Spread out on the zinc bar at Le Volcan bistro, France’s dozen daily papers and weekly magazines, the headlines — “Vous Faites Quoi?” (Liberation, left), “Incertitude est Totale” (Figaro, right), “Hamon: Je vais le fumer, le Melenchichon!” (Le Canard Enchaine, satirical weekly, incomprehensible, always) — all give the same impression: no one knows what the hell’s going on.
The cover of Liberation says it all, a series of scrawls between the five main candidates, to see who will face up to whom after three of them are knocked out in the first voting round, on April 23, a week away.
Torpor and complacency were replaced by near panic in November when Donald Trump won the US presidency, and it suddenly became possible, imaginable that Marine Le Pen of the Front Nationale (FN) might become president of this republic. It seems fair to say that the terror of such — it was not much less than that — has now given way to bewilderment and confusion, as the race opens wide, mainstream party politics of a century’s vintage collapses, and anything becomes possible.
Whatever happens, some process is coming to an end in this contest, but whether as renaissance or disaster remains to be seen. The assumption has long been that Le Pen would make it through the first round of the election’s two-round system, since on a wide range of matters it is the Front Nationale versus everyone else. They had done so once before, in 2002, when Marine Le Pen’s father, the party’s founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, was the leader and the party had not yet taken its “formalist” turn, abandoning an explicit racist, white-skin and anti-Semitic ideology for a nationalist and communalist notion of borders and citizenship.
At that time, Le Pen, le pere’s opponent had been Jacques Chirac, a venerable hack of the French centre-right, and someone who agreed with the socialist left on a whole range of matters – above all that France should remain a statist society, its powerful government institutions holding the market in check. Knowing that, the Parti Socialiste (PS) threw their support behind him in the runoff, under the memorable phrase, “Votez escroc, pas facho” — “Vote for the crook, not the fascist”. Chirac, a former mayor of Paris was up to his eyeballs in kickback scandals, but by virtue of that could be trusted not to take fire and sword to the French state. With right and left support, he won by a landslide, and, as expected, did nothing to address the political sclerosis that was slowly enveloping France.
Chirac was succeeded by Sarkozy, who looks like a three-quarter-size Charles Aznavour, or a sort of Gallic Sam Dastyari, more neatly tailored and coiffed, but still, similarly, with the air of the maitre d’ of a three-star-hotel bistro. Sarkozy was lifted to power by a widespread frustration with France’s structural problems and gained a lot of working-class votes from a promise to bring more choice and American-style living to French life. But when his crossover voters found that American-style living was mainly about lower wages and crap conditions, they crossed back, and mounted a series of traditional French protests, millions out on the streets, workers, students, teenagers, the works.
Sarko desisted early; he was a pure publicity hound by nature (fellow G7 leaders would note his ability to dash from a press conference to be at the centre of a photo call), and by then he had married brunette singer/songwriter/actress Carla Bruni and was gone for about 18 months. Sarko’s very election had been treated as something akin to the end of the world by the intelligentsia; both post-Heideggerean Maoist philosopher Alain Badiou and celebrated playwright (‘Art’) Yasmina Reza wrote books about him, figuring him as History (or the end of it) in lift-shoes; Reza shadowed him for months, for her very entertaining book (“all that time, he never made a pass at me,” said France’s leading dramatist. “It was almost insulting”). But Sarko, like Chirac before him, simply demonstrated the power of France, something that one could call the state-culture complex — a system so intertwined that you cannot take a hack at the former, without doing damage to the latter. Since no one — no one — wants to damage the culture, the innumerable ways of doing things that make up “la vie“, the state goes untransformed.
By the 2010s, practically everyone could acknowledge that something had to be done, for the simple reason that, as the world got faster, France, by standing still, got slower. Things that had merely been a little more rigid than elsewhere were now becoming absurdly rigid. The towns of Kent are full of houses with 20 brass plates on their door, with the names of French companies, registered in the UK because it takes an afternoon there, to do so, and in France it takes a month; 30 years ago, it took everyone in the West two weeks to get a new landline phone switched on; in France, now, getting pay-as-you-go wi-fi is like starting on a process of becoming an archbishop in the Eastern rite Orthodox church; years of study appear to be involved. This is not corruption or lassitude as in Greece or Italy; it is a focused and deliberate process, an affirmation of stasis.
Following Sarkozy’s failure, Parti Socialiste’s Francois Hollande won power, with a proposal to reform the state through consensus and negotiation. The idea was a trade-off: in exchange for a more proactive state in areas like job creation, etc, and a lessening of the working week and reduction in the retirement age, there would be reform to labour market relations in exchange (such as making it easier to sack people — in France, to a degree, this meant making it possible to sack people). Like Sarko, he got a lot of pushback; like Sarko, he gave up almost immediately; like Sarko, his attention was drawn by a woman, or, showing that progress in productivity is possible, two women. Having split from his partner and former Parti Socialiste leader Segolene Royal in 2007, Hollande had taken up with journalist Valerie Trierweiler, and was cheating on her with actress Julie Gayet.
