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Lost without a compass: French voters before the election

April 17, 2017 12:36 PM
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Lost without a compass: French voters before the election

It's never happened before: Four candidates neck and neck just before the first round of the French presidential election. Many French voters remain undecided and unable to orient themselves, says Barbara Wesel.

One week before the first round of voting in France, the situation is so bewildering that even the German president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, dared to make a cautious intervention. He warned people against voting for right-wing populists whose "siren songs" promise France a great future, but who want to take the country out of Europe. Berlin is awaiting the result of the first round of voting with bated breath: After all, the future of the European Union - prosperity, peace, solidarity - and many other undervalued commodities depend on it.

In the first round people vote with their hearts, in the second with their heads. That's the way the French electoral system is usually explained. It's intended to guard against the entry of extremists into the presidential palace.

Except that the former communist Jean-Luc Melenchon's accelerated rise in the polls now makes it conceivable that the second round could see him pitted against the right-wing populist Marine Le Pen. If this happens, who would the politically-aware French choose? What seemed unthinkable just a few weeks ago is now within the realm of possibility.

Melenchon's success shows that many French people are now looking for a radical solution. It seems that what they're seeking is not so much practical solutions for their problems as a strong ideology that promises a glorious future. How else to explain the fact that the latest polls show Le Pen and Melenchon together accounting for more than 40 percent of the vote?

Furthermore, the electorate at both ends of the political spectrum is the same. Frustrated former industrial workers who always used to vote Left, then switched to Right, and may now come back to the Left. Young voters enraged by the Paris political machine, who are simply looking for change. And the socially excluded, who approve any radical message that promises them a better life.

The radical Left is tempting French voters with the slogan "Unsubmissive France." It promises to leave the EU and NATO, to renationalize industries, and to implement a political and economic model that it presents above all as a rejection of financial capitalism. How such a thing would work, after the end of Communism in Eastern Europe, is unclear. What differentiates Melenchon from Marine Le Pen is the concept of internationalism, yet he lacks any international partners.

By contrast, National Front candidate Le Pen is completely focused on patriotism. "France first" is her motto, but her economic program is almost indistinguishable from that of the radical Left. Similar slogans and promises: get out of the EU and NATO, nationalize big industries.

These platforms are attractive to many voters, who can barely tell them apart. You have to look very closely to spot Le Pen's neo-Fascist heritage, which she just revealed in a radio interview, denying that France was responsible for the deportation of Jews by the Vichy government.

In this constellation, both France's European neighbors and the young French bourgeoisie are placing their hopes in Emmanuel Macron. He's the only candidate who is standing as a pro-European, with a progressive-liberal economic policy that aims finally to reform the ossified French system. Initially, Macron enjoyed enthusiastic popularity. Now, however, the polls are depicting his supporters as unreliable and not "firm."

Finally, the king of scandal, Francois Fillon, is still in the running. He has supporters, especially in rural areas, who remain loyal to him despite the investigation into his affairs, either because they're dyed-in-the-wool conservatives or because they believe in his Thatcherite reform policies. However, it scarcely seems possible that socialists could vote for the right-wing conservative in a second round. And it's not clear whether he will even be selected. For France, that alone would constitute a political earthquake.

Right now, for concerned observers and neighbors, there is only one hope: that the French will suppress their penchant for grand ideologies and will vote with their heads in the first round. Until then, all we can do is observe the end of the election campaign with bated breath, and hope the French will follow the example of voters in Austria and the Netherlands by saying no to extremism.


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