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Checking in on France’s totally strange presidential contest

After the twin shocks of the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump, the world will be watching this one with more interest than usual.

Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron pose prior to the start of a live prime-time debate on Wednesday night.
REUTERS/Eric Feferberg

France goes to the polls Sunday for the second and final round of its totally strange presidential contest.

I don’t want to engage in any hype about the fate of the earth or even the fate of Europe hanging in the balance (although plenty of others will go there). But after the twin shocks of the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump – both of which defied the late polls and suggested a deep anger/nationalism/ethnocentrism/insecurity in the hearts of voters in two prosperous and well-established democracies – the world will be watching this one with more interest than usual.

France has a two-step process for choosing a president. First, in what Americans sometimes called a “jungle primary,” many candidates run. Over recent cycles, the number of candidates in the first round has ranged from six to 16. This year it was 11, although more than 85 percent of total vote went to the top four finishers. After the first round, there’s a run-off of the top two finishers. That’s what’s happening Sunday.

All expectations to the contrary, neither of the parties that have dominated French politics over recent decades (the Gaullists aka Republicans on the center right and the Socialists on the left) will have a candidate in the runoff. Instead, the rightist National Front candidate, Marine Le Pen, will face off against Emmanuel Macron, the nominee of En Marche!, a centrist party Macron founded just a year ago after leaving a position in the Cabinet of the Socialist government and moving ideologically to what he hopes is the center of the spectrum. 

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“En Marche!” means something like “on the march” or “moving forward,” which certainly doesn’t tell us much except to perhaps imply that Le Pen-ism is an effort to move backward.

Le Pen’s party name, National Front, suggests nationalism. It dates only from the 1970s and was led by its founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen, until leadership passed to his daughter, Marine. She has sought to soften (or muddy up) its old image as a party of angry, racist, immigrant-hating French nationalists.

Macron surprised the world by running first in the primary, although with just 24 percent of the vote. Le Pen squeaked into the runoff with 21.3 percent, just ahead of the Gaullist candidate with 20. The common wisdom is that most of the non-National Front vote will coalesce behind Macron and he will beat LePen, perhaps handily. Current polls suggest the same. Nate Silver says that even Le Pen outperforms her current poll number by the same amount that Trump did, Macron will still win. No way am I predicting anything.

But I did just read a long, fascinating, wonderfully reported New Yorker piece on the race by Lauren Collins, who traveled around France talking to voters. Collins didn’t get sucked into any of the norms of political reporting. She didn’t quote many experts nor interview the candidates, although you’ll learn plenty about the candidates’ lives and some about their positions from her piece. Instead, she just attended events and talked to people and filled in the necessary explanatory holes with research. Reading it, I felt like I had fallen through the looking glass, into a very different place, politically and otherwise, which, of course, France is.

So, if you can, follow this link and read the whole thing. It will save you a trip to France. And don’t bother reading what’s below, which is just a few outtakes. But if you’re on the fence about reading the whole piece, I offer a few flavorful excerpts below:

(A taste of the National Front’s issue profile):

Le Pen’s platform calls for, among other things, outlawing dual citizenship with most countries, banning foreign languages in schools, and exiting the European Union. (Many observers fear that her election would mean the end of the E.U.) Just before the first round of voting, she announced a plan to implement a moratorium on legal immigration, “to stop this delirium.”


(A bit of background on Macron, including his unlikely marriage):

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Meanwhile, Macron was training at the École Nationale d’Administration, France’s élite civil-service school. The son of doctors from Amiens, he’d arrived in Paris in 1997. He’d been sent there, alone, to finish high school after falling in love with Brigitte Trogneux, a member of a prominent family of local chocolatiers. She was married, the mother of three children, and his drama teacher. (Macron and Trogneux wed in 2007, when he was twenty-nine and she was fifty-four.)