To be fair, he conducted the affair discreetly, by arriving at her place on motor scooter, as neighbours gaped from windows — not least, as his government car followed behind, with security detail and government boxes. If you can imagine Prime Minister Bill Shorten having divorced Tanya Plibersek to take up with Katherine Murphy and then double-crossing her with Meow Meow, arriving at the latter’s joint every evening, helmeted, on a BMX, a trio of comm cars in train, you’ve kind of got a picture of France around 2014-2015, and why every turnip farm still has foreign aid equivalent to the income of Burkina Faso, and the budget hasn’t been balanced since the 1980s.
Ridiculous though the affaire affair was, it gave a sense of the utter dilatoriness of the French establishment of right and left, the absolute collapse of anything resembling an actual politics at the centre. People wrote off Hollande from that point; by 2016, his polling numbers were so bad that he had decided not to contest the Parti Socialiste primary election for leader, which he would have lost. Whoever wins on May 7, Hollande will go down in history as the full-stop to an era of wasted opportunity and lack of will.
Hollande failed to make history, but in doing so made history happen; the sense in France that things could not go on as they are, destroyed the centre of politics. In the centre-right Republicans party (formerly the UMP), it allowed designated hardliner Francois Fillon to rise from third place in the primaries, and overtake the front-runner Alain Juppe, and gained the nomination. In his 60s, a former prime minister and designated hardliner, Fillon is imposing and he, well, he looks like Charles Aznavour; this appears to be the sensible thing to do in French politics.
For years Fillon’s role was to push for a little more discipline, more market, less state; he has held just about every office it’s possible to hold in French politics, and his viability has always been the idea that he is restrained from acting by cooler heads, but provides a useful urging to action addressing France’s problems. That he prevailed in the primaries is a measure of how fed up large sections of the bourgeoisie are with a lack of action on structural change, and how evacuated is the support base that once guaranteed a statist right. This was personified by front-runner Alain Juppe, whom Fillon trashed.
Juppe does not look like Charles Aznavour, perhaps his fatal error; balding and liver-spotted, he has the appearance of a regional manager of Le Coq Sportif croaking out an impromptu version of “She” at his daughter’s wedding, as the band scrambles to keep up. It was in that spirit that his shambolic campaign for the Republicans candidacy was conducted, while Fillon talked about nuking half a million public service jobs, attacking le sacre 35-hour week, and re-asserting the primacy of French culture, and pushing back against multiculturalism. Essentially, France was so far behind, or outside of, the historical curve of the right, that a Thatcher/Reagan/Howard formula of free market economics and social conservatism, long since exhausted elsewhere, can be sufficiently compelling to build a majority on.
Fillon’s victory in the Republicans primaries was widely assumed to guarantee that he would take second place in the first round of the elections proper, and go on to contest Le Pen. This became all the more likely when the Parti Socialiste selected as their candidate a centrist figure Benoit Hamon, a man whose name well describes him, a lifelong functionary with the appearance of being a quantity of evenly coloured inert meat.
Fillon’s selection terrified the left and centre, not because they thought he might win, and fulfil his program — that would not be French — but because it was clear that an anti-Front Nationale popular front could not be formed around him. Put simply, while it was possible to corral left votes for Chirac (some voters went to polls with a clothes’ peg over their nose, until being informed that this constituted a breach of regulations), it would simply not be possible to do the same for Fillon. With Le Pen spruiking a nationalist message on work conditions and the health and welfare services, trade unions, anti-market politics, and taking on left “post-capitalist” positions on things like working hours and early retirement, tying it all to a referendum on EU and euro membership, there was no possibility, and not much desirability, of directing the non-FN vote Fillon’s way. The vote would not go; the injunction would have created a split between party leadership and rank-and-file, destroying the authority of the former (which has not survived in any case; the Parti Socialiste makes PASOK look healthy). The subsequent defection would have been a new stage in the legitimisation of the FN.
The party had gone from being a group of marginal crackpots to being players in the ’90s, partly on the strength of Communist voters switching across; a mystery only if you ignore the fact that few parties were more nationalist than the late-Stalinist PCF, and that 20th-century politics needs to be entirely reread in terms of what parties were really doing, not what they claimed to be doing (Socialist Alternative and John Howard were the left and right wings of a unified movement in Australian politics; discuss). Communist voters in the north and south, Lille and not-so-Nice, switching over was one thing. But were Fillon to become the opposing candidate, then the defender of the French state, and the class settlement it is founded on, would be … Marine Le Pen and the FN. The knowledge-class leaderships were surprised in the US that their rank-and-file were less fussed by Donald Trump’s sexism and peekaboo racism than they were; and willing to ignore it all, for the promise of action on jobs and immigration. The same looked like occurring in France.
