Whose Republican Front?

Jeremy Harding on the French election

The polls in France have Emmanuel Macron, for En Marche! – who led in round one of the presidential vote – heading towards the Elysée by a comfortable margin over Marine Le Pen, for the Front National, in the run-off next Sunday. Forecasts for the first round on 23 April turned out to be impressive. The Institut français d’opinion publique (IFOP) predicted the vote for four of the five leading candidates within a margin of 0.7 per cent (they underestimated Jean-Luc Mélenchon, for La France insoumise, by 1.5 per cent). After the Leave vote in the UK and Trump’s victory last November, it’s reassuring not to see the pollsters face down in the entrails. A large number of undecided voters made the task harder in France. In the event, 78 per cent of the electorate cast a round-one ballot: fewer than in 2012 or 2007.

Roughly 60 per cent of people say they intend to vote for Macron in round two. Counting off the days ought to feel like waiting for the other shoe to drop. It doesn’t. Despite calls to block the FN by voting for Macron even if you distrust his programme, there’s a sense of equivocation. When Le Pen’s father reached the second round in 2002, the left swallowed its pride and voted for Chirac. The vote for Macron, left and right, may be more grudging. The two biggest trade unions have instructed their members to vote for him. The third, Force Ouvrière, has not. The main police union told members to vote against Le Pen: they responded with a stream of abuse on Facebook.

Mélenchon held back. He called instead for a consultation among signed-up followers of La France insoumise. It was still in the offing when Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, who stood in the first round as a candidate of the marginal right, threw in his lot with Le Pen. The electoral takings for the FN from Dupont-Aignan’s supporters are around 4 per cent of the vote, much of it sure to have gone Le Pen’s way anyhow. But the rapprochement leaves a small, symbolic perforation in the idea of a ‘republican front’ against a Le Pen victory. So do the angry, abstentionist tweets of the demographer Emmanuel Todd, who refuses to choose between ‘xenophobia’ (Le Pen) and ‘submission to the banks’ (you’ve got it). In the event there is no republican front.

The Macron team must be more alarmed by La Manif pour tous (literally, the Protest for Everyone), a fundamentalist movement that opposes same-sex marriage, same-sex adoption, assisted and surrogate pregnancy, almost anything that doesn’t begin with an engagement ring and end with the names of a married heterosexual couple inscribed on a grave in consecrated ground. LMPT, which has at least one racist incident to its name, has urged its followers to vote against the En Marche! candidate, on the grounds that he is ‘anti-family’. LMPT followers have not forgiven François Hollande for signing in a same-sex marriage law in 2013. Macron seems to them, with some justice, to be the dark successor of the outgoing president. Before he was unveiled to the public as a minister, he was cultivated in vitro at the Elysée in an advisory role to Hollande. When he resigned from the government last year with a view to his own candidacy, he became an outcast in the eyes of the party. Now, with their own candidate crushed, a long list of Parti Socialiste aunts and uncles – card-carrying ministers and former ministers – have taken up the call to vote for the leader of En Marche! The figure who promises everything, and yet not very much, looks like a chip off the old block to a lot of people, and LMPT, with their ‘family-minded’ grievances, find the likeness offensive.

By the time the instruction not to vote for Macron came down, LMPT sympathisers must already have been furious. Xavier Jugelé, the policeman murdered on the Champs Elysées just before round one, had turned out to be a gay rights activist. Then, on 25 April – the day of the LMPT communiqué – his partner delivered a eulogy over the coffin at a memorial led by none other than Hollande, who had decreed that straight was no longer sacrosanct. The FN has become a more tempting choice for cultural conservatives than it was fifteen years ago, when defenders of heterosexual norms weren’t yet the vanguard of family values. LMPT, meanwhile, has drip-fed its views directly into Les Républicains, the party of the centre right, via a small, hyper-activist organisation, Sens Commun, whose 27-year-old spokeswoman, Madeleine de Jessey, is also a member of LR’s executive committee. François Fillon, LR’s losing first-round candidate, has urged his supporters to vote for Macron on Sunday.

