PARIS—The United States appears at last to be waking up, at least a little bit, to the frightening risks that are fast approaching with the French presidential elections. We’re seeing some thoughtful editorials, and even comedian John Oliver has chimed in. His message to France, after Brexit and President Trump: “Don’t fuck up, too.”
Let’s be just that blunt. These elections could fuck us all. They have turned into an insane gamble—Russian roulette (and we use the term advisedly) with at least two of the chambers loaded—and the implications for the United States are huge.
The biggest winner in the forthcoming French presidential elections may well be Russian President Vladimir Putin, in fact. And while he might have played a few of his usual dirty tricks—indeed, in 2014 a Russian bank funded the party of Marine Le Pen, the current first-round leader in the polls—Putin can now sit back and watch the French themselves try to destroy the European Union and the NATO alliance he hates so much.
Less than three weeks from now, in the final round of the presidential elections, the only choice left to the voters of France could well be between Le Pen, a crypto-fascist, or Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a charismatic communist, both of whom are strongly anti-EU and anti-NATO.
Victory for either one would mean an end to the political, diplomatic, and economic order that has protected the United States as well as Europe for the last 70 years, preventing the kinds of cataclysms—World Wars I and II—that cost millions of lives in the first half of the 20th century while containing first Soviet and now Russian adventurism.
There are other possibilities, but as the French prepare to go to the polls (or flee them) this Sunday, April 23, the possible outcomes are a total crapshoot. The four top candidates in a field of 11 are in a virtual dead heat; the differences between their scores is within the acknowledged margins of error by the pollsters. The top two finishers will vie against each other in a run-off on May 7. And the reason something like panic has set in among many French, from the heights of the political establishment to conversation over espressos at the counters in working-class cafés, is that the candidate with the most solid base is Le Pen, while the one with the most momentum is the far-left Mélenchon.
Analogies often are misleading, but in the United States, the closest parallel to Le Pen would be Candidate Trump as groomed and coached by Steve Bannon, while the appeal of Mélenchon, especially among young voters, is much like that of Bernie Sanders. Mélenchon has the best presence on the web, which gives him the veneer of modernity, while his program to “share the wealth” of those who’ve made even small fortunes fits nicely with the traditional French jealousy of financial success and youthful idealism about egalitarianism.
Everyone knows how unreliable polling was in the Brexit vote and before the Trump victory, but here in France, with some 30 percent of the electorate saying they have not yet decided who to vote for less than a week before they go to the polls, and many others saying they might change their mind at the last minute, nobody even pretends to be sure how things will play out. Just to add to the confuson: abstention rates in the first round are expected to be at an all-time high of about 35 percent.
At the beginning of the year, the obvious front-runner was François Fillon, the very conservative former prime minister in the government of President Nicolas Sarkozy from 2007 to 2012. In a primary race last November, Fillon beat his former boss for the nomination of their party, now called Les Républicains. His core principles: Thatcherite economics paring back the role of the state, cutting public sector jobs dramatically, and asserting the values of the Catholic Church in family matters, while denouncing Islamism as a totalitarian ideology. He also has famously friendly ties to Putin.
Fillon, 63, has cultivated an image of maturity and experience bolstered at first by probity and morality. But those latter virtues took a hit when he was placed under formal investigation earlier this year for putting his wife on a government payroll, to the tune of almost $1 million, for work she may never have performed. This, as he was calling for the elimination of 500,000 public sector jobs.
So who is left? The wunderkind banker turned presidential adviser turned economy minister and then leader of an independent centrist “movement”: Emmanuel Macron. In March, he was the flavor of the month. Polls showed he would make it to the second round of the elections, maybe even edging past Le Pen, then defeat her decisively.
But two televised debates took much of the wind out of Macron’s sails. Compared to Le Pen and Mélenchon, he was both wonkish and vague—a deadly combination. That may be because, Obama-like, he really wanted to try to explain the issues. But that’s not great TV, and Mélenchon, Le Pen, Fillon, and even fringe party candidates made much more of an impression. Macron started fading from the headlines, and he began to lose his grip on the top position in the polls.
Because Macron's centrist movement, En Marche!, has attracted support from some of the moderate leaders of the Socialist Party, with whom he served as economy minister, he's being branded as a front for the very unpopular outgoing government of President François Hollande.
