I have written snarkily about French politics. (Not that today’s U.S. politics is to brag about.) I considered Socialist President Hollande ridiculous when elected, and apparently the French themselves soon did too. He isn’t even trying for re-election.
Yet the Socialist presidential nomination was won by a doubling-down purist left winger, Benoit Hamon – consigning the party to irrelevance. (Democrats take note.)
But the big story is Marine Le Pen. Her National Front party was founded by her father as a racist, quasi-fascist one, toxic to most French voters. But then she took over, booted Dad out, and aimed for detoxification and political seriousness.
Some of Le Pen’s critique of the French status quo is actually on target. Its voters have long dwelt in a fantasyland that romanticizes a paternalistic state and reviles the “harshness” of business and commerce. But unfortunately Le Pen’s platform is a farrago of populist garbage much like Trumpism. Anti-trade, anti-globalist, anti-EU, anti-immigration, promising to restore the 1950s. (I’ve heard her called a rightist candidate with leftist economics — showing how mixed up these categories have become.) Catastrophic if her program were actually enacted. Yet, after the dimwitted Brexit and Trump victories, Marine Le Pen has been seen as threatening to consummate a populist trifecta by riding the same sort of voter rebelliousness into the Élysée Palace. And thus as profoundly threatening Europe’s whole future.
France votes in two rounds, with a run-off between the first round’s top two contenders. (Nobody ever gets a first-round majority.) Daddy Le Pen once managed to sneak into the second round (pipping another limp Socialist nominee), but then an overwhelming decent-minded majority voted for the conventional alternative. Now Marine Le Pen is considered a shoo-in to also reach the second round – and with far better chances there.
Yet there’s much doubt the French would really break so dramatically with conventionality. Hence whoever faces her in the run-off was still expected to be an overwhelming favorite.
Ex-President Nicolas Sarkozy tried for a comeback, seeking the nomination of his center-right party. But he lost to Francois Fillon after they battled to outdo each other in Muslim-bashing, even advocating idiotic burkini bans. Considering too Fillon’s Trumplike pro-Putinism, he did not seem like France’s savior.
And that was before scandals blew up on him. Fillon was charged with giving family members no-show government jobs with fat salaries. And then with failing to declare a big crony loan. How odiously corrupt the French elite is! No wonder outsider Le Pen attracts support. So far, Fillon refuses to quit the race.
So Hamon, Le Pen, Fillon – take your pick. What a depressing menu of choices.
But wait . . .
Here comes the man in the white hat. Running as an independent, Emmanuel Macron, only 39, former investment banker and economy minister, who – in France! – actually seems to believe in open free markets and trade, globalization, and curbing the hand of the state. Maybe even that prosperity is created not by government largesse but by productive work, making goods and services people want to buy. How thoroughly un-French; equivalent to being a bomb-thrower.
Naturally this heretic’s chances were rated at approximately zero. Until Fillon’s scandals. Now Macron is on a tear in the polls, and might even beat Fillon into the run-off.
Pity those poor French if faced with a choice between two run-off candidates neither of whom presents the comforting political pablum they’re accustomed to. Will they swallow Le Pen’s guileful snake oil or bite the unpalatable bullet of Macron’s economic reality?
The world is watching. Let us hope the tide of madness can finally be turned back.