollande and François Fillon -- and together, they are illustrating a complete breakdown of established politics in France.
Like elsewhere in Europe, France has seen the erosion in stature in recent years of its two main political parties, which once set the course in the country but have diminished considerably compared to the prominence they enjoyed for decades. Populists on the far-right and far-left are gaining in popularity, offering voters the illusion of collective withdrawal: from Europe, from NATO, from globalization, from "the system" and, if they had their way, from the foreigners in our midst.
If you add together the poll numbers of the French candidates who are calling for such forms of withdrawal in various combinations and manifestations, you would end up with a majority, sufficient for a coalition government united in its aversion to the status quo.
The presidential election in France is becoming yet another end game over Europe's political future. And the poll numbers are currently bouncing back and forth, much as they did in Britain before the Brexit vote and in the United States before Donald Trump's election as president. For weeks, the likely outcome of the first round of voting on April 23 had seemed relatively clear. But now that the election, with 11 candidates in the running, is getting closer, poll numbers are beginning to shift. There is no longer a clear forecast, neither for the first round nor for the second round on May 7, in which the two top candidates from the first round enter a runoff election.
According to pollsters, 40 percent of eligible voters are still undecided, meaning that all possible combinations are possible at the moment, and even nightmares cannot be ruled out. Will the runoff be a duel between radical leftist Mélenchon and right-winger Le Pen, two politicians who believe European unification is a plague, who both see Germany as a threat and whose platforms sound like Christmas wish lists?
And how is it even possible that such questions are seriously being raised? How did extremists become front-runners? How did outsiders become candidates? Where are the forces of compromise? Where is the political center? Those looking for answers are well advised to step off the dizzying election-campaign carousel.
The prevailing feeling in France has long been that of deep-seated crisis. Not just because the threat of terrorism has permeated everyday life in France like a fine mist, more than in most other European countries, and not just because Muslim and right-wing extremist agitators are seeking to divide the country. Not just because necessary reforms in the pension, social and tax system and the pending restructuring of the labor market have largely been neglected for decades, or that the education system is still rooted in the ideals of the 19th century.
It isn't just that an elite system is coming to an end, a system that no longer seems suitable for current and future challenges. At times, it has also seemed as if a different, fundamental concern is even more pressing, namely that of whether the French political system is even capable of performing the tasks assigned to it anymore.
This is a frightening question, one that, until recently, seldom got raised in highly developed democracies. But today it is a crucial factor in some of the world's largest, oldest democracies: in Britain, in the U.S. and now in France. In newspaper editorials and talk shows, the French are discussing whether their country's institutions have maneuvered themselves into a pre-revolutionary plight as a result of the continued incompetence of public officials. They wonder whether today's state is in fact more similar to the monarchy of old -- to the rotten Ancien Régime shortly before the French Revolution.
That may be an overreach, but it is clear that the French electorate no longer has much confidence in its political class, and that the cautious assumption of the competence of political leaders has been replaced by the suspicion of general incompetence.
There is also an unsettling, fundamental doubt about the moral integrity of elected officials and government-appointed representatives. At times, it seems as if many French have reached a point beyond political disenchantment, as if they have arrived in a new world of political disgust. A new commitment to not voting and to deliberate abstention has become a daily topic of public discourse.
This is all partly the bitter consequence of five years under President François Hollande following five years under his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy. Both men took the game of false promises and disappointed hopes too far, and both were guilty of such significant moral failings in their private lives that they shook the French political system to its core.
It is no accident that this election includes a number of candidates who are calling for the abolition of the French Republic in its current form and the creation of a new constitution. Such calls were repeated once again on April 4, when all 11 candidates faced questioning one last time in an agonizingly long and disjointed television debate. As always, it was the old Trotskyite Mélenchon who expressed the demand for a new republic most eloquently, saying what he, as a good tribune of the people, always says: That he only wants to become president in order to abolish the office of the president, to abolish the entire French "presidential monarchy."
Otherwise, the televised debate was a panoply of crude, esoteric and extreme ideas. The minor candidates with no prospects of winning tried to outdo each other in expressing skepticism about Europe and/or capitalism. The debate was permeated with outrageous claims, exotic theories and false equivalencies. If all of the campaign promises made on that evening became reality, the French would soon no longer be working, but they would still have plenty of vacation, large pensions and substantial government benefits.
Something Rotten in the Country
But the stakes are clear: France is Europe's second-largest economy, a G-7 country, a major world power with a nuclear weapons arsenal and a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. If a nation like this is no longer, or only barely, capable of producing a credible candidate for the office of president, there is something rotten in the country. And the consequences could be devastating.
If all the polls are correct, it is a certainty that right-wing populist Le Pen will be one of the two candidates to enter the runoff election. If the other candidate is Mélenchon, which has become conceivable in recent days, it would quickly spell the end of the European Union. Le Pen is determined to withdraw from both the EU and the eurozone. Mélenchon wants an entirely new union, and if Brussels and the other EU countries refuse to meet his impossible demands, he too is promising to push ahead with Frexit.
With his La France insoumise (Rebellious France) movement, Mélenchon is promoting a debt-financed, 100-billion euro economic stimulus program, the renationalization of airports and highways and other similar measures. He is pledging an absurdly high minimum wage, incredibly high pensions and exorbitant taxes or, to be more precise, expropriations. If Mélenchon were to have his way, all income above 400,000 euros ($425,000) would be taxed at 90 percent.
Mélenchon is a far-left populist, a loudmouth with a considerable amount of practice, a man no less dangerous politically than Le Pen. He emulates role models like former Venezuelan revolutionary leader Hugo Chávez and still admires Russia, partly for its Soviet past. He can rudely berate journalists and deeply insult political rivals, but he owes his current success to the fact that he has been biting his tongue for some time in an effort to hide his aggressivity.
He would be dismissible if it weren't for the fact that France has a large group of voters, across all social strata, who consistently fall for radical left-wing rhetoric and communist folklore. Mélenchon has "momentum," and his sudden surge in the polls is reminiscent of Donald Trump's late comeback before Election Day in the United States. The radical leftist now stands at 18 to 19 percent in polls, putting him ahead of conservative candidate Fillon, and it seems as if more and more voters now believe in the possibility of a Mélenchon victory and have decided to throw their support behind him. The surprising strength of someone like Mélenchon feeds on the pathetic weakness of the old, mainstream parties in France, which have become disconnected from the people and society, and have lost their desire to shape policy. This is and has been the situation for some time.
- Part 1: Extremists on Left and Right Push France to the Brink
- Part 2: Decades of Political Decline