Before it could, however, Fillon himself was revealed to be, well, just another statist, having used his 19 different party and state offices, to give his wife and rellies sinecures and consultancies, ultimately up to a million euros worth. For anyone else, it might have been seen as both dashing and loyal, but Fillon had staked his claim on being different, and he plummeted in the polls. For a moment, the Socialists took heart but Hamon was not to be the new front-runner; the PS is so far behind that the media isn’t including it in its daily round-up of leading candidates’ statements. Instead, it was Emmanuel Macron, a protege of Francois Hollande’s and a former PS lifer who raced ahead.
Having left the PS, and formed a ghost movement around his initials — EM, En Marche — Macron is now playing to the centre. He was never a socialist, he is now telling the country; he’s a practical man who wants to get things done. This may work; creating a combined vote from those who believe that anyone electable should be supported against Le Pen, and those who believe that something, anything has to happen, to get a reconstructed state/economy/society mix. But that required a balancing act, and Macron has not been delicate. The more viable his campaign has become, the more heady he has been in talking about challenging the status quo, damaging his centrist, “practical” credentials; in matters economic he has started to sound like Fillon-lite. This, too, is a common process in Western politics these days. Everyone in the technocratic elite knows/believes that society is only viable if “illusions” of settledness, communality, parochiality, are ceaselessly dispelled; many in their rank-and-file believe that a world whose settings were that of post-war, class-based, modest-means social democracy was the natural setting of human existence. Sooner or later, after sufficient encounter, the differences emerge, and that is the tricky position Macron finds himself in now.
That has prompted the rise of a fourth candidate, Jean-Luc Melenchon, a departee from the PS, from the left. Trained as a teacher, he was a PS stalwart, but never a high-flier, from the ’70s onwards. He left the PS in 2008, with a group who formed a “Left Party”, to link up with the German Left Party, creating a European left front. That collapsed, and Melenchon has learned faster than most that the old structures don’t work anymore; he has entered this contest with another insta-group, the FI, France Insoumise, or France Unsubmissive. But, aged 65, he’s leapt ahead of other such anti-systemic elders, such as Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, embracing a fully post-capitalist politics, advocating universal basic income, a robots “payroll” tax on corporations, and using high-tech methods to campaign; tonight he’s doing seven meetings simultaneously, from Nantes to Grenoble, to La Reunion in Africa, using holographic projection.
Though he dresses in a knit top, never a suit, and looks Corbyn-esque, there’s nothing woolly about him; he’s tech-savvy, and a great speaker, quick on his feet, and drily witty. His youth support is phenomenal, around 45% of the under-29s, which has powered him to a 15%-17% polling, up from single figures a couple of months ago. Not enough to get him into the second round, but of course, things can go funny in a four-way race as the candidates even up; a 2% or 3% shift can make all the difference when 23% may be sufficient to get into the final two (there are 11 “major” candidates; seven of them will get about 10-15% in total, leaving the big four to divide up the remainder).
In such races, late in the day, a whole tranche of votes will suddenly shift, as whole sub-classes of people decide, uniformly, to jump one way. The plain fact is that up to three weeks ago, it was assumed that the second round election would be Marine Le Pen versus someone; now there are six possible combos of the four leaders, and any of them could happen; if you count in the PS, 10.
The story was one of beating back the FN — or of the inability to find an alternative to defend against it. It may still be. But it is all possible that the most-backward Western state, politically speaking, has leapt furthest forward and a new agenda is being set. There is no better place to be a rallying point against the spreading deadening of the current period. Whatever problems France may have — and man, try getting a parcel redirected, Jesus, just try — it remains the capital city of Life, a place that has resisted the spread of commodified, processed existence, the assault on pleasure, the abolition of sex and the sexes, the puritan death-drive of the regnant knowledge-class, long enough to last out capitalism’s/cultural leftism’s brief claim to offer any sort of way to be. Nowhere else is best placed to find a way through to new possibilities for organising life in modernity to the benefit of all. Equally, no one else is as well placed for it to fail. No political elite has been so self-parodically decadent, so tacitly admitting of the exhaustion of their claim to moral leadership; no hard-right leader has been as astute as Marine Le Pen in reconstructing a pariah party into a mainstream option.
All this, and this morning, a British election announced, one that may see the evisceration of the founding Labour party of the Anglosphere. Anything is possible over the next two months, it is worth noting; worth noting also that the Australian politician who most resembles Charles Aznavour is Nick Xenophon, and adjusting future forecasts accordingly.