French Twists

February 17, 2017

Multiple Pages
French Twists

The Fifth French Republic was created in 1959 by General de Gaulle, and its constitution was devised to give France strong and stable government. It has now lasted longer than any regime since the Revolution of 1789, except for the Third Republic (1871–1940). To this extent it must be judged a success. De Gaulle gave France a strong executive president who appoints and can dismiss the prime minister. The president as head of state takes responsibility for foreign affairs and national security, the prime minister and his government for finance and domestic affairs. That’s the theory, anyway, but in fact any failure of the government reflects on the president, who usually responds by changing the prime minister.

In Gaullist theory the president embodies France and is the representative of the whole nation. In fact this is impossible. There is always opposition, as de Gaulle himself discovered when he stood for a second term in 1965 and was forced into a second-round runoff by François Mitterand. He won, but 45 percent of the electorate voted against him.

No subsequent president has had de Gaulle’s authority, though Mitterand himself (president from 1981 to ’95) came close. Since then, the quality has declined. Jacques Chirac, Nicolas Sarkozy, and François Hollande have all been failures, Hollande so lamentable a one that he hasn’t presented himself for reelection. Governing France has never been easy—de Gaulle asked how you can govern a country that has a different cheese for every day of the year.

This time, though there are lots of candidates, there are at present three possible winners—four, if you believe that the fairly far-left Socialist, Benoît Hamon, has a chance. Not many do.

“There are probably more surprises, more nasty revelations and accusations to come.”

For weeks the front-runner was the candidate of Les Républicains, the traditional conservative, François Fillon, who convincingly won his party’s open primary. But he has become embroiled in a financial scandal after the newspaper Le Canard Enchaîné, a happy muckraker, revealed that he had put his Welsh wife, Penelope, and two of their children, students at the time, on the public payroll, though there is no evidence that they did any work. In a sense he has been unlucky. There’s a long tradition of French politicians milking the public treasury: Mitterand installed his adored (and beautiful) illegitimate daughter in a state-owned apartment. But times and the public mood have changed, as Fillon has reluctantly admitted. His campaign continues, but, though a large group of party notables sent an open letter to Le Figaro declaring their support for “the honour of a man” and asserting that Fillon’s election was necessary for “the future of France,” there are already defectors calling on Fillon to step aside.

But for whom? Alain Juppé, the 71-year-old mayor of Bordeaux and former prime minister, whom Fillon defeated in the primary, has said “no thanks,” and may mean it. This may, however, be merely a show of reluctance, allowing him to respond as a matter of public spirit to appeals to save the party and France.

Save it from whom and from what? Marine Le Pen and the Front National, of course. Everyone has long expected her to get through the first round of voting and be obliterated in the second when voters come together in defense of “republican values.” That was what happened when her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, beat the Socialist candidate into third place in the first round in 2002. Then even the left rallied in support of the incumbent president Jacques Chirac under the engaging slogan “Better the crook than the fascist.” (Fillon, if he survives long enough, might hope for the same endorsement.)

Marine Le Pen isn’t, of course, a fascist, or is at least much less like one than her father, whom she has driven out of the party he founded. (Shades of King Lear and his daughters.) The FN is always described as a far-right party, and inasmuch as it is nationalist, anti-immigrant, and more or less anti-Muslim (though it has Muslim members), this may be fair. Certainly Marine’s war cry is “France first.” On the other hand, her economic program—protection, hostility to international capitalism—is essentially Socialist. So she appeals across the spectrum. However, she repels across the same spectrum, too, which is why, even in this season of discontent and Trump and Brexit, it’s still odds against her getting to the Élysée. Moreover, not everything about Marine and the FN is squeaky-clean; the party is heavily indebted to Russian banks, and loans from that source don’t come without strings attached.

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.

Daily updates with TM’s latest