Just a reminder of the fun-filled days ahead French election that could sink the EUAfter 238 deaths at the hands of jihadi terrorists in just two years, France was coming to terms with yet another one yesterday. But might Thursday night’s Paris slaughter of a French policeman by a previously convicted Islamist gunman also go down as an historic turning point?
Coming just hours before the official cessation of all campaigning ahead of tomorrow’s presidential vote, it is certainly possible. Because a polarised nation increasingly drawn towards two political extremes now stands on the cusp of the most uncertain and unhappy election in modern French history.
It is one which not only has all the EU grandees in Brussels in a blind panic but could even dictate what happens in Britain. For France could be about to deliver a result even more seismic than last year’s British referendum vote for Brexit. The country which has given the world the phrase déjà vu has never seen anything remotely like this.
National Front candidate Marine Le Pen. A polarised nation increasingly drawn towards two political extremes now stands on the cusp of the most uncertain and unhappy election in modern French history
Marine Le Pen calls for border controls after French attack
A headline in the normally highbrow French daily, L’Opinion, the other day summed up the national mood ahead of the vote: ‘The Crazydential Election.’
The field is now wide open between an old school fascist, a conservative mired in criminal investigations, a shiny Blairite banker who has never been elected to anything and a charismatic Maoist who wants a ‘citizens’ revolution’.
To the horror of the EU establishment, it is no longer impossible — or even improbable — that the fascist and the Maoist could triumph on Sunday and go through to next month’s best-of-two final.
This week’s jihadi attack certainly adds fresh momentum to the campaign of Marine Le Pen from the overtly xenophobic Far Right Front National (FN). The more she pushes ahead in one direction, the more the Far Left gains ground in the other.
If both of them triumph tomorrow, that would cause pandemonium. Both have pledged a French referendum on leaving the EU and both want ‘Frexit’. Regardless of who won a fortnight later, it would spell the end of the EU as we know it.
Because, in the event of a ‘Frexit’, the whole European project — of which France is a founder member and integral pillar — would collapse.
Even France’s own EU commissioner — former finance minister Pierre Moscovici — admitted the election of Le Pen in France would be ‘the end’ of the EU.
And in the pan-European mayhem and crashing markets that would follow on Monday morning, Theresa May would be the last rock of sanity in a continental sea of madness.Game over.
The truth is that, frankly, anything could happen in tomorrow’s first round vote. After all, this is a presidential campaign which includes a candidate (there are 11 in total) who claims that the Queen is a drug smuggler and that homosexuality was invented by the KGB.
Having criss-crossed France in pursuit of the main players, I am not surprised the old European order is terrified.
After blaming last year’s unexpected wins for Brexit and Donald Trump on ‘populism’, the liberal commentariat had been fixating on Marine Le Pen as the next ‘populist’ threat.
In doing so, they had completely overlooked another candidate who is now enjoying unexpected success. And Jean-Luc Melenchon doesn’t fit their Right-wing ‘populist’ narrative at all.
Here is an ultra-Leftie who makes Jeremy Corbyn look like a Tory wet. He wants a wealth tax of 100 per cent, closer ties with Vladimir Putin, the abolition of nuclear power and, above all, a French departure from Nato and the EU. And he is on a late surge for second place in the opinion polls.
Since World War II, most French presidential races have boiled down to a U.S.-style binary choice between Left and Right.
But that model has fallen apart. The dismal record of outgoing president Francois Hollande has seen his Socialist Party collapse and the French Left fragment in two directions.
His successor as official Socialist candidate, Benoit Hamon, trails far behind the fiery Melenchon’s ‘France Unbowed’ movement.
But Hamon has also been eclipsed by the new hero of the moderate Left. Emmanuel Macron, a youthful ex-banker, claims to be a fresh, pro-European voice for those fed up with ‘old politics’.
Over on the French Right, the landscape should be dominated by Francois Fillon, a former prime minister and managerial smoothie often described as a ‘French Thatcher’. After beating several powerful candidates including former President Nicolas Sarkozy to win the nomination of the Republican opposition party, he seemed destined to go all the way.
Suddenly, in January, the French Press unearthed details of public money being paid to his family for nebulous jobs.
It was alleged that Fillon’s Welsh-born wife, Penelope, had pocketed hundreds of thousands of pounds as his ‘parliamentary assistant’, without lifting a finger. And the accusations kept piling up. It means he now lags some way behind the one name familiar to the British public — Marine Le Pen.
