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France in the end of days

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Le Pen’s road to victory is clear enough but can pragmatist Macron stop the extreme right? It looks highly unlikely and the National Front candidate is poised to land the presidency

By Roger Cohen
17:30 April 20, 2017
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For some time France has been a country that does not like itself. Somewhere on the road from its humiliation in the First World War to its disappointment with European integration to its discomfort with globalisation, France slid into moroseness. High-speed trains purred; France pouted. Grumbling became a way of life, the response to lost grandeur. Now France seems ready to vent this slow-ripening anger in an election that could see the extreme right return to power for the first time since the 1940s and Europe revert to a turbulence not seen since that epoch.

If Marine Le Pen of the National Front wins, she says she will take France out of the euro, the shared European currency, and restore the franc. Exit from the European Union could follow. This would constitute an economic and political rupture so violent that even US President Donald Trump’s victory and Britain’s vote to leave the union would pale beside it. Europe, and not just its markets, would be upended. President Vladimir Putin of Russia, who has been meddling, would be happy.

A Le Pen victory is far from assured, plausible if not probable. Returning to France late last month, to the glow of Paris and the gloom of the provinces, I was struck by how much Le Pen’s party, whose racist ideology was once taboo, has joined the mainstream. The pattern that has prevailed throughout the Fifth Republic — alternation of centre-left and centre-right — seems dead. The French are tired of increasingly indistinguishable Socialist and Republican presidents.

The first round of voting on April 23 is almost certain to send Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron, the 39-year-old upstart leader of a new catchall centrist movement, into the runoff on May 7: the xenophobic nationalist versus the pro-Europe neophyte. Polls show them both with clear, if tightening, leads over the scandal-plagued Republican candidate, Francois Fillon, and an extreme leftist, Jean-Luc Melenchon, of the Unbowed France movement, whose support has surged in recent days. The left, still singing the Internationale and plotting class struggle, is in disarray. The inclination to blow up the system has found fertile ground. People have had it with experts. “Ca suffit!” — “Enough!” — is a much-heard cry; and if disruption leads to deluge, so be it.

Such end-of-days gloom is puzzling. Near 10 per cent unemployment and near invisible growth cannot explain it. French infrastructure is a rebuke to American decay. French universal health care works. Savoir-vivre, the art of living, is not a French phrase for nothing. From the United States to China, the French hold on the world’s imagination endures. It is a land of unique pleasures. Yet this seems to offer scant comfort. Instead the French are focused on their country’s failures: its dispatch under Vichy of Jews to their deaths, its painful colonial past in Algeria, its faltering attempts to integrate one of Europe’s largest Muslim communities, its vulnerability to terrorist attacks in Paris and Nice, its expensive and sometimes rigid welfare state, its ambiguous relationship to global capitalism, its fraying model of “laicite” (or secularism) designed to subsume religious difference in the values of the French republic — all are endlessly agonised over.

“There is a certain French masochism,” Pascal Bruckner, an author, told me. “We are a country that does not unleash its potential. We ruminate on the past. After 1989, we thought Europe would become French. But the models of Germany and Thatcher did much better. And so we lapse into mediocrity.”

Jacques Rupnik, a political scientist, put it this way: “France suffers from cultural and civilisational insecurity. Many people feel somehow dispossessed.”

Patriotism vs globalisation

This sense of dispossession, of loss, is what the National Front has exploited: loss of identity, jobs, national borders; loss of faith in a corrupt political system. “On est chez nous!” — roughly “We are at home!” — is the party’s strange battle cry, chanted at every rally. But why such pathological need to reaffirm belonging, and who exactly are “we”? Millions of immigrants from North and sub-Saharan Africa, many of them Muslims, do not appear to make the cut. “There is no right or left. This election is about patriotism versus globalisation,” Nicolas Bay, the secretary-general of the National Front, told me. “That is why we would end immigration. If it’s Le Pen against the globalist Macron in the second round, it will be clear what the contest is about: Do we defend the nation, or is the nation finished?”

