When I first arrived in France, over a decade ago, I was stunned by the difference between French political culture and the Anglo-Saxon (as the French label the liberal discourse that characterizes British and American politics).
What I took to calling ‘Planet France’ genuinely seemed like a different universe, one in which idealism always trumps pragmatism and, fittingly for the country that invented the bobo (the bourgeois bohemian), the antiquated Marxist jargon of class conflict still governs dinner party conversation.
Even young people seem to share an atavistic longing for a long- gone golden age of full employment and hit French chansons, non- industrial fluffy white baguettes (none of this new-fangled wholegrain nonsense) and a diplomatic record that commanded international respect.
The latest example of absurd political navel-gazing conducted whilst hovering on the brink of catastrophe came Wednesday morning with the publication in Le Monde of a think-piece by the philosopher Alain Badiou, in which he called for “the reinvention of communism….which heralds — as it has for less than two centuries, in a great vision backed up by reality — the liberation of humanity.”
Backing this prioritizing of theoretical hogwash over pragmatism, he reminded anyone who had continued reading this far that “voting does nothing more than reinforce the conservative orientation of the existing system.” The only way forward is to “re- establish a communist vision for the future. Militants must venture forth and discuss its principles in all the working class areas. As Mao explained, we must ‘give back to the people, in its specificity, what they bestow on us amidst the confusion.’ This is how we will reinvent politics.”
Badiou’s words, prominently displayed in the pages of the most serious and politically centrist newspaper in the country, offer a flavor of the increasingly surreal rhetoric of the strangest and least predictable French presidential campaign in living memory.
Observers are reeling as they contemplate the possibility of a second round run off between the far left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon and the National Front’s Marine Le Pen, both pro-Putin, anti- Europe, authoritarian candidates threatening to lead the fifth biggest economy in the world into a chaotic post-euro dystopia.
But even in the face of a contest between four frontrunners that is too close to call (all four are neck and neck within the conventional 3% margin of error), some people are refusing to vote strategically to avoid this nightmare scenario. I received an email from a leftist acquaintance last week in which she claimed (uncomfortably echoing the words of Marine Le Pen) that the centrist independent candidate Emmanuel Macron “is nothing but a puppet controlled by people without good intentions.”
She went on to say, “I will vote for Hamon, though of course he cannot win. What matters are his ideas, even if they can sometimes be a bit weak. He is the most honest and sane of them all.” No matter that Hamon, the candidate representing the wildly unpopular outgoing President Hollande’s Socialist Party, is polling at below 7% and there is no scenario that sees him going through to the second round of voting on May 7th. Although she hopes that Macron will become president, my acquaintance refuses to vote for him in the first round. There is every chance that if enough people like her follow their hearts Macron won’t even make it through to the second round.
Melenchon, a fan of late president Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, and the neo-fascist Le Pen, are avowedly uninterested in conventional democratic governance, and the massive support they each have is a reminder of the fact that the country has always had a certain reverence for authoritarian politics.
The constitution of the Fifth Republic, established by General de Gaulle in 1958, even includes a clause (Article 16) that gives the President emergency powers to immediately interrupt the country’s democratic governance for as long as he or she sees fit and necessary.
This prerogative has only ever been exercised once (in 1961 to defeat the generals’ putsch during the Algerian war for independence) but, given that there is every chance that the country will collapse into violent chaos in the immediate aftermath of a win by Marine Le Pen, there is little reason to suppose that she wouldn’t at some point invoke it in the name of security or anti-terrorism. Given that 50% of the military and the police support the National Front, the country could effectively become a police state overnight.
Last week all the dinner party talk was of John Oliver’s
intervention about the elections on American television (“Now you have a populist, nativist choice of your own, and just imagine how superior you could feel if you don’t make the same mistake that we [in America and Britain] did.”) Suddenly something become clear. Like a toddler having a massive meltdown, France’s inchoate fury at its decreased influence in the world is having a tangible effect. At last, everyone is talking about France!
Natasha Lehrer is literary editor of the Jewish Quarterly. She writes for, among others, The Times Literary Supplement, The Guardian, The Nation and The Jewish Chronicle. She won the 2016 Scott Moncrieff prize for literary translation for Suite for Barbara Loden by Nathalie Léger. Follow her on Twitter: @natashalehrer.