During her warm-up act at an FN rally in Marseille before round one, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen told supporters waiting for her aunt to come on: ‘Islamophobes! A facile insult … In this hall, apparently, we’ll find Europhobes, transphobes, xenophobes, Islamophobes … You have unhealthy, irrational fears.’ The audience enjoyed themselves. I was sure, later, that ‘homophobes’ were on that list: Maréchal-Le Pen is not for happy co-existence of any kind. Looking back on my notes, I find I was wrong. Perhaps she restrained herself on policy grounds. The aunt is a tomboy, and a recent revisionist on gender politics. What’s it to her if some of her entourage are gay? Gay plays increasingly well against ‘Islam’. Her key adviser, Florian Philippot, has said that repealing gay marriage is about as interesting as ‘growing bonsai trees’, and it hasn’t made the manifesto. But the disposition of the rank and file is a different matter. Le Pen has left a turbid wake as she’s steered away from homophobia: in 2013 she was an avowed abolitionist (‘Moi au pouvoir, j’abolirai le mariage pour tous’). On 7 May, LMPT sympathisers will weigh the FN’s makeover against its attitudes in the past, and find Macron wanting. But who will they be, and how many of them? The best estimate comes from Jérôme Fourquet for IFOP, who found last year that support around the country for LMPT was waning. That was on the basis of a survey in 2014, when 31 per cent of respondents said they felt ‘close to the ideas and values’ of the movement. Last autumn the figure was down to 24 per cent.

A bigger disincentive to vote Macron is the feeling that ‘the system’ is running out of steam. En Marche! can no longer claim that their candidate is ‘anti-system’: he is over-endorsed, and well positioned for office. If at the end of his term the electorate decides that nothing – or not enough – has changed, the second-round ‘barrage’ against the FN will be harder to enforce. With Macron, an insoumise told me on the way back from a rally four days before round one, the FN was sure to be there in 2022. ‘But we won’t have Mélenchon,’ she said. These premonitions about a nondescript Macron tenure, and what happens at the end of it, already have traction.

With Mélenchon gone, the fire of this astonishing campaign has subsided. Instead there is the pervasive, acrid smoke of well-worn invective, the throat-clotting sense of an old story unfolding again. (In their chaotic televised head-to-head on 3 May, Le Pen and Macron seemed to be flailing, sometimes wildly.) It isn’t that Mélenchon is a ‘hard-left firebrand’, as the British press called him. But he is a fierce critic of ‘competition’, and the uncompromising economic liberalism of Brussels. He preached that equality was the root of justice, inequality of injustice, and laid out a redistributive plan to address the income and wealth inequalities that are becoming a stable feature of the national sociology, along with unemployment averaging around 9 to 10 per cent for the last twenty years. (Compare levels last February in Germany – a bête noire to Mélenchon – of roughly 4 per cent.)

His answer to unemployment was a massive, demand-led tax-and-spend programme: raise €100 billion for public projects, authorise a 16 per cent hike on the minimum wage, oblige the state to be the employer of last resort, restore some of the public-sector jobs shed by previous administrations and bring on 60,000 new teachers. Clamp down on tax evasion and make sure – as he said when I last joined a crowd to hear him via hologram – there’s a tax inspector at the gates of hell. His was also a vigorously internationalist campaign: solid for right of asylum, and open-hearted on economic migration. It echoed a left tradition of Third-Worldist solidarity, in tune with his admiration for Cuba and Venezuela, and his caudillo style. Above all, he was willing to face down the EU and ask for the end of the stability pact and a devalued euro.

Pointless now to mourn the absence of a deal between Mélenchon and Benoît Hamon for the PS, even if their combined total was higher than Macron’s. In Montpellier, a thirty-something militant for La France insoumise said he saw no harm in Hamon, but the PS, an attrition machine designed to wear down the ‘real’ left, was the kiss of death. ‘Radical?’ an older activist asked of the Mélenchon manifesto. A programme derived from Keynes via Joseph Stiglitz, it was mild, he thought, by comparison with the ‘common programme’ that brought Mitterrand to power in 1981. His young comrades were inspired, they told me, as they hadn’t been by candidates in previous elections. They would stay in the game, whatever became of their figurehead.

