• Daniel Ethan Finneran

France's Turn On The Stage

April 2017

France—a country in which it’s more useful to show one’s vices and always dangerous to show one’s virtues. You might think this quip the work of a witty Englishman or a haughty Anglican trying to put his ancient enemy across the channel in his place. But it was Nicolas Chamfort, a son of France by birth and an essayist by occupation, who penned the phrase. While the English became known for their treachery, and the French for their lechery, Chamfort came to be known for his gruesome death. Fed up with the Revolution’s misfortunes and his own incarcerations, he cut short both his countenance and career by shooting himself in the face with a pistol (which misfired, but not without taking his nose and jaw) and then stabbing himself in the neck and chest with a paper cutter. Having failed to disturb a single artery, he lived in anguish for another year before dying a bathetically mortal death.

I think it’s fair to say that his words had a greater effect than his weapons (perhaps he realized too late that his words were his sharpest spears and quickest bullets). Nevertheless, we’re happily left to chew on his wit.

Then as now, Chamfort’s bon mot applies most appropriately to his homeland of France. The nation stands at center stage with its scene set and its players in place. The actors are Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen. Both are vying for the presidency and both are on international display—and when the light shines brightest, no speck of dust can stay concealed. They stand before the French people and the world, vices and all. Much like their Continental and American neighbors, Macron and Le Pen are navigating the whims of a nation bent on testing the status quo. France is swerving along a political cliff, flirting with the uncertain crevasse below. Should she slip, or deliberately leap, Europe and the West would face unprecedented change.

The French people, perhaps eager to join the trendy jingoism bustling in the streets and hearts of Brits, Germans, and Americans, are approaching a momentous election. They have embraced with similar zeal the populist politics that have been bouncing across the Atlantic for some time now. On May 7th, the French will have the chance to decide at the polls if their zeal is to remain a mere fancy or if it’s to become functional. On that day, the universally loathed Francois Hollande will reach his tenure’s end, which couldn’t come quickly enough. Hollande’s approval rating, which currently sits at an abysmal 4%, looks more like a marathon runner’s body fat. For the sake of exhausting the analogy, Hollande is crawling toward the finish line. Once there, he can expect cheers not from fans, but from the fed-up French men and women celebrating his permanent leave.

As I mentioned, the contenders vying to replace the soon to be hors de combat Hollande are Emmanuel Macron and Marie Le Pen. In different times, the likes of a Macron or a Le Pen would be found along the fringes, but not so today. The vote comes down to the two. As such, Le Pen is the more disquieting candidate. She inherits an ignominious name, that of course, of her father, Jean Marie Le Pen. Her father helped to found and lead the National Front political party from 1972 till 2011. Seldom could the party be seen to blush after spewing anti-Semitic barbs or promulgating xenophobic tropes. Jean Marie in particular had a nasty little habit of trumpeting most loudly the party’s incendiary and mendacious claims.

But his vitriol became an impediment for a party seeking legitimacy—he became a liability in his own party. In short order, Jean Marie, once paterfamilias to both party and daughter, found himself removed from helm of the former and excised from the heart of the latter. The party tossed him to the side, and his daughter, Marie Le Pen, took from his unwilling hands the party’s reins. It’s an unusual usurpation in today’s day and age, but it would be naïve to think that the party’s xenophobic ethos left with the elder Le Pen’s retirement. A reminiscent, if slightly subdued, nationalism permeates his daughters thought as well.

Emmanuel Macron is a bit of a curiosity as well. He, like President Trump, is the beneficiary of a public frustrated with the status quo. Also like Trump, Macron seeks the presidency without ever having held public office before. Should Macron win, he’ll continue the wave of trendy tyros winning their country’s highest honors. Perhaps more startling is the realization that this shift in the paradigm won’t likely end with him.

Unlike President Trump, Macron is youthful, at only thirty-nine years of age, and he has legitimate experience in finance. He served first as an investment banker and then as France’s Finance Minister in Hollande’s cabinet. He spent his time there sedulously, but his ambitions were too much to bear. Sensing the bounding pulse of France’s frustrations, Macron left his role and left behind Hollande’s Socialist Party altogether so he could create his own centrist party in April 2016. He lacks the élan one expects of politicians who come meteorically to the fore, but he’s been able to secure a strong base of support. His party, having only just been planted but a year ago, may not yet be ripe, but it appears ready enough for a victory at the polls. The monetary misdeeds of Francois Fillon, the career politician once considered a shoe-in for the position, has certainly hastened the ripening process.

In comparing monsieur Macron to President Trump, I must also compare the latter with mademoiselle Le Pen. The comparisons between these two are all-too conspicuous. Both ring the chauvinist’s tocsin and startle themselves and others with the sound. Their greatest alacrity is in decrying their respective nation’s “out-groups” and heaping scorn on the radical Islamic terrorists.

