This race to the Elysée is like no other before. France’s democracy and values are being tested by a poisonous political discourse, corruption scandals and personal attacks. These tensions make the French electorate, robbed of the standard left-right political compass, an unpredictable voting body. How will people respond?

© Tonio Vega, Flickr

The French are viscerally attached to certain values that compose the fundamentals of the French society – les valeurs de la République, as they are called. Two of these values are freedom of expression and freedom of the press. The French will boldly invoke Voltaire and his famous “I do not agree with a word you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” (which was not actually written by Voltaire, but by the English writer Evelyn Beatrice Hall, who wrote Voltaire’s biography) to defend free speech.

However, in the current election campaign, which is growing increasingly reminiscent of the American campaign of 2016, a caricature published by the right-wing Les Républicains party seems to have taken freedom of expression one step too far. It has also, unexpectedly, jolted the public and politicians into realising just how vicious the climate of this campaign has become.

The caricature represents independent candidate Emmanuel Macron, President Francois Hollande’s former Minister of the Economy. Since his resignation, Macron has started his own political movement, En Marche!, which claims to be neither to the left nor to the right. He is wearing a black top hat and a suit, is cutting a cigar using a sickle, the universally known symbol of communism, and his nose is distinctively large and crooked, undoubtedly evoking images of anti-Semitic propaganda from the 1930s.

The caricature was online for long enough to be condemned quite broadly across the political spectrum – even by Les Républicains candidate Francois Fillon, calling the drawing an “unacceptable caricature”. Macron filed a legal complaint against Fillon’s party, but spoke out more generally about the tone that the campaign has taken. Worried about “the debasement of public debate”, “booing the press in public meetings”, and finally “people resorting to anti-Semitic imagery to attack their opponents”, he called for “a return to civic respect” in the presidential campaign.

And indeed, it seems that respect for many values that the French hold dear has gone out of the window on the campaign trail. In the context of rising populism and the absurdity that comes with it, the caricature of Macron is but another small sign of the collapse of the reference points in French society and political life. For example, rumours of Macron’s homosexuality were circulated to destabilize his indulgence towards the anti-gay marriage movement “La Manif pour Tous”.

Scandals, Crime and Corruption

Another element is the fact that two of the major candidates, Fillon and Le Pen, are the subjects of criminal investigation for fraud and misuse of public funds. The French equivalent of the expression “having skeletons in the closet” is traîner des casseroles, or “dragging saucepans behind you”. As a cheeky expression of mistrust and a tool of shaming, activists frequently turn up for Fillon’s or Le Pen’s political gatherings and meetings armed with saucepans that they bang loudly with wooden spoons as a reference to the two candidates’ altercations with justice.

To name a few, Le Pen owes €340,000 to the European Commission, that she allegedly used to pay the salaries of two EU collaborators who were actually working for her party, the National Front. She has so far refused to pay back that money, while she is also planning to pull France out of the EU and return to the franc (French currency pre-euro) if she is elected president.  Moreover, Le Pen continues to hold political meetings all over France   which are   increasingly characterised by a Trump-esque vibe (pop music, glitter, the crowd booing and chanting abuse when she mentions her opponents, the press, or the judiciary sector).

Fillon, before officially being charged with three counts of corruption-related crimes a few weeks ago, stated on national television that he would step down from the campaign if he was charged. He is, however, still standing, claiming that he is the subject of an instrumentalization of justice, that he is not treated as a common litigant, and that he is the victim of  a vast conspiracy around, and media lynching of, his person. Thus, these two candidates are attacking fundamentals of the French – and any democratic – society: the freedom and independence of the press, but more importantly, l’état de droit: the independence and legitimacy of justice, and the duty of politicians (and any public official) to be accountable and transparent with the use of public resources.

The problem is that corruption has always played a part in French politics. The French get a little sense of pride every time they manage to “cheat the system” or “profit from the system”, be it by using public money to pay for a private goods or hiding assets from the tax authorities. But never has there been so much public, media, and judicial scrutiny of candidates during an election campaign. Is it a sign that the population has had enough of all these “under the table” practices that have become institutionalised? Or is it that the judiciary is finally doing its job of holding every citizen accountable for their actions? Or could it all be, as some claim, a big conspiracy organised by President Francois Hollande to push voters towards Le Pen, get her elected and watch her tear the country apart so that he can appear as the “Messiah” candidate in 2022? (I have personally met supporters of this theory.)

Left of right? Pick and choose

Where does this leave us? For the first time in over a decade, neither of the candidates from the two traditionally biggest parties, the Socialists and the Republicans, are in the lead of a presidential campaign. Benoît Hamon, the Socialist candidate, one of the two out of five main candidates who are not currently under legal investigation, has virtually no chance of winning. His genuine efforts to instill new hope in the French left, especially by appealing to the youth and introducing radical measures in his programme, such as the universal income, are deemed too idealistic.

The two leading candidates, Le Pen and Macron, thus might need to appeal to rightists and leftists if they come out ahead of the first round and make it to the second and final round on 7 May, 2017. For Le Pen, this might be easier than it seems – many Fillon supporters have already stated that, if he is unable to run, they would cast their vote for the Front National. For Macron, this may be more difficult, as he has his own independent party, though also has a past in banking and finance, as well as formerly being a member of a Socialist cabinet. As such, he is frequently under attack for being “too rightist”, “too leftist”, or not enough of the two.

This reveals a wider pattern in the campaign of attacks, accusations, and intra-party wars revolving around where a candidate stands on the political spectrum. Of course, there is no doubt about Le Pen’s positioning, and she uses this to portray herself as being above the “hypnotising metronome” of the left and the right. This may be a sign of the “identity crisis” the right and the left are both undergoing, and of the citizens’ loss in these two points of reference. Disappointed and let down, people are looking towards different solutions – the radicalism of populism and nationalism, or a whole new, still diffuse party that seeks to release itself of the inefficient left/right dichotomy and move forward.

Quo vadis, France?

French people seem weary of the absurdity that has tainted this campaign. At the grips of the rise of nationalism across Europe, disillusionment with the Socialist government, a lack of faith in the right, and a skepticism towards a new party that they cannot really figure out, the electorate are a very unpredictable voting body who are bracing themselves against the volatility of the campaign. As is often the case at the end of a leader’s time in office, there is a widespread desire for “change” and for challenging the existing “system”. Both Le Pen and Fillon describe themselves as “anti-system”, and this expression is thrown around a lot in the political and public discourse. But no one seems to be defining it. What is this “system” that many want to do away with? The domination of the right-left dichotomy in political life? The environment of corruption, nepotism, and abuse of power that seems to permeate politics? The game of “high politics” that feels opaque and unreliable  to the average Joe (or average Jean, in this case)?

In any case, as the land lies today, this election will be a turning point – either France will succumb to the extremist frenzy that  seems to be gradually taking over Europe and elect the country’s first (nationalist) woman as president, or it will choose a new, young, political “newbie” who has yet to prove everything. If history is any indication, stay tuned – more wild plot twists may be just around the corner.

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