So, the National Front “almost won” the latest elections, sparking yowls of alarm, tortured national introspection and a swell of collective self-flagellation.
That was after the Dec. 6 regional elections first round – the first since the deadly Nov. 13 Paris attacks – which saw the far right party leading in at least six of France’s 13 regions.
But Sunday’s runoff cut the wind out of the National Front’s sails with the party failing to gain a single region. Once again, the FN -- as the party is known by its French acronym -- didn’t win in the end.
As it has in election after election since 2002, when FN granddaddy Jean-Marie Le Pen “shocked France” by making it to the second round of the presidential election.
Le Pen Senior didn’t win of course. His opponent, Jacques Chirac, swept the polls in the runoff with a whopping 82% of the vote -- such was the scale of revulsion at the prospect of a racist, xenophobic bigot inhabiting France’s Elyséé presidential palace.
French election campaigns for over a decade have been a ballroom dance with the dancers haunted at the midway mark by the prospect of the coachmen crashing the party. But good sense invariably prevails and in the deuxième tour, the charioteers are left out in the cold, the orchestra picks up where it left -- a little shift to the right here, a swing to left there -- but the waltz goes on.
Since I moved to France nearly a decade ago, I’ve watched this dance de déjà vu with a guilty detachment, chiding myself for not rising to the appropriate level of national alarm at the choreographed moment.
Like clockwork, morning editorial meetings get swamped by the same old “the FN is rising” stories. I personally find the renewed shock every election season bracing and a sign that the French, for all their professed cynicism, are fundamentally committed to les valeurs républicaines. Edit meeting done, journalists are then dispatched to hopeless, impoverished corners of the country, where the hopeless and impoverished duly supply quotes about the lack of espoir, the sense of abandonment, desperation and fear that will sweep Le Pen to power. Once the copy matches the headline, which is always some version of the FN is on the rise, the story is good to go.
Doomsday in novels, comics and on the radio
As for the headlines, they outdo each other in fear and revulsion. First round results -- which are invariably a protest vote flirting with the unpalatable -- are greeted with all-cap howls of “Cataclysmic” and “Shame”. The talk shows feature hours of pained national discourse, dinner table conversations get even more depressing and these days, social media sites erupt with posts proclaiming the latest “affront national”.
Nobody does national self-flagellation better than the French. Authors and cartoonists are guaranteed bestseller spots if they publish novels or comic books detailing doomsday political scenarios.
Earlier this year, Michel Houellebecq, the bard of French despair, tapped into the zeitgeist and cleverly turned the fear a notch higher in his novel, Soumission [Submission], which had an Islamist defeating an extreme right, FN-like candidate in the 2022 presidential election.
Barely a month before the Dec. 6, a comic book by François Durpaire and Farid Boudjellal titled, La Présidente, [The President] pressed the panic buttons by envisaging a more immediate scenario with FN head Marine Le Pen in the presidential office after beating François Hollande with 50.41% of the vote in the 2017 election.
The horrors in La Présidente never cease: Le Pen’s alarming niece, the alarmingly named Marion Maréchal Le Pen, becomes “Minister for Thought and Education”. Nadine Morano – a firebrand conservative loose cannon infamous for her anti-gay rants – is “Minister for Family and Births,” and a stark message at the start of the book warns, “Now you cannot say you did not know”.
The French have a particular genre of “political fiction” that has no equivalent in English. Not quite fiction, definitely not fact, political fiction sounds like the stuff of Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show, except it’s not at all funny. This summer, for instance, seasoned French journalists Michel Field and Olivier Duhamel hosted a radio show on Europe 1 featuring complete coverage of a, “If Marine Le Pen Was President” scenario.
For whom the alarm bells toll
The FN may not have won a single region in Sunday’s vote. But if you think the Frenchmen and women who spent the week between the first and second rounds in cataclysmic shame would celebrate the subsequent FN runoff routing, think again.
The morning after the FN defeat, my mostly left-leaning French friends and colleagues seemed as depressed as ever. They were at pains to explain the FN had actually recorded its best-ever score in Sunday’s runoff with 6.8 million votes nationally -- up from over 6 million in the Dec. 6 first round and 6.4 million for Le Pen in the 2012 presidential race.
The FN train to election victory, they gloomily explained, was momentarily derailed because the ruling Socialists withdrew candidates, calling on voters to support the mainstream center-right in a successful bid to contain Le Pen’s party.
French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, who has been the standard bearer of French fears since the Paris attacks, was making sure no hint of triumphalism entered the national discourse. “Tonight there is no relief, no triumphalism, no message of victory,” said Valls shortly after the results rolled out. “The danger of the far right has not been removed – far from it.”
These days, Valls has been unable to open his mouth without uttering the words, “la guerre”. Hours after the Paris attacks, France was in a “guerre contre Daesh”. Days later, he spoke of chemical and biological terror threats in the National Assembly. In the lead-up to Sunday’s vote, Valls warned there would be la guerre civile -- civil war, no less -- if the FN came to power.
Valls is not stupid. His scaremongering worked. The French rallied to ensure the doomsday scenario they’ve been exposed to in novels, comics and the radio did not come to pass. But was Valls pleased with the outcome of Sunday’s vote? Hell no. The alarm bells must toll on.
The morning after the runoff, anti-FN Catholic daily, La Croix, captured the national mood with a banner headline proclaiming, “Everybody Loses,” while the left leaning daily, Libération, maintained it was, “Not a victory but the absence of defeat”.
Post-regional elections, the discourse promptly moved to the 2017 presidential poll, with experts proclaiming what they have said for so long now: the far-right FN is a major force in French politics.
Perfect storm of crises for Le Pen
This month’s regional elections followed a perfect storm of crises guaranteed to favor an FN vote. France is still reeling from the Paris attacks, which killed 130 people. The country is in an unprecedented state of emergency approved by politicians across the ideological spectrum who have wasted no opportunity to alarm an already jittered populace. Unemployment levels are as high as ever, as is the disquiet over the migrant crisis – all of which feeds the sort of xenophobia and Islamophobia on which the FN thrives.
Things couldn’t have been better for the Le Pen family business.
And yet, the noxious party that has been rising and rising never made it to the first post.
That’s because the majority of French voters cannot and will not countenance an FN government – not yet, and probably not in the 2017 election either.
When push comes to shove, the majority of French voters understand that the FN will be a disaster if it were in power. The French would certainly like to see EU reforms and they have no love for the suits in Brussels. But they are not, for the most part, euroskeptics and have little patience for Le Pen’s brand of international isolationism.
Time and again, voters cite financial woes, the absence of any political vision or will to shake up the moribund economy, and the center’s neglect of impoverished regions as the main reasons for voting FN. But then once their protest has been registered and it’s time to cast their ballots in the second round, the majority of Frenchmen and women do not really believe the FN has any policy alternative to reinvigorate the economy.
Faced with the prospect of a racist party lacking a vision for a globalized future coming to power, the French rally together before the faceoff vote. Political sacrifices are made. Mainstream politicians from opposing parties who hate each other find common ground to hold the political monster at bay. Abstainers who declared themselves too disgusted to vote in the first round get off the chaise longue and cast their ballots, upping voter turnout. In unprecedented displays of political engagement, the French ensure their world of fiction does not become a reality. But does that make them smug, happy or triumphant? Hell, no. That’s for the Mickey Mouse happy Americans.