Something strange is happening in advanced western democracies. In America and France, voters keep finding themselves choosing between candidates for whom they have very little affection. In America, we saw Clinton vs Trump, followed by Biden vs Trump. And in France this week, we have Macron vs Le Pen again. As many French voters now say, this is a choice between la peste (plague) et le choléra.
Emmanuel Macron is disliked: arrogant and narcissistic to the point where he has compared himself to Jupiter, king of the gods. He has spent five years insulting and patronising voters and delivering mediocre results. His management of the epidemic was repressive and absurdist. He failed in Africa, failed with Putin, threw tantrums over Australia and Brexit.
Marine Le Pen is equally gruesome. She breeds exquisite Bengal cats while offering France an incoherent nationalism and an economic policy essentially indistinguishable from that of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the French version of Jeremy Corbyn.
Macron is evidently smarter, Le Pen more human – although you wouldn’t want either to dinner (maybe lunch). Macron is the candidate of the media, the bankers, most of the six million fonctionnaires, the parastatals. He has only an ephemeral political movement. En Marche resembles a private start-up more than a political party. He remains young-looking and is certainly energetic but voters aged between 25 and 34 much prefer Le Pen.
Yet Le Pen is hardly a popular populist. She has twice failed in her presidential ambitions, and is equally odd as a representative of the sans dents (without teeth), as working-class France was contemptuously described by the former socialist president François Hollande. Her political movement, the Rassemblement National (née National Front) is a family affair, the creation of her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, whose own views can legitimately be described as of the extreme right, and who himself tried five times for the presidency. It’s a family business, a clan. Marine contests the election by inheritance.
She has had some success focusing on cost-of-living issues, the most pressing concern in so many countries. But she speaks to a France that has all but disappeared, a nostalgic fantasy in which men wear berets, everyone carries a baguette and the number one car on the road is the Citroën 2CV.
With Macron, you get the ‘seducer’ as his father calls him, who married his high-school drama teacher and became a technocrat wannabe ruler of Europe. He’s terribly fond of doing photoshoots. He knows he is smarter than everybody. He loves the sound of his own voice.
Macron, whom everybody expects to win on Sunday, offers only more Macron, which means policy defined by whatever is attracting the president’s egotistical and butterfly–like mind. He’ll say anything day to day, as he persuades himself, possibly not unreasonably, that he is outwitting everyone. His ruling objective is imperious and inflexible. Macron also seeks the leadership of Europe. He should be careful what he wishes for, because the Europe he imagines is no less of a fantasy than the France imagined by Le Pen.
For her part, she offers more change than the conservative French are likely to be ready for. Her programme of nationalisation, tax increases on the wealthy, an even more Russia-friendly foreign policy than that offered so far by her rival, as well as a more hostile environment for immigrants, is unsettling. She denies that she seeks ‘Frexit’, France’s withdrawal from the European Union, but her promise to make French law supreme to European law amounts to the same thing. She has no credible likelihood of establishing even a coalition government. The media will attack her relentlessly.
Éric Zemmour needs to be mentioned because The Spectator paid considerable attention to him early in the campaign. Zemmour had many problems, some of his own making. His journalistic talent for controversy left open goals for his critics. He was too incendiary. His focus on immigration and Islam overshadowed the often sensible things he had to say about education and security. He ignored his team’s appeals to address inflation concerns. He was attacked and dismissed as an extremist by much of the media, from Le Monde to the New York Times and the commentariat of London. He was, in the end, the wrong sort of disruptor. He told his voters to back Le Pen to stop more Macron, but they aren’t all willing to listen to him.
So it’s democracy by paralysis. When Macron is (probably) elected president on Sunday night for a second five-year term, none of the country’s fundamental conflicts will look closer to being resolved. Abstention rates will be higher. Macron will win with a much smaller majority than the 66 per cent to 34 per cent he achieved in the second round in 2017. He will lack any popular mandate. He will win the election only because voters are even more distrustful of Le Pen. She can go back to her cats. France will keep going to the dogs.
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