As an undergraduate, Macron studied philosophy. Then, at Sciences Po, he earned a master’s in public affairs. He was a prodigy, serving as an assistant to the phenomenologist Paul Ricœur, and an enigma, taking the train to Amiens every Friday to see Trogneux.

Aurélien Lechevallier, a friend and adviser, remembers him dressing in “an East Coast Ivy League jacket” when his peers were wearing T-shirts. Lechevallier told me, “I think when we met he had no real experience of living lightly with friends — just making jokes, having a couple of beers at the bar.”

(From a visit to Le Luc, a French town politically dominated by Le Pen’s “F.N.” – National Front” Party and an interview with its mayor, Pascal Verrelle.)

 I wanted to know why, in Verrelle’s opinion, the people of the town had put the F.N. in power. He said that their vote had not necessarily been for the most attractive party but for the one with which they were least acquainted. “Little by little, they told themselves, ‘We have to try something else,’ ” Verrelle said. He continued, “There were people who thought that we were going to construct watchtowers, that we were going to put up walls to separate the neighborhoods, that we were going to walk around with police dogs, that we were going to kick the foreigners out. Then they realized that we’re no more racist than anyone else, just a little more nationalist.”

… Verrelle seemed to be practicing a hyper-local version of dédiabolisation, the strategy of “de-demonization” that Le Pen has pursued over the past few years in the hope of making the F.N. seem respectable. The Party has excommunicated a few of the most flagrantly intolerant members of its establishment, including, in 2014, Jean-Marie Le Pen. [That would be Marine Le Pen’s father, who founded the party!]

It has courted groups that it has traditionally alienated, such as women, senior citizens, Jews, practicing Catholics, and gay people. Yet, every once in a while, Marine Le Pen lets a shocking comment fly. She insisted recently that France bore no blame for the 1942 Vel d’Hiv roundup, in which French police arrested nearly thirteen thousand Jews and sent them to concentration camps. The effect, if not de-demonizing, is destabilizing. Unsure what to make of the latest iteration of the F.N., or simply disillusioned with its competitors, some people figure, Why not put it to the test?

(Collins fought through anti-Macron protesters outside a hall where En Marche! was holding a sparsely attended rally.)

Inside, a Macron spokesman told me, “We strongly believe that some people saw the mess, were hassled, and turned around.” The auditorium was conspicuously not full. Still, the atmosphere was upbeat, in keeping with Macron’s assertion that his campaign is the only “projet positif” — the sole “for,” rather than “against,” on offer. Macron claims to be leading a “transpartisan” movement that is “neither of the left nor of the right.”

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 He shares many of the traditional concerns of the left, but often prefers to meet them with capitalist solutions. He wants to cut corporate taxes, simplify labor laws, consolidate the retirement system, invest in education and vocational training, and reinvigorate France’s relationship with Europe. He has praised Angela Merkel’s generous refugee policy, saying that it “saved the dignity of Europe.” Proud to be a fluent English speaker, he has even appealed to the technocratic, cosmopolitan sector of the American population that has despaired since Trump’s election. To American scientists, he has promised, “From now on, from next May, you will have a new homeland — France!”

(Another stab at explaining Macron-ism with the weird term “extreme center”):

Macron has conjured an extreme center that didn’t exist before he identified it. He has a talent for balancing opposing ideals, sometimes to the extent of appearing disingenuous or oxymoronic. His economic program gives companies more leeway in firing workers, but it offers unemployed workers higher benefits. Meme-makers delight in his habit of saying “at the same time,” which, in Toulon, he repeated twenty-two times in ninety minutes. Occasionally, his syntheses present new and even revelatory ways of seeing things. “Europe is also the place of our sovereignty,” he told the crowd in a confident voice, managing, for a moment, to unite two concepts — globalization and nationalism — that had roiled politics worldwide for the better part of a year.

If you found these excerpts intriguing, it’s not too late to click through read the whole piece. Otherwise, tune in some news late Sunday night (or, more likely, Monday morning,) for election results.