Le Pen, has called Macron “soft on Islamists” in a tone reminiscent of Trump’s. Americans were made regularly aware that he was the only candidate candid enough to even say the phrase, “radical Islamic terrorists”, a term that’s hopefully become more palatable to the public at-large. Trump routinely lambasted his opponents for their milquetoast stances toward Islamic extremism and Le Pen has followed in his footsteps. It came as no surprise then that in one of his earliest executive orders, Trump banned the entry of travelers from six Muslim-majority countries. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to believe Le Pen would do much the same and perhaps even more.

It’s unfortunate, but France is facing the threat of terrorist attacks like few nations do outside of the Middle and Near East. The severity, reliability, and ubiquity with which terrorist attacks occur in France is absolutely staggering. From Marseilles, to Nice, to Normandy, and then to Paris, France has experienced these attacks at a staggering rate. They’ve been in an incessant state of emergency for the better part of a year. Surely, regardless of who etches out the decree, something must be done to slow down the attacks. Le Pen seems the more willing to do just that. No country, developed or otherwise, should be the last haven of the harassed or the playground of the depraved. France’s history is too enlightened and its future too rich to succumb to this fate.

Seeing his reflection in Le Pen’s visage, Trump has thrown his support behind her. He’s no Francophile (he has no golf course there and is a teetotaler, making France’s potations—mainly champagne and chardonnay—unlikely indulgences), but he’s shown an acute interest in her campaign. As an aside, Barack Obama has done the same for Macron, recently calling his fellow liberal to wish him good-luck and bonhomie over the phone. But it’s President Trump who mans the helm now and his preferred is Le Pen. He clearly hears in her message a familiar tune and sees in her campaign the same signs that threatened his own. Statistically, the two campaigns (those of Trump and Le Pen) mirror one another rather strikingly. Finishing slightly ahead of Le Pen with 23% of the first stage’s vote—compared with Le Pen’s 21%--Macron currently leads in the polls 60% to Le Pen’s 40%. These percentages are eerily reminiscent of those that once made Hillary Clinton’s campaign look like an fait accompli. At that time, you’ll recall, most pollsters set Trump’s ceiling at 30%, far below what’s expected of Le Pen. But while America’s 2016 election is history (although it may never truly be a thing of the past), France’s pundits would be wise to study it. Trump’s success might just be the bellwether; it’s ringing and signaling a zeitgeist that could easily sweep from Michigan to Boudreaux and from Pennsylvania to Paris.

A Le Pen victory would turn the political status quo still further from the norm. If she were to win and if she were to keep her campaign promises, the country could find itself following in Great Britain’s footsteps. France would be second in succession behind its British neighbor in leaving the EU. While it’s uncertain where this unprecedented path will lead the Brits, France and other countries on the continent appear eager to follow in English Prime Minister Theresa May’s wake. It’s become an increasingly attractive proposition, and time will tell if France intends to join England in making the leap.

For the nonce, however, foreign markets and attitudes appear unconcerned; most anticipate Le Pen will lose. The statistics lend support to the confidence, but it might be misplaced.

Aside from the economic uncertainties is the issue of immigrants and refugees. With Le Pen at the helm, I can only assume that the European Union’s doctrine of “free movement” for all people would apply to France no more. If France shuts itself off, further questions will arise about the future of Syrian and North African refugees, many of whom have landed within France’s borders. As I write, these refugees are largely unable to proceed onward from France and unwilling to return homeward to Africa or the Middle East. Instead they’re stagnant and slowly festering in France’s border towns. There they wait, concentrated and frustrated in places like the Calais “Jungle”, where an uncertain future in an unwelcoming host nation is all they know.

In boldface, the writing on the wall reads “reform”. The French people want their grievances addressed, and Le Pen seems the more prepared to give them what they desire. Yet still, the polls and pundits think Macron will be the victor. His popularity hasn’t suffered the slightest after a few salacious ad hominem attacks came his way. Admittedly, compared to the trove of campaign calumnies that define American politics, the gossip about Macron was tame. His opponents claimed that he had extramarital affairs of the homosexual variety and that his financial dealings weren’t always so upright. So far as the evidence is concerned, however, these claims seem to be untrue. Macron appears smitten with his bride, the smartly-dressed Brigitte Macron, a woman twenty-four years his senior. The two have an interesting relationship to say the least. Brigitte was Emmanuel’s schoolteacher when he was a boy of fifteen. Some parts of puberty never perish, like the lust one feels for the comely teacher with tied hair and high heels at the front of the room. If nothing else, on the side of attributes for the heir apparent to the French presidency, we can mark down precocity and charm. Winning the love of an adult teacher in the throes of puberty is a feat, as any classmate will attest to, but winning the hearts of the French people is an entirely different beast. Come this week, we will see if Macron is up to the task.

By the end of this week, France will have its victor. With a collective hallelujah, Hollande will take his leave and either Macron or Le Pen will replace him. When that time comes, the direction the French government decides to take will become clear. Until then, I leave you with this. Again, from the mouth of Chamfort, comes his quip: “If it were not for the government, we should have nothing to laugh at in France”. Let’s hope not for tragedy, but for a comedy to come.

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