The poison in the veins of France
France does not feel that it is entering a period of political turbulence. It hardly feels like an important election. Away from the headlines – the disintegration of the old center parties, the rebirth of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the soft performance of Éric Zemmour – there is a general feeling of apathy.
This was the atmosphere in the streets of Paris on the evening of the first round. The Trocadero, overlooking the Eiffel Tower, was occupied not by enthusiastic political activists but by weary revelers who left the building littered with broken glass. The only trash of the election was a huge “Zemmort 2022” (a contraction of Zemmour and the French word for death) and the occasional stomped campaign flyer.
Even Le Pen’s presence in the second round did not worry the locals, a stark contrast to 2002, when Marine’s father, Jean-Marie, made the second round and pushed French youth to organize demonstrations of mass against the threat of a far-right presidency. This is the real story of the 2022 elections so far. We are witnessing a ghost campaign.
Another striking example of the exceptional disinterest in this year’s campaign: TF1, the oldest and most popular of French television channels, decided to broadcast the hilarious medieval film about time travel. Visitors at 10 p.m., just two hours after the announcement of the official results. It was the first the channel had ever cut from its election debriefing.
The impression of apathy is empirically supported. Among registered citizens, 26% abstained, the highest number since 2002. 68% found the election “uninteresting”, according to the polling institute Ipsos. A month before the first round, “fatigue” was the strongest emotion associated with the election.
Far from the verbal provocations of Zemmour, the electoral programs this year were uniformly bland. Even the relatively lackluster campaign of 2017 nurtured radical ideas like universal income, huge public sector spending cuts and France’s potential exit from the EU. Large-scale gatherings, normally essential rites of passage for presidential candidates, have been all but absent in recent weeks.
The election also suffered greatly from the absence of its main candidate, President Macron. The incumbent president announced his campaign just four weeks before the vote and held a large rally. He declined to stand in any of the debates with the other candidates, largely because he did not want to be reduced to their level at a time when the war in Ukraine gave him international stature. His platform was deliberately modest. He focused on Macron’s strongest attribute: his experience.
This lack of public interest in the election – and with it, the absence of any serious debate about the future of the country – will weigh heavily on the health of the French Republic. More than in any other European country, the French president has immense executive power. He can dismiss his prime minister at will and call early parliamentary elections with virtually no restrictions. And unlike his American counterpart, he cannot be impeached.
The French psyche is perhaps even more important than the French institutional landscape. Despite all the mythology surrounding France beheading its king, the French never completely broke with their long monarchical past. De Gaulle, when he founded the Fifth Republic, made it clear that he was building a compromise between France’s monarchical and republican traditions, a compromise that would give the president considerable power.
Macron often used the symbolism of the monarchy for political purposes. In 2017, a few weeks after his election, he hosted Vladimir Putin at the Palace of Versailles, and twice during his term he used his constitutional right to deliver a speech at Versailles before Congress in an apparent attempt to develop a US French version. ‘ State of the Union Address. Before becoming president, he said of French politics that “we need a king”.
The French presidential election has replaced the coronation ceremony as the symbolic center of French politics. However, this means that the presidential must be a moment of democratic catharsis. Here is the opportunity for the French electorate to grapple with all their frustrations and desires. Political debates and disputes reach new heights, families and friends weigh in on various campaign promises, and tempers sometimes race. All subjects must be on the table because once the presidential ship is cast off, the opposition parties have few institutional means to steer public policies.
None of this is happening in 2022. And the absence of this ritual catharsis will have profound repercussions. The next president will not have a strong mandate to implement his vision. Macron announced mezza voice that he would raise the legal retirement age from 62 to 65, but he did little in his campaign to enlist the French in this policy. Given France’s long tradition of strikes and Macron’s failure to push through a softer pension reform in his first term, this reform could well be political dynamite.
The 2017 campaign was also disappointing, albeit to a lesser extent. In its later stages, it was largely hijacked by the financial scandals of center-right candidate Francois Fillon, which sidelined substantive debate on other issues. It is striking that in a country recently shaken by a series of high-profile jihadist attacks, the questions of political Islam and what would later be called “separatism” were largely secondary, as was the question of change climatic.
As a result, France ended up electing a president, Macron, whom it did not really know. This came back to haunt Macron, who quickly discovered that he lacked a mandate for much of his program for government. On issues of Islam and identity, for example, Macron ran a campaign in 2017 that embraced traditional centre-left multiculturalism. He praised German Chancellor Angela Merkel for taking in more than a million refugees in 2015 and provoked many conservatives by saying there was “no French culture, there is a culture in France and it is diverse”. In the aftermath of Brexit and Trump, he was heralded by liberal international media as the new internationalist champion for slaying populist dragons.
This very neo-Labour position on identity did not hold. In a mix of tactical triangulation and genuine concern for the unity of France, Macron, once in power, veered sharply to the right on immigration and identity. He gave a 12-page interview to the staunchly right-wing magazine Current Values in which he echoed many of his concerns about immigration, and his interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, a former ally of Nicolas Sarkozy, even called Le Pen “soft” when she argued that jihadism had nothing to do with Islam. Many of his left-wing supporters in Parliament abandoned him in response to this about-face.
But it was the issue of ecology that led to Macron’s first real setback in November 2018. Increasingly resentful rural Frenchmen, who felt patronized by a president who was racking up a string of insensitive gaffes (including telling someone from “crossing the road to find a job”), finally revolted when Macron agreed to a planned green tax on diesel. Yellow Vests rose up across the country, occupied the roundabouts and headed for Paris to show their deep discontent.
Macron has undeniably paid for 40 years of government disinterest in what Christophe Guilluy has called “peripheral France,” but he has also suffered from a lack of cathartic debate over his policies, including his green promises. Although the French state eventually succeeded in suppressing the riots and demonstrations, the Yellow Vests represented a revolutionary outburst of anger against the system. Deprived of a real debate about the direction of their country, many ordinary citizens felt that taking to the streets was their only option.
So while in the coming days all eyes will be on the real, albeit hypothetical, risks of a Le Pen presidency, the real poison of French democracy may already be in its veins. In 2017, pollster Brice Teinturier published the prophetic “Nothing more to do, nothing more to give a fuck“(it doesn’t care, we don’t care), in which he demonstrates that 40% of French citizens are disappointed with French politics, 13% angry, 20% disgusted, 9% indifferent. Only 18% expressed positive emotions. Teinturier even hinted that anger might be preferable to apathy, because angry citizens still want to believe in a cause. Apathetic citizens gave up.
Assuming Macron is indeed re-elected, the French monarchical republic will give him all the power he needs to push his agenda through the country’s institutions. But, after the experience of his first term, we should all worry that the French Republic will pay dearly for this year’s ghost campaign.