So now we’re in the home stretch of the first heat of this race, with the candidates hoping big rallies will push them across the April 23 threshhold to the final one-on-one showdown May 7.
The most imaginative is Mélenchon, who launched his campaign in February using a hologram projection of himself in Paris while he spoke live to a crowd in Lyon, 500 kilometers away. This week he plans to use the same technique to project a 3-D image of himself to meetings in eight cities at once.
Le Pen’s big rally was in Paris on Monday, attended by voters whose fervor, once again, was reminiscent of Trump supporters during the campaign in the United States last year. They are true believers even if they have trouble squaring those beliefs with objective truth. They simply ignore the scandals that have accrued to Le Pen around her alleged misuse of European Parliament funds and, most recently, her attempt to whitewash the role of French officials exterminating Jews during the Holocaust.
At its very core, Le Pen’s support is built around hostility toward immigrants, especially if they have dark skin and Muslim-sounding names. And the roots of the party, try as Le Pen might to disavow them, run deep among people with nostalgia for the Nazi collaborators of the Vichy government (as Fillon pointed out), and even the die-hard colonialists who waged a terrorist war against the government of Charles De Gaulle when he decided to withdraw from Algeria in the early 1960s.
“I’ve been a supporter for 30 years,” said a man at the Le Pen rally who would identify himself only as Samuel. “It’s a question of national identity. I grew up in the banlieues,” he said, referring to the suburbs where many housing projects were built in years past to accommodate foreign workers. “I have seen the effects of immigration firsthand.”
Others think Le Pen represents law and order in a country that has suffered horrific terror attacks since early 2015. “Marine is the only one who will restore security in France,” said Théodora, originally from Romania. “Macron doesn’t love his country. I love France more than he does. He is shameful.”
Joël, a man in his 60s from the Jura region wearing a Paris-St. Germain soccer club T-shirt and a Le Pen, button said, “I am voting for Marine because I am a patriot, and I appreciate patriotism.”
“Macron is like a giant water balloon that will pop. He is a banker and part of the system. He is ephemeral… I hope so, anyway.”
That wasn’t the sentiment in the market streets of Paris on Easter Sunday, where Macron supporters were out in force.
Ali Chabani, a 53-year-old photographer handing out Macron leaflets, easily rattled off six reasons he’ll vote for him: He’s “dynamic”; he hasn’t been “stealing public funds” (a jibe at Fillon and Le Pen); he is “unbelievably intelligent”; he understands that we are in a global economic war and to win it you need alliances (like the EU); he will create jobs (all the candidates say they will create jobs); and he understands the digital economy. (That’s not always a plus with French voters. Mélenchon warns against the “uberization” of the work force.)
Isabelle Nore Vidal, a pharmacist, said she had started by supporting a centrist candidate who lost to Fillon in the primary of Les Républicains. Since then, she said, Fillon has proved too divisive for French society. “You have people who suffer enormously,” she said. “If Fillon’s program is implemented, they will suffer more.”
She said she is asked often if Macron isn’t too young to be president. “I tell them a society that says a man of 40 is too young is a society that’s in trouble.” Macron is mature, but with energy and a sense of the future that older candidates don’t have, she said.
In fact, Le Pen is only 48. But Nore Vidal just shook her head when she heard the name. Like many other voters, she couldn’t even imagine a Le Pen victory, but that doesn't mean it won't happen.
On Monday, Macron drew some 17,000 supporters to a rally in one of the biggest indoor sports arenas of Paris. They filled it to the rafters, waving not only French flags but European Union flags. And Macron himself looked buoyed by the crowd that surrounded him.
“We are going to give back to France its optimism and its faith in the future,” he said. He denounced what he called “fraudulent nostalgia.” Of 11 candidates, he said, he was the only one who didn’t want to drag the country back to the past and close the borders, sealing the country inside itself.
Laughing easily, almost conspiratorially, with his audience, Macron shot little barbs at his opponents, even when he didn’t name them. Some, he suggested, would turn France into “Cuba without the sun and Venezuela without oil.” (So much for Mélenchon.) Contrasting Fillon and Mélenchon, Macron said the French might be left with a choice between “Thatcher or Trotsky.”
As for Le Pen, Macron warned of “a barbarism” in Europe “that is ready to come back.”
“We will not let that happen,” he said, to rapturous applause.
Perhaps. But at this juncture, if Macron falters or fails next Sunday, the barbarians truly will be at the gates.