Guy Rundle: French elections

“Give me a cheer, come on give me a cheer, I need to hear you say Vive La France!”

The besuited young man at the front of the crowd at the assembly hall was pretty leisurely for a warm-up guy — “ah now let’s have some cheering, eh?” — but that wasn’t really a problem. The crowd of what six, seven, eight thousand didn’t need much prompting. Waving hundreds of tricolour flags, yelling, blustering, chattering, they were filling the hall with noise. In front a giant picture on the screen behind the podium, Marine Le Pen, that heavy, blank, face, set in an expression of naive lack of guile, staring out at the audience, like she was a Nantes housewife who’d just won two tickets to Les Mis. The image is towering, bizarre. How much white is there in that? She beams out over the assembled masses.

It’s just after noon, and it’s May Day in France. Or Joan Of Arc Day as the Front National would have it, their alternative celebration. Front National’s rally is running to the agenda; we’ve been herded in and about to hear Le Pen’s pre-announced prime minister, Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, give a fire-breathing speech. Dupont-Aignan was a candidate for president himself, in the first round, part of the six “jokers” behind the four major candidates, and the pity-root run of the Socialists. To add to the PS’ woes, he got 5% of the vote, nearly pushing the PS, on 6% and change, into sixth place, with the Workers Power, and M. Asselineau of the “UPR” (not the real UPR). Most of Dupont-Aignan’s voters would transfer to Le Pen, but it doesn’t hurt to have him inside the tent. He’s on, and he’s off quickish, spitting crowd-pleasing policy proposals, from capital controls — when the franc is back — to denying illegals emergency room treatment for non-emergency cases, and then it’s Marine Le Pen herself, for her speech, right when she said she would. Say what you like about the FN, they make the trains of thought run on time.

[Rundle: on the troubled streets of a France that’s burning]

George Orwell once remarked, “For the record, I have never been able to personally dislike Adolf Hitler” and went on to examine how der Fuehrer, at the centre of a movement celebrating violence and domination, projected the air of an average, beaten-down and put-upon man, a puffy face in the crowd. Marine Le Pen gives off the same air. The Le Pens are a wealthy sub-aristocratic family; 20 years ago Marine was an elegant, shapely fixture of the social pages, Nazi bad girl. Now heavyset (by design, I would warrant), restyled and destyled, she is Madame Moyenne. She looks like every woman or man who has been underestimated all their lives. Since, in an administered industrial/post-industrial society, that is most people, there is a broad appeal. Throughout the campaign, every response she has given to every answer sounded like it had been gamed out by three strategists, honed and honed to give a response summoning up everything she wants to convey: victimisation, condescension by others, that elite values — consistency, content, etc — are a racket, a mysterious power game everyone else is locked out of, and above all of course, naive spontaneity. The speech she will give to this baying, singing crowd — a crowd in which every social class is represented well, in which the young are numerous — will go for 90 minutes (I dashed after the first 30) and include every image and symbol of the campaign.

It was, effectively, her last rally. Tonight, she was doing a thing at a small village in Picardy, which was having a retrofair of sorts, cosplay lutists and other idiots wandering around. On live feed it looked like a disaster, small crowd, and audible hecklers. Strange, squibby conclusion to a barnstorming campaign. I’d been hoping for some sort of last day heartland barnstorm, un Nuremberg, but it didn’t happen. So it was the May Day rally at Villepointe instead.

The location was exact. Villepointe is the France that isn’t France, or the France as others want it to be, impossibly exotic, living otherwise, a nation halfway between Sartre and burning cars in the banlieues. This is echt France, close to Paris but a million miles away, the France of the office job in a bureaucracy, shopping at le hypermart, watching crap shows on the state-run public TV channels in an apartment halfway up the cliff-face of an enormous block. The population, and crowd, are people who have lost their inhibitions about being labelled FN over the last decade. Modernity has proved to be such a bummer for them, something beneath the level of disappointment, that support for the FN has popped into being, out of the nothingness.