She hopes that the FN’s blend of immigrant-bashing and old-style protectionism will pull in angry voters from both Left and Right.
She has trotted out fresh pie-in-the-sky policies ranging from a ban on new supermarkets (to help small retailers) to a new retirement age — of 60. But her big election theme is that multiculturalism is endangering French society.
That is the message she keeps hammering home, as I witness ahead of Thursday’s killing.
Here is an ultra-Leftie who makes Jeremy Corbyn look like a Tory wet. He wants a wealth tax of 100 per cent, closer ties with Vladimir Putin, the abolition of nuclear power, says Robert Hardman
My first stop is an invitation-only rally for Le Pen loyalists in Paris. Her campaign team clearly want to present a statesmanlike image, hiring a former ballroom near the Arc de Triomphe.
Heavies with wires in their ears try to look the part, but everyone is on edge. There is no warm-up act, and there will be no questions afterwards.
The party leader rattles through her speech as if she just wants to get it out of the way. There is precious little joie de vivre, though some British observers are struck by the way that, at a certain angle, the FN leader is — with exquisite irony — a dead ringer for the Guardian’s Polly Toynbee.
‘A multicultural society is a multiconflict society,’ Mme Le Pen declares. ‘Multiculturalism is the weapon of Islamic fundamentalists, permitted by useful idiots in the name of tolerance.’
She then tells the crowd a whopper about Britain being in the grip of Sharia law and says that, if elected, she will compel Muslim imams to deliver their sermons in French.
At the end, her loyalists are on their feet. Interestingly, they are not all white.
Maurice Puisard, 46, a nurse and FN council candidate whose parents are from French Guyana, says all the family vote FN: ‘This country has a big problem with security and authority. Marine Le Pen is the only one strong enough to deal with it.’
Mme Le Pen leaves, and the cameras engulf her again as journalists seek clarity on her latest toxic claim that France should feel no shame about deporting thousands of French Jews to Nazi death camps in 1942 — on the grounds that the officials involved were not working for ‘France’ but for the puppet Vichy regime.
‘This argument has been manipulated to discredit me,’ she says above the melee. ‘Of course I condemn the Vichy government, but Vichy was not France.’
Mme Le Pen has worked hard in recent years to distance both herself and her party from the racist rantings of her father, FN founder Jean-Marie Le Pen. Last year, he was fined £25,000 by a French court for dismissing the Nazi gas chambers as a ‘detail’ of history. On other occasions, he has attacked France’s football team for having ‘too many black players’.
Now at a stroke, on the eve of the election, Mme Le Pen turns out to be her father’s daughter after all.
Her genocidal buck-passing has caused outrage far beyond France’s Jewish community, as has a new biography alleging disturbing neo-Nazi sympathies among some of her closest friends (many of whom apparently refer to Adolf Hitler as ‘Uncle’).
Yet opinion polls were already suggesting she could expect 24 per cent of the vote tomorrow. The latest Islamist attack is only going to bolster her support. A recent poll suggested that most French police officers are going to vote for her.
Mme Le Pen has worked hard in recent years to distance both herself and her party from the racist rantings of her father, FN founder Jean-Marie Le Pen
The other front-runner, Emmanuel Macron, is also scoring around 24 per cent with his pitch for disillusioned moderates from either side.
At a packed rally, I ask dozens of people the same question: why Macron? All answer: ‘Jeunesse’ (Youth). Here in Britain, the allure of the cool young politician is over. We prefer grey-haired wisdom these days. But in France, politics has long been dominated by old men running old party machines.
All of which makes Macron, 39, a dizzyingly fresh proposition.
A slightly nasal financier, married to his former school-teacher, 24 years his senior, he is not pin-up material (and has had to bat off slurs about his sexuality). But compared to some dinosaurs in French politics, he is Peter Pan.
The crowd at this concert hall in the Pyrenean town of Pau is too big for the venue. Some 5,000 have squeezed in with another 1,500 locked out. Pumped up by dance anthems, mixed with audio clips of Martin Luther King, the audience is almost hysterical when he finally arrives, an hour late.
The local mayor does the warm-up, joking that while Macron may be young, Napoleon had already been emperor for six years by the time he was his age.