He’s gone, and so is Hamon. With them go a clutch of proposals for referendums. Hamon wanted one on recognising blank ballots. Mélenchon wanted one on a new constitution and a Sixth Republic. He also wanted referendums called on the basis of ‘citizen initiatives’, on the possibility of getting rid of elected officials, on the renegotiation of EU treaties. Le Pen, like Mélenchon, favours ‘people’s initiative’ referendums, but her referendum on membership of the EU is now the only big one left standing. Why doesn’t the politics of the referendum sound alarm bells? Or is that a question tainted with British bitterness after the Leave victory last summer? The French ‘no’ to a European constitution in 2005 was effectively ignored; two years later, in came the Lisbon Treaty. Historically, the referendum is a Bonapartist instrument: you’d be pushed to call it republican.

Le Pen’s followers, and the press, waited a long time to hear her in Marseille last month. The city administration closed the metro station nearest the venue an hour and a half before the meeting was due to start: further evidence, if any were needed, that the FN is up against a conspiracy of the institutions. Several supporters saw it this way (and added in passing that round two would be a tight race between their candidate and Fillon). An elderly man who had come from Cannes took a dim view of the Marseillais. Born in Morocco, raised in Algeria, enrolled in a parachute regiment during the Algerian war, he had left in 1962 in the exodus of pieds noirs, and remembered the cruel reception they had had on the quays (he gestured in the direction of the port). He also invoked a lyrical childhood, sharing out marbles with ‘Muslim’ children. When I asked why those children might not be welcome in France, he returned to the dismal story of the pied noir disembarkation.

Le Pen didn’t get to the lectern until after eight and when she did, it was for a quick run through her programme, with minor flurries of ornamentation. We had sat through hours of desultory chanting: about 3500 followers, at a guess. An interminable slide show projected either side of the stage showed the leader in various states of electability: posing with Putin, then with Geert Wilders; on horseback at a horse show; admiring a pig on a pig farm; sitting with a cat, then another cat, then cross-legged on a river wharf; inspecting the produce in local markets the length and breadth of France; paying her respects, in Lebanon, to the 77th Maronite Patriarch of Antioch; smiling in Chad with hospitable sub-Saharan Africans who’ve kindly stayed where they belong; pausing in French Guiana to visit a spider museum; and round again to Putin.

On stage, she was less fierce and self-possessed than the figure I remembered at an FN open-air rally in Paris in 2012. She wasn’t helped by the party’s stage managers, whose son-et-lumière seemed to diminish their leader: the overused music – Ravel’s Bolero – the flashing lights, the third-rate razzmatazz that attends a World Cup qualifier in Andorra. Spectacle is part of the armature of the system-politician and perhaps, despite her protests, that is what she is on her way to becoming – next time, if not this. The crowd drove her along. In her fiercer moments – against Macron, against free movement of human beings, goods, services and capital; against radical Islam and the banking system; for ‘the people’ – for French-only welfare disbursements and border restoration; ‘the French are the owners of France!’ – they were richly supportive, on occasion disconcerting.

Leaving a concert venue in Marseille after dark to find riot police on the corners, mopping up after a minor clash with anti-FN demonstrators, you’re unlikely to be steeped in reflections on rural life in France. Yet Le Pen’s speeches leave a powerful bucolic nationalist imagery echoing in her listeners’ ears. She speaks of a small, industrious, local France; a France of bell towers and landscapes shaped by generations of toil. She can even slip in a line from Verlaine as if she meant it (‘l’amour de la Patrie est le premier amour’). Yet this thriving repository of Frenchness that she celebrates is also a fresh grave at which she’s preparing to mourn. It is being destroyed by ‘the system’, and already she calls it ‘the France of the forgotten’.

For a while now, the FN has also lamented the decline of French industry and called for the cleansing of inner urban areas, as zones of misrule that need to be policed and brought to heel. It isn’t just one, but two disappearing worlds that the party celebrates and commemorates in a single, long exhalation. The elegy for an urban-industrial past, as Jean-Yves Camus and Nicolas Lebourg explain in Far-Right Politics in Europe, signals a change for rightist groups since their heyday in the 1930s. ‘In the inter-war period,’ Camus and Lebourg write, ‘the far-right movements converged in their loathing of the urban milieu, which they accused of being the site of decadence and uprootedness.’ The FN still sees the banlieues in the same way, but its underlying message is that every instance of an old way of life, from the maid on the milking stool to the skilled engineer on the industrial estate, has come under attack, or been left to wither away.

