There’s nothing better than a glass of sugary coca cola the chilly morning after too many Côte du Rhônes to clear the head. I’m in Paris about to head south to Marseilles trying to make sense of this fascinating French election and, more to the point, trying to understand why financial markets are — up to now — so sanguine, given the enormity of what is at stake.
Even before the shooting of a policeman on Thursday, this election was up in the air with polls saying Le Pen on the Right and Mélenchon on the Left were in with a chance of going through to the next round. If either of these two were to win the Presidential election outright, France would veer off on an economic and political course that would have dramatic implications for Ireland. The centrist Macron remains in the lead and widely expected to beat Le Pen in the second round.
France is the 6th largest economy in the world, a world leader in many sectors, with income per head of close to €40,000. But in common with other Latin countries in Europe, it has an unemployment problem. General unemployment remains in double digits and this figure rises to 26% amongst French youth. Latest polls indicated that the youth have become radicalized, with 38% saying that they will vote for the National Front.
This election is not about economics.
Although economists might beg to differ, feelings not figures win elections.
And this election, like so many others in the West in the past year, is about feelings. The “who are we” question has propelled itself to centre stage.
As in the UK and the US with Brexit and Trump, inequality and perceptions of inequality are a recurrent theme, with the populist Right and Left, identifying a metropolitan elite as being out of touch, cosseted and arrogant.
But the real issue is race and how France see itself.
Call it religion, identity, culture, ethnicity, call it what you will, but ultimately this “us and them” dimension makes the election so significant. It is now about Islam, terrorism, security, open borders and peace of mind.
When I say I’m in Paris, I’m actually in a part of Paris that visitors rarely frequent, sitting in the slightly down-at-heel café Le Khédive in Place Victor Hugo, just opposite the Basilica of St Denis. We are only a few hundred yards from the street where the “Bataclan” killers were eventually surrounded by French police in 2015. From this vantage point, it is not difficult to see the deep divisions in this French election.
Remember France is still under a state of national emergency following the attack in Nice last year, heightened again by Thursday’s Champs Elysees attack.
St Denis was the traditional burial place of the French kings. It is steeped in French history. It was here, in this basilica behind me, in 1492 where Joanne of Arc was blessed before marching out to face the English foe. In terms of France’s Catholic history, there are few holier sites. But today St Denis has the largest Muslim population of any French area. The Cathedral is empty, yet the Mosque is full.
We are only a few miles from the pomp and majesty of Quai D’Orsey, the Louvre and the millions that marvel at Paris every year, but this place it is a world away. There are precious few smiling tourists’ selfies taken here. Not only is St Denis home to a burgeoning young Muslim population, it also has the highest number of young African immigrants. The smells, sounds and colours of the bustling morning market are more Marrakesh than Montmartre.
St Denis and hundreds of other suburbs like it all around the country are the front lines in an election that is about the heart of soul of France, what it means to be French and ultimately who is and who is not French.
As such, it is the natural successor to the nativist surge of Brexit and Trump, where feelings trumped figures; notions trumped facts and nostalgia defeated all. These popular insurrections are driven by nostalgia, a yearning for a lost time and place, somewhere just in the recent past, when things were better, more simple and more secure. Nostalgia means when Trump says “Make America Great Again” he is referring to an idealized America, not so long ago when the United States was great. He wants to lead his people into the future by taking them back to somewhere. Similarly, when the Brexiteers said “Take Back Control” they imply a mythical somewhere, again not so long ago, when Britons had control. The UK referendum was an opportunity to go back to those times before control was given away by someone to someone else.
In France, the National Front has their similar elegiac rallying cry “On est chez nous” they respond at mass rallies to Madame Le Pen, meaning, “this is our place”. The casual almost colloquial use of “our place” rather than the more abrupt and pompous like “our country”, gives the message a comforting, homely, common-sense feel, in the same way as you’d ask mates to come back to “your place” after the pub, rather than the more formal “your house”. It’s friendly and exclusive at the same time.
The battle comes down to a vision of France. One is a cosmopolitan vision of an open, deracinated, post-Catholic European France. The other is a nationalist, closed, but sovereign France, comfortable with its heritage, operating in its own self-interest, within a significantly altered European Union.
This cosmopolitan vs. nativist struggle will have profound effects on the economy, not just the French economy but also the European economy.
If Le Pen, or had he made it through the first round, Mélenchon were to win, they’d both try to take the French out of the Euro, close France’s borders to trade, capital movements and in Le Pen’s case, immigrants.
At the moment, the betting suggests that the centrist Macron is still favorite in a run-off against Le Pen and thus, the power of cosmopolitan France endures. Macron means more of the same. However, this won’t be enough because longer term, there is a sense that this country is on the decline. Such an economic backdrop will only encourage a more radical and more populist vision of France’s future.
Immigration isn’t going away, the EU isn’t about to become popular once more, the nativist trends Le Pen champions are evident everywhere and the ‘who are we” debate will just become louder.
Marine Le Pen is onto this and has time on her side. She is only 48, so she can sit in opposition, building her base and biding her time. She will be a sprightly 53 in 2022. With close to 40% of those between 18-24 saying that they will vote for Le Pen, the National Front could well be the party of the future.
As I consider this vista while paying for my coke, coffee and croissants here in Place Victor Hugo in St Denis, the sage political assessment of Hugo, the great 19th century French intellectual appear to be fittingly apt over a century later. It was Victor Hugo who after all summed up political upheavals when he intoned;
Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come.