Europe

French Twists

February 17, 2017

Marine is recognized by everybody, which is both a plus and a minus. Her hostility to the E.U. will secure her the Frexit vote, but, as was not the case in the United Kingdom, there is a real attachment to the E.U., and the idea of European union, in France. The E.U. is seen as essentially a French creation, one that has solved the German problem, and therefore something to be valued, no matter its faults and weaknesses. Nevertheless it’s as certain as anything can be in this time of uncertainty that Marine will reach the second round, quite probably as the first-round winner—before everyone gangs up against her.

The question of whom she will face in round 2 is still open. Fillon may soldier doggedly on, despite his case making its way to the courts. His obduracy may have some appeal, especially if people believe he has been stitched up. If, however, he drops out, Les Républicains may struggle to find a convincing replacement (unless Juppé steps in). Meanwhile, the veteran centrist François Bayrou may see Fillon’s embarrassment as his opportunity. Bayrou is a familiar figure—too familiar, perhaps. He has presented himself in three presidentials, without much success. It’s doubtful that the French will vote for a serial loser; but in strange times, they just might. Still, it’s unlikely.

So we come to Emmanuel Macron, who founded his own party, En Marche, when he resigned from the Socialist government, saying, in effect, that it was hopeless and had lost its way; he had up till then been seen as Hollande’s pet protégé. Macron is 39, and has never held elected office. He offers a new face, which would be a nice change in French politics. On the other hand, he used to be a banker—that is, a representative of the dreaded “pouvoir” of money. He promises modernization, which pleases some and alarms more. Macron’s wife used to be his philosophy teacher and is twenty years his senior. Not surprisingly, his emergence as a serious contender has led to internet allegations that he is gay. His campaign managers complain of Russian dissemination of fake news, and hacking of their computers. This is credible. Marine Le Pen is well-disposed to the Putin model, a strong leader who has restored national pride—just what she wants to be and do. As for Putin, he regards Marine as an ally in his campaign to destabilize and destroy the E.U.

There are probably more surprises, more nasty revelations and accusations to come. Macron is emerging as the favorite—but in the media rather than the country. This may do him no good, and so far his appeal doesn’t reach into the old disaffected working class and the traditional Republican left. But if he is the last man standing against Marine, he may emerge as the Improbable President. A majority will still hold their nose and say, “Anyone but Marine and the FN.”

Meanwhile, life goes on. There were storms when I was in Bordeaux two weeks ago, but the city breathes prosperity, the food is still marvelous, and there are better bookshops there than in London. Whatever the result of the presidential, it’s still “la belle France.” Thank goodness for that.

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