The FN went from fringe to minor player when it dropped its archaic hard-rightism — obsessive anti-Semitism, a hankering for Bourbon France, concerns about the Freemasons — and turned its hatred on Muslim immigrants and EU regulations. It went to major player when it turned the language of racism into that of community, integration and safety. It has now started to go beyond that with an explicit leftist economic message — the most interesting development of this campaign. It’s a measure of how fast things have been moving that Monday’s speech, emphasising national identity, culture, the simple unity of such as a precondition for freedom, contained little pandering to the left on economic issues, while, since Tuesday afternoon, it’s all they’ve been doing. Brute commitment to the French corporate state, and workers’ conditions within it, has become the major line, pushing immigration and terror back into the pack. Le Pen has even adopted a degree of Marxist cultural critique, tying a globalised world to one where “one simply produces and then lives as a consumer”, without the beneficence of shared culture and meaning. If it were all happening in a rather precocious ant farm, it would be merely fascinating. But Le Pen and the FN’s base philosophy is mutating fast, learning from experience, in a way far beyond the ad hoc appeal of a Trump. There are smart people behind it clearly, but there’s also a degree of autonomy about it. The FN is being reshaped by the world it works in, as a response to it, an antidote to its suffocating totality.

“What do you like about her?” “She makes me feel good about things again,” Robert at the rally said. He’s a minor bureaucrat for the Ile-de-France department, supervises, of all things, playground provision and standards. His knowledge of politics was near self-parody bad. Left and right were unknown concepts to him. He didn’t like political correctness. He wasn’t keen on waving a flag either and looking like a dick. But he was here, and he was quietly, utterly supportive of Le Pen. His support appeared to express much of what has underlain support for Trump, Brexit, others: a sheer dissatisfaction at what modernity is, the state of permanent low-level dissatisfaction it assigns to everyone as their default setting, enlivened by episodes of love, sex, obsession, ambition, hope, depth, always returning to a baseline. People like Macron attract such hatred from a middle group such as this because their program is to implicitly acknowledge that that’s how it is, that politics cannot be more than itself, that the collective adventure of modernity is over for the moment, and that now it’s just about “settings”.

[Rundle: in debate, Le Pen improves on the Trump playbook to devastating effect]

The crowd at Villepointe had given me, as I left, an uneasy and unpleasant feeling, but it had nothing to do with the the FN’s old (and continuing) fascist right affiliations. Quite the contrary. It was that this movement was as much a wilful fantasy as Trump’s movement was, but that it had also refined and innovated that approach. The Villepointe rally seemed like something out of the near future dropped down a wormhole: the FN sliding smoothly into power, later, because Macron et al have, as the establishment, failed again, and there is now no longer any answer to their demands and silently, without admitting to it, people simply acquiesce to its demand to institute a program. If that happens in the 2020s, all this rallying against is going to look like a last, late refusal to admit to reality.

Marine Le Pen won’t win this election — unless the sheer disjuncture between polling and persons has now become so large that they are positively misleading as to public sentiment — but the sense people have of this election as a Thermopylae against a surging enemy will stand her in good stead to make the elections of the teens a mere prelude to those of the 2020s. Progressive who talk in horror of Trump getting a second term betray the same delusion: the belief that this is simply not how modernity could be. It may be that this is simply want modernity is, until we can genuinely and wholly break out of existing containments: the idea that life is mostly shitty, burning-turd-in-a-paper bag left on the doorstep of existence, a demeanour that will favour those who most look like that’s the sort of thing they’d do as a prank, without class, and self-undermining.

Le Pen offers a way out of it for many, or the appearance of such. Until there is a reformulation of establishment politics to acknowledge the real gap — of class, of opportunity, of perception, etc — between rulers and ruled, the emptiness of abstract democracy and rights without content, then the right will always be coming at us in those terms. This is the politics that will occupy much of the rest of our lives, and this election is where it has really begun in earnest. The final delusion of an elite liberal politics of either left or right is that it will simply wink out of existence after fresh political failure, when it is precisely that attitude and the politics associated with it most in danger of extinction. Whether this was the main gig is something we’ll find out on Sunday. But if it is not that, it is the warm-up act, with the star turn waiting, patiently, in the wings.