This election has been an argument about ‘the system’, with three leading contenders claiming to oppose it. Two are left in the race, and one – Macron – cannot be taken at his word on this score. The other – Le Pen – has done everything she can to present the FN as a system-friendly party, while proclaiming her intention to tear up many of the rules. (As Sunday looms into prospect, Camus has warned that the FN is still the party it always was.) But what is ‘the system’ exactly? Are we to think in purely political terms, of the institutions of the Fifth Republic and the big rassemblements of centre-right and centre-left which have grazed the pastures of office since the 1950s; of the painful entanglement with Brussels? Or should we imagine a vast cloud of destruction, consisting of finance capitalism, foreign banks, the ECB, low-cost labour in Asia, corporations pouring pesticides into rivers and driving up global warming, as tens of thousands of migrants try to escape the destiny that this plot has woven for them, as well as us, by heading for our shores?

I find myself falling back on an outsider’s definition of the French system as an engine of wealth creation, enabling redistribution and social provision, managed by competent functionaries in an elected democracy where candidates for office are put through their paces in ways that are unimaginable in Britain. I understand that as wealth creation gets harder, ‘l’état providence’ – welfare, solidarity, sharing – becomes ever more precarious. There are huge challenges in parts of the banlieues, which zero-tolerance policing, proposed by the FN, against the wishes of most local mayors, will not fix. Unacceptable numbers of young people still fail to find humiliating, low-paid jobs for which they should be grateful. (Hamon seemed to read the long-term implications of a world with less work better than Mélenchon did.) State intervention to protect local assets – steel works and car factories – has foundered under Hollande, as it did under his predecessors, but the discussion in France isn’t done, and the FN isn’t the only party that wants to have it. The system is not yet in its death throes.

On the evening of the first round of voting, with the polls closed, half a dozen officials stood at a table in our village town hall. Eleven spikes on wooden blocks, one for each candidate, were set in a row; the ballot papers, each in its small brown envelope, had been transferred to larger envelopes, in a pile in front of the deputy mayor, his wife and their willing little grandson, under eagle-eyed supervision for this apprenticeship in voter democracy. After a moment of silence the counting began, the surname on each ballot was called clearly, and the paper assigned to its spike. A minute later the ballots were stacking well for Le Pen; another five and Mélenchon’s spike began to look healthy. Over the shoulder of one of the recorders, tallying the count on square-ruled note paper, you could see more accurately how matters were shaping up. By the time the contents of the third large envelope were emptied onto the table and the deputy mayor’s grandson began handing the ballots to his grandmother, who opened them and passed them to her husband, Le Pen had a clear lead. With the last ballots called, Macron and Mélenchon were close. The two scribes checked their tallies; the ballots were gathered up to take to the larger mairie a few kilometres away. Onlookers and counters began to talk. There was no way of knowing how the national picture was going, but our neighbours – 447 voters in all – were decisively for the FN candidate, with Mélenchon a distant second, two votes ahead of Macron. Someone opened the windows – at the back of the building is a meadow, dotted with brown sorrel – and drew the wooden shutters together.

The final result in the department as a whole – Dordogne – gave Mélenchon a narrow lead over Macron, leaving Le Pen in third place. It isn’t obvious what to infer from that about the second round in the department, or from the result of the national consultation among Mélenchon’s militants, which shows a majority (36.1 per cent) in favour of a blank or spoiled ballot and 34.8 per cent in favour of a vote for Macron. The rest would prefer to abstain. At the next count in the village on Sunday, Le Pen, I’m confident, will have it. We will go home, through a landscape of bell-towers and managed fields that looks a little less benign than we remembered it, and we’ll switch on our TVs. On Monday, France will mark the 72nd anniversary of VE Day with a public holiday.

3 May