France at the crossroads

France at the crossroads.
First was Brexit. Then Trump. But France too is undergoing its own turmoil on the streets, in the party headquarters, town hall meetings and at the ballot boxes on the 23 April 2017.
The Le Pen threat, directed by Marine Le Pen instead of her famous father, is reminiscent of the 1992 election when the far-right anti-immigration Eurosceptic Front National managed to reach the second round of the French Republic’s two rounds.

The FN’s popularity is not the only element reminiscent of 1992. As captured brilliantly by the famous film La Haine, racial and socio-economic tensions have fuelled divisions and mobilised the far-right while encouraging spontaneous acts of violence among youth.

France at the crossroads.
A Front Nationale Rally during the 200s. The poster says: ‘No to Islamism. Youth With Le Pen’, demonstrating the flag of Algeria on France.

Recent news of the sexual assault of a young black man in the northern Parisian suburb of Aulnay-Sous-Bois by police caused  mass protests and the burning of vehicles, a now traditional form of protest.

The Front National (FN), born from neo-nazi movements, was previously led by Jean Marie-Le Pen, an ex-parachutist who participated in France’s Algeria War. His daughter, Marine, has sought to change the party’s image with a more professional approach. She renounced her father’s anti-semitic views for instance. Her main bête noire in the campaign has been the EU bureaucracy, aligning her with UKIP and other xenophobic movements that have found a common cause in EU-bashing.

Current President François Hollande, of the Socialist Party, has been forced to step down from his party’s candidacy by continuously low approval ratings and personal affairs scandals, including an extra-marital affair that could have spilled state secrets.

Below him, the Socialist Party is in turmoil similar to the British Labour party. Yet the traditional, opposing party, the centre-right UMP led in the past by Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy, is not faring any better. After a vicious leadership selection campaign which saw currently-under-investigation past-president Sarkozy’s bid for re-emergence ending in humiliation, the new UMP leader François Fillon has been mired in scandals typical of what could be considered France´s political dinosaurs. Fillon is alleged to have employed his wife without declaring it for over a decade, a particularly sour subject in a country fighting chronic unemployment for its youth.

Another phenomenon of this election is the emergence of a third party in French politics, En Marche! Founded only a year ago, in April 2016, it claims to have almost 200,000 party members, an enormous grouping that dwarfs the Socialists (c. 60,000 members) and the UMP centre Right Party (c. 143,000).

The movement’s leader, Emmanuel Macron, was Hollande’s economic minister and his success in halting France’s chronic jobs problem came at the tail end of Hollande’s presidency, too late to save the President from some of the lowest approval ratings ever but just in time to kickstart his aim for the presidency. Despite his technocratic appeal (including a push to bring London banks to Paris) Macron’s youth (39), and his remarks about France’s crimes against humanity in Algeria, are likely to lose him voters among older generations.

Other fringe parties, including the far-left Jean Luc Melenchon, have joined the fray, though they will be invitably eliminated in the first round. The latest polls suggest that Macron may actually win in the first round, and strongly suggest that in spite of the mayhem of the election so far, there will be a united opposition to Le Pen in the second round. France at the crossroads. Given that both leaders would have been considered total underdogs a few years ago in this surreal election, it is not surprising that some French have launched an online petition to bring Barrack Obama over to France to become their President!

France’s electorate seems to be deciding to avoid resting its laurels on the political dinosaurs of the past, avoiding the kind of choice between broken status quo and political volatility that American voters were subjected to in November.

The likelihood of Macron winning both rounds will place the young leader under great pressures in the coming weeks, but also comes at a time of great opportunity for the country. If France elects this technocrat to power, it will absorb a great deal of Britain´s cultural and economic strength in Europe. It will also act as a vote of affirmation for the EU project that will resonate in Germany and the Mediterranean, affording France the position of moral leadership in Europe at a time when the U.S. is turning inward.

Author: Idir Ouahes

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