I watched the final French presidential debate last Thursday night with fascination and even a measure of admiration. France has some very intelligent, well-educated politicians. They are fine until they get into office but then must begin pleasing France’s fractious voters.
And they must deal with the rising tide of jihadist violence in France, as witnessed by the shooting of police officers on the Champs Elysée on Thursday. This could help far right candidate Marine Le Pen.
One is reminded of Charles De Gaulle who asked how anyone could run a nation that had 246 different varieties of cheese. France’s outgoing president, poor Francois Hollande, could not even deal with a single camembert. He leaves office with a less than 4% approval rating.
There are eleven aspirants in the presidential race though only four are considered serious candidates: former Prime Minister Francois Fillon; newcomer Emanuel Macron; firebrand leftist Jean-Luc Mélenchon; and far right National Front leader Marine Le Pen.
My favorite is none of the above. He’s a towering, craggy-faced character named Jean Lasalle from the Pyrenees mountains on the border with Spain with a delightfully thick accent that harks back to the southern Provencal language. He’s as authentic as they come, a real human being who might be able to tame France’s bully-boy unions. Alas, Lasalle’s chances appear slim.
By contrast to the rough-hewn Lasalle is the leading candidate, Emmanuel Macron. Just who Macron really is remains a puzzle. He came from an academic background, worked for the mighty Rothschild banking empire, then as an economic advisor and minister to President Holland. At 39 years old, Macron is blandly attractive, youthful, and so far untainted by scandal except for the oddity of being married to his former schoolteacher two decades his senior.
Macron claims to be a middle way between old antagonists of left and right. He calls for gentle reforms and revitalization of the European Union. Women like him. What he stands for is unclear. His deep links to the Rothschild’s make many uncomfortable. To others, he’s too smooth and full of bromides. Still, the polls say that Macron will win both this Sunday’s vote and the second round on 7 May.
Former Prime Minister Francois Fillon was the front-runner until severely damaged by accusations he had lined his pockets with government money and put his wife Penelope and children on the government payroll.
It was sad indeed to see this straight-arrow conservative candidate undone by what looked like sleaze. Fillon would have made a capable prime minister.
Next, Madame Marine Le Pen. She has been trying to distance herself from pugnacious National Front founder and her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen. The old boy has been given the bum’s rush from his party for daring to say that the Jewish Holocaust was a mere ‘detail’ of history. I spent a long time interviewing Papa Le Pen in his home outside Paris. He is not a fascist, as critics charge, but an old-style supporter of the 1940’s Vichy government of Marshal Pétain.
Marine Le Pen is no charmer, to be sure. She is rough, tough and often nasty. She wants Muslims out of France, a pullout from the EU and NATO, and a return to the old French franc. Like President Trump, she is popular in working class, high unemployment, low education areas. Le Pen has become the champion of downcast French suffering from what they call, ‘la morosité’ (moroseness).
Finally, the last of the leading candidates, Jean-Luc Mélenchon. He’s an old time leftist full of loopy Marxist schemes about actually reducing France’s already short work week, reducing the retirement age, and taxing the pants of people who make more than 400,000 euros a year. Mélenchon wants out of NATO, revised relations with the EU, rejects being ordered around by the United States, and wants to ditch the euro.
Mélenchon may be an old-style firebrand but he’s very popular with youth and, of course, the left. He’s completely upstaged the lackluster Socialist candidate, Benoît Hamon and has soared in the polls. What French like about Mélenchon is his wit, sense of humor, and sharp debating skills. He appears authentic, platitude-free and bursting with what the French call ‘élan.’ Mélenchon is always fun to watch.
Polls say that Marine Le Pen and Macron will win this weekend’s first round. Macron is then favored to crush Le Pen in the 7 May vote. But France is now in a dither over the possibility of a win by Mélenchon this Sunday. That would leave him facing off against le Pen: the far right versus the far left. Interesting, bien sûre, but the prospect is giving France’s stock market, banks and investors a big scare.
If either were to win on 7 May, France might quit the euro and European Union – a much graver event than Britain’s Brexit. The fate of the EU is hanging in the balance. Bankers are praying that the silky-smooth Monsieur Macron will save them from the vengeful heirs of Karl Marx and Marshal Pétain.