And then it goes a bit flat. Macron is no Napoleon. He seems twitchy, even nervous, as he begins with a prolonged homage to this corner of France, home to his late grandmother. At one point, I fear he may be about to blub.
A high-flying graduate of France’s ultra-elitist ‘rulers’ academy’, Ecole Nationale d’Administration, he went on to be a Rothschild’s banker. In 2014, he was parachuted into the Socialist government for a couple of years as Finance Minister before leaving to work on his own presidential bid.
Macron talks so softly that his audience have to keep completely quiet to hear his soliloquies about uniting Left and Right.
‘Our democracy is ill. I want to restore confidence in it,’ he says. ‘For me, this job is about presiding, not governing,’ he continues slowly as if unveiling a big new idea (isn’t that why the job title is ‘President’?) The crowd clap.
It is the only French rally I see all week with EU flags everywhere. Macron is the only overtly pro-EU candidate. Jean-Claude Juncker and the Brussels establishment will be praying for a Macron win.
But it is only in his very last sentence that Macron raises his voice as he declares: ‘Vive La France! Vive La Republique.’
His is one of two campaigns with a sense of gathering momentum. The other is in action at the other end of the country where 25,000 people have gathered in Lille to hear Jean–Luc Melenchon. Like Macron, the ex-teacher and ex-journalist has also founded his own movement. As well as demanding Frexit and punitive taxation of the rich, ‘France Unbowed’ sees Russia as a better ally than the USA.
Melenchon wants to raise the minimum wage by 15 per cent and splurge cash like sweeties. It may be the economics of the madhouse but it’s going down a storm, especially with France’s youth.
The similarities with Italy’s anarchic but phenomenally successful populist Five Star Movement — led by the anti-establishment comedian-turned-politician Beppe Grillo — grow more obvious by the day. Hence the alarm bells in Brussels.
A woman looks at a poster with the Disney character Uncle Scrooge fixed over the official poster of French presidential election candidate for the far-left coalition "La France insoumise" Jean-Luc Melenchon
Melenchon, 65, is widely regarded to have the slickest social media presence. He encourages his supporters to play a video game called ‘fiscal kombat’ in which a mini-Melenchon beats up his main rivals to score points.
‘We are the only force uniting the country today,’ Melenchon tells his listeners.
National unity is also the battle-cry of Francois Fillon, the mainstream conservative who currently jostles with Melenchon for third place at around 18 to 20 per cent.
Fillon’s supporters insist that the financial scandal over payments to his family — or ‘les affaires’ as they call it — is just ‘media conspiracy’.
But the ambiance at the Fillon rally I attend in a Marseilles exhibition hall says it all. In terms of age, dress sense and manners, it is much like a Tory party conference. Supportive and enthusiastic they may be. Triumphal, they are not. His latest electoral slogan — ‘You don’t have to like me, just let me get on with the job’ — has an air of desperation.
‘Fillon! President!’ they chant with modest fervour. He looks proud but forlorn; not quite broken, not exactly defiant. He is a forceful orator, making a speech on everything from France’s nuclear independence to kicking drug-dealers out of social housing. He refers constantly to ‘le projet’.
Saluting France’s Nobel prize-winners, he insists that France must give the economy ‘the fuel of freedom’ by cutting regulation.
Afterwards, his supporters are super-loyal if not bursting with optimism. ‘He is the only man who understands our history, our character, our culture — and who can turn this country around,’ says Marie, 35, an architect who would rather not give me her full name as she doesn’t want work colleagues to know she supports Fillon.
Until this week, conventional thinking decreed that Mme Le Pen and Macron would go through to the second round and that the latter would romp home on a tide of centrist national unity — followed by inevitable celebrations of the death of ‘populism’.
And history shows us that France, in its elections, has an unerring habit of reverting to the status quo, leaving its bloated state behemoth untouched.
This, after all, is the country which invented the word for bossy state control of everything — dirigiste.
Yet, Thursday’s outrage may, finally, be about to change all that.
Bruno Cautres, political analyst at the widely-respected Cevipof/Sciences Po think-tank, points to a startling gap in the polls: ‘Remember that up to 40 per cent of people are undecided. So anything is still possible.’
That includes a Le Pen v Melenchon run-off — which would send the EU and the euro into free-fall.
For now, in this fearful, unhappy country, it’s all about as clear as my bowl of steaming bouillabaisse.
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