Macron is a former banker and economy minister under Hollande. Small, with glittering blue eyes, his pitch is that he’s a tech-friendly pragmatist with the ability to revitalise France. Nobody quite knows what’s in his gut. To fans he’s a doer; to critics he’s a hedger of bets. But nobody can deny his remarkable surge. En Marche! (Onward!), Macron’s movement, was formed just a year ago.

Le Pen has reopened old wounds by insisting that France was not responsible for the “Vel’ d’Hiv” — a reference to the stadium where 13,000 Jews were rounded up in 1942 before being dispatched to Auschwitz. She tried to portray the wartime Vichy government as distinct from France, an appalling evasion.

Europe used to signify stability and peace. Now refugees and asylum seekers stream across the union’s porous borders. To find jobs for immigrants, you need an open and flexible labour market. But the comprehensive French welfare state tends toward inflexibility. Firing anyone can be tedious and expensive, so there’s reluctance to hire. Youth unemployment stands around 25 per cent. More than 31 per cent of gross domestic product is spent on health, unemployment and other benefits, compared with 24.6 per cent in Germany. France has in effect made a structural choice for unemployment. Everyone knows this. But because attachment to the model is fierce, honest discussion tends to be taboo.

The first presidential debate last month was an exercise in evasions. The moderators redefined journalism as deferential passivity. Macron, Fillon and the socialist candidate, Benoit Hamon, were all dressed in blue suits and blue ties, and their responses scarcely differed more than their attire. Nobody even asked Fillon, a former prime minister, about the fact that he’s been placed under investigation relating to allegations he employed his wife and children in make-believe jobs as aides.

Fillon, a social conservative who favours free-market reforms and labour market deregulation, had been looking formidable but slumped after the scandal broke. He had promised to stand aside in the event of a formal judicial inquiry, but reneged, infuriating people. The political classes’ contempt for the electorate was encapsulated in his volte-face. Voters’ disgust has boosted the National Front, even if Le Pen is herself caught up in a financial fraud investigation at the European Parliament and has used parliamentary immunity to avoid a police summons.

Her path to victory runs roughly like this. She qualifies for the second round with about 24 per cent of the vote. Macron is her opponent, with about the same score. The more right-wing Fillon supporters migrate to Le Pen. Supporters of Melenchon refuse to vote for Macron; they’ve had it with “useful votes” and they believe Macron, for all his talk of being a progressive, will pursue “neoliberal” global capitalism. Some Hamon supporters also refuse to back Macron. The abstention rate soars. Le Pen squeezes past 50 per cent and becomes president.

It could happen. Only a fool, after Brexit and Trump, would suggest otherwise. One thing is certain: Le Pen needs to distract attention from her economic programme, a hodgepodge of nationalist and statist measures combined with exit from the euro, which alone could send French bank accounts into free fall. Fear of such a meltdown may be the biggest obstacle Le Pen still has to overcome.

I found Macron in Paris answering questions for a Yahoo News event in French and then English (radical for a French politician). The first question was whether “explicit Macron” is an oxymoron. He laughed. He said he was pragmatic, supple, interested above all in results. His political family was broad: the pro-European moderate right, socialists, progressives, “reasonable ecologists.” He called for “strong reforms” of the French labour market, decreased corporate taxes and invigorated vocational training. “Modernity is disruptive,” he declared, “and I endorse that.”

As economy minister, Macron’s ‘disruption’ involved allowing stores to open on Sundays and creating what are still called ‘Macron buses’ to offer cheap competition to trains for journeys within France: deregulation, French-style! More reform is needed; it’s proved elusive because nobody wants to give up their ‘acquis’ — the benefits they have. Whether Macron could build a parliamentary base for change is also an open question.

Still, he’s proved that he can break moulds. Perhaps his most attractive feature is his brave attachment to the European Union and commitment to helping refugees. “We are a continent of refugees,” he said, “and if you say we can’t integrate refugees, that’s not consistent with our values, even if borders cannot be wide open.”

New York Times News Service

Roger Cohen, an Op-Ed columnist for the International New York Times, writes about international affairs and diplomacy.

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