As bad as the choices were in the past American presidential election, which was pretty darned bad, the French seem to have sunk even lower. They had an open field primary to pick a new president on Sunday featuring candidates ranging from outright communists to outright fascists, and wound up with a run-off between Emmanuel Macron and Marie Le Pen, who aren’t quite outright about their respective communism and fascism but are close enough to the descriptions by American standards.
Macron is the more moderate of the alternatives by French standards, but even the Sen. Bernie Sanders sorts of voters in this country’s Democratic Party would find him a bit extreme. He’s a graduate of the country’s most prestigious university program for civil servants, served a key role in the government of Francois Hollande after earning a sizable fortune in the current Francois Hollande administration, talks tough on increased defense spending and the war against terror, and proposed some business-friendly economic policies, but Hillary Clinton had similar credentials and Macron is way to the left of her on almost everything else.
Until recently Macron was a member of the same Socialist Party as Hollande, as well as being part of his government, but Hollande is lately polling at an eye-popping 4 percent approval rating, which even the most loathsome American political figures somehow never achieve, so he ran as an independent. Given France’s apparent anti-establishment mood that was a shrewd move, and the official candidate of the Socialist Party, which is pretty much the equivalent of the Democratic Party over there, fell far short of the two-way run-off election. Despite the independent status and the centrist rhetoric, though, Macron seems to have been largely responsible for the soak-the-rich economics that have left the country in a state of decline, he’s also touting higher pay for teachers in the country’s various public school war zones and the usual slate of socialist goodies, and his enthusiasm for a war on terror seems suspiciously newfound. He’s only 39 years old, too, and his wife is 64, and he strikes us quite inscrutably modern and French.
There’s no doubting Le Pen’s longstanding enthusiasm for a war on terror, but there are plausible concerns all over the world about how she might wind up waging it, and other worries as well. She ran as the candidate of the Front National, but on Monday she also declared herself an independent, probably because her party is even more unpopular than the Socialists. The Front National was formed in 1972 by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, to oppose the nascent European Union and mass immigration while restoring traditional values and boosting the country’s ever-low immigration rate, but he also denied the Holocaust, peddled various anti-semitic conspiracy theories, at times seemed to welcome the newfound allies arriving in the Muslim neighborhoods, called for the quarantine of people with HIV, and groused about the darker players on France’s World Cup soccer team. He was an apologist for the Vichy government’s Nazi collaborators, too, but he still made it to a run-off back in 2002. Everyone but his 18 percent of the voters in that crazily fractured field then united against him under the slogan “vote for the crook, not the fascist,” so he lost in a landslide against a guy who really was a crook, and a few years ago he was kicked out of his own party.
Jean-Marie Le Pen’s daughter is an attractive and articulate 48-year-old Member of the European Parliament and a former well-regarded councilwoman in a major French city who sounds perfectly reasonable making arguments against the European Union and mass immigration and terrorism, and she seems to embrace the Jewish community as part of a coalition against the Muslims arrived, and knows better than to wade into soccer controversies, and she’s far enough removed that Vichy legacy that France would just as soon forget. Still, she apparently felt it necessary to shed her father’s party label. The younger Le Pen advocates the same nationalize-and-socialize economic prescriptions for the country’s already over regulated economy, and she keeps the to the same nationalist themes, to there remains a rather unpleasant redolence of past nationalist-socialist movements in Europe, and she’s still considered a 20-point underdog in the run-off race.
Not only is the entirety of the left sure to rally to Macron, but a large portion of the right will probably do so as well. The closest thing to a traditional American conservative in the primary was a guy named Francois Fillon from the Republican Party, which is the closest thing you’ll find to America’s Republican Party, and although the sorts of American Republicans who grumble that John McCain and Mitt Romney were a couple of damned liberals would surely hate this guy he was about the best you can hope for in France. He was outspokenly pro-American and pro-Western in his foreign policy speeches, tough but carefully nuanced in his talk about the threats from mass immigration and Islamic terrorism, and his business-friendly economic proposals seemed heartfelt rather than newfound, but he’d also been caught giving some lucrative taxpayer-paid sinecures to his wife and kids, and he came in a close-but-no-cigar third place with 20 percent of the vote behind Le Pen’s 21 percent. He has urged his followers to join with the 24 percent who voted for Macron, to some degree or another most of the center-right parties throughout Europe have done the same, and so far the bets are mostly against Le Pen.
The bettors have been taking a beating lately, though, so we won’t be laying any money down on this unfamiliar game. As odd as the French are we suspect they’re still prone to some of the basic human behaviors we’ve observed elsewhere, and by now we can well understand why they’d be fed up with all those terrorist attacks coming from recent Muslim arrivals and looking for any old idea about how to stop the chronic unemployment, and if the French yahoos are anything like the ones around here we’re sure they found that almost-Republican candidate far too nuanced in his tough talk. We’ve warned for years that if the mainstream parties don’t forthrightly address the very serious if somewhat embarrassing problems posed by immigrations, it will be left to the fringe candidates to do it, and that seems to have proved true both here and in France.
Some of those center-right voters are going to go with Le Pen, just as many wary Republicans went with Trump, some of the voters for the outright communist candidates are going to sit it out rather than vote for such a sell-out as Macron, just as many Sanders sorts of Democrats did with Clinton. Even if she doesn’t make up a formidable 20 percent deficit — far bigger than the polls had Brexit or President Donald Trump’s election or all the recent mis-called races that are being invoked — we expect it will be close. France is split 50-50 on the European Union, all those Muslims and the tiny number of Jews left in France will likely join with some wary allies against Le Pen, and just as in America everybody in France seems to hate everybody else and anything that reeks of of any kind of establishment.
America seems relatively sane by comparison, but our Republican president, who ran on an anti-Republican-establishment platform, has been “tweeting” comments about how a recent Islamist terror attack in Europe vindicates the same anti-immigrant stand that he and Le Pen ran on, even as his spokespeople insist that he didn’t mean to endorse anyone. American presidents are best advised not to comment on French elections, but if a Republican one were to do so we would have expected him to tout that Fillon guy, and surely this president can’t fault him for using his office to funnel some money towards his wife and kids, so that’s also curious. Russian dictator Vladimir Putin is reportedly helping Le Pen’s campaign, just as he’s supported anti-establishment nationalist movements elsewhere in Europe, and there are ongoing investigations about how Putin meddled in the election that resulted in Trump’s anti-establishment and nationalist victory, and even if there’s nothing to it that’s all the more reason Trump should have stayed neutral.
In any case, we have a slightly familiar and all-too-desultory feeling that neither of these awful candidates are going to make France great again.