By David Lee
As my life is now in France, married to a French wife, I embarked on applying for French citizenship in late 2020, whilst still retaining UK citizenship. After three abortive ‘dossier submissions’, the fourth one was finally accepted in the middle of last year. You would have thought the bureaucratic hurdles I managed to jump over during that period were sufficient proof that I was qualified to become French. Maybe, secretly, that is why the process is so complicated. If you can’t cope with French bureaucracy, you can’t cope with being French. So, now that I am on the final leg to becoming a French citizen, I felt it appropriate to take a serious interest in the current presidential election.
Five years ago, during the last election, I was still a European Union citizen with a British passport living in France, François Fillon was still (up to March 14, 2017) a credible presidential candidate of the right-wing Republican Party (although ex-Socialist government minister and outsider Emmanuel Macron had just overtaken him in the polls), Trumpism’s full implications hadn’t become apparent, Jair Bolsonaro was still only a federal deputy in Brazil, Mauricio Macri was still potentially beneficial for Argentina and Boris Johnson was only UK foreign secretary: voilà!, you can see my political interests at that time. How France, and the World, has changed since then!
With only four weeks to go before the first round of the 2017 French presidential election, Marine Le Pen of the far-right Front national (now called the Rassemblement national or National Rally) led the field in the latest Ipsos/Sopra Steria poll with 25% of likely voters, followed closely by Emmanuel Macron with 24%, and François Fillon (18%). Marxist firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon trailed with 14%, followed by Socialist Benoît Hamon (12%) and right-wing Nicolas Dupont-Aignan (3.5%). None of the other candidates received more than 1% support.
For those who don’t know how French presidential elections work, any adult French citizen can stand as a candidate in the first round provided they get at least 500 signatures (or parrainages*) of elected officials; not too difficult when this includes mayors of villages, although they must come from at least thirty different French départements. There were eleven candidates in the 2017 first round. There are twelve this year. The second round, a fortnight later, is a contest between the two who get the highest and second-highest number of votes in the first round. What tends to happen is voters cast their ballot for the person they like most in the first round and against the person they like least in the second.
The current position in March 2022 is Macron at around 30%, Le Pen 16%, far farther-right Éric Zemmour 12%, Jean-Luc Mélenchon 11% and Republican party hopeful Valérie Pécresse 10.5%. All the remaining seven, predominately left-wing, candidates (including the Socialist mayor of Paris, Annie Hidalgo, with 2.5%) have a combined total of 17%. After François Hollande’s presidency, the traditionally strong Socialist party effectively imploded. The Republicans seem to be heading for the same fate.
Pécresse, supposedly heir to Fillon, really doesn’t cut the mustard. She is no orator and has made gaffe after gaffe (the latest was naming three people who would be in her administration without informing them first). Le Pen is doing better this year. She gave an impressive performance on the recent two-hour “War in Ukraine” 'debate' on French TV TF1 which offered eight of the twelve candidates, including Macron, the opportunity to set out their presidential election manifestos to two journalists on a stage shaped like a boxing-ring. Debate this was not. Each made an opening one-minute pitch and a final two-minute one. In between was the interview. Moreover, what this had to do with the war in Ukraine was not clear, especially as Le Pen, Zemmour and Mélenchon are all desperately trying to distance themselves from the man they have lauded in the past, war criminal Vladmir Putin.
Zemmour and Mélenchon, both skilled polémistes, rabble rousers or orators (take your pick), manage to grab headlines, as indeed do many of the “also running but shortly also ran” candidates. However, I think Macron has it in the bag. He is proposing a contentious reform programme (e.g. raising the retirement age from 62 to 65, requiring those who receive some benefits to do community work, making unemployment benefit more conducive to getting people back into work) so that, after winning the election, he can confront demonstrators with “This is the programme I was elected on, so piss off!”
He used such language on January 4 when he said he would emmerder the five million French still unvaccinated against Covid. The old meaning of that verb is to “cover in shit” but a closer rendition nowadays would be to “piss off”. Commentators tut-tutted that such language was not presidential. It does not seem to have done him any harm.
Overall, the campaigning is poor with candidates sniping at each other rather than explaining their programmes in any detail. Perhaps as a consequence commentary is superficial too; there is little deep analysis or costing of the candidates’ proposals. I listened recently to a morning radio interview with the Communist Party candidate who said “I will increase all salaries”. When asked how he would pay for this, he said “Salaries are a matter for employers - they will have to pay.” I kid you not.
Locally, in Le Cannet, our ‘historic village’ above Cannes on the Côte d’Azur you would be mistaken into thinking that there was no important election looming. No street posters yet, no house-to-house canvassing (probably wise given local security issues), almost no flyers through the letterbox (so far we’ve received two identical flyers from Annie Hidalgo and one flyer and a campaign policy statement from Zemmour), almost no local rallies or meetings. Is it assumed that most minds are already made up - at least for the first round?
We did attend Mme Pécresse’s second campaign meeting (after her disastrous first one in Paris) some three weeks ago here in Le Cannet. Whilst a better performance, it needed “animateurs” to raise the crowd’s enthusiasm before she spoke. Several hundred local “élus”(elected officials – those parrainages) turned up to demonstrate party solidarity with her campaign.
I’ve come to the conclusion that this French presidential election allows all the political ‘nutters’ and no-hopers to “fire & brimstone” their proposals with extensive TV & Press coverage, thereby venting their spleens and allowing the eventual winner to assess which, if any, issues merit attention. Macron has refused to take part in any proper TV debates until the fortnight between the first round on April 10 and the second on April 24. This is wise, given the vitriol currently polluting such debates. And only now has he published his campaign pledges, enabling him to cherry-pick some ideas from the other candidates. Benefiting from his status as President, with fulsome backing from nationally-recognised ministers, and bestriding the European stage vis-à-vis Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, he looks impregnable. The only things that could undermine him are some kind of scandal (financial; seldom in France sexual) uncovered by journalists from Le Canard enchaîné, a violent revolt by Corsican separatists (there have been riots recently), a co-ordinated attempt by irascible first-time youth voters to vote for just one other candidate, or a successful campaign to persuade the French to vote "blanc" - i.e. abstain from voting or leave the ballot paper unmarked. His considerable achievements since assuming office have often been unpalatable to a typically recalcitrant French electorate. But they do not currently form a significant part of the political debate here. Instead, his management of the Covid crisis, cost what it may (“coûte que coûte”), and his EU leadership over the war in Ukraine surely guarantee him success - certainly against Le Pen, Mélenchon or Zemmour.
It all reminds me of the famous Gary Lineker football quote:-
"Football is a simple game; 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans win."
Voilà! Let’s see what happens. As I don’t yet have my French nationality (and with hordes of fleeing Ukrainians clogging the Prefecture in Nice, who knows when I’ll get in there), I can only observe:
What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare?
William Henry Davies
*means sponsorship, coming from the French for godfather – parrain. Yup, the film was called Le Parrain in France.
Born in Buenos Aires, educated in England, David has been involved in economic consultancy (Latin America & Portugal), hospital project management (West Africa & Iraq), trade show & exhibition management (Mexico), consultancy on doing business in Latin America (UK), business communications skills training (Europe and Latin America), and selling real estate (Switzerland and France). No wonder the French bureaucrats are a trifle confused.