Is the tumult of France's presidential race a sign of longing for lost grandeur?

Charles de Gaulle declared that 'France cannot be France without greatness.' But after decades of watching their country go from colonial power to more typical nation-state, the French feel particularly removed from exceptionalism.

Alain Jocard/Pool/Reuters
Jean-Luc Mélenchon, far-left candidate for the French 2017 presidential election, stands on a barge during a cruise on the Canal Saint-Martin as part of his campaign in Paris on Monday.

If there has been one constant in France's 2017 presidential campaign, it has been the repeated rise of the outsider who comes out of nowhere to scramble political assumptions and electoral math.

The latest example is Jean-Luc Mélenchon. A few months ago, the radical left-wing candidate was set to be an also-ran in the first round of the election. This week, he's breathing down the necks of both his far-right counterpart and longtime frontrunner Marine Le Pen and young centrist Emmanuel Macron, the two favorites to advance.

As it stands now, nearly 45 percent of the French electorate say they will back one of the two fiercely Euroskeptic populists, Mr. Mélenchon or Ms. Le Pen, in the first round of balloting April 23. Slightly more back two pro-European, pro-free-traders: Mr. Macron and embattled center-right candidate François Fillon. But the narrowing of the polls means that it is anyone’s race.

How did France, a founding member of the European Union, get here?

Like the anti-globalist malaise afflicting much of the West, in France there is a profound disappointment in the political class and even deeper distrust that mainstream leaders can make globalization, EU membership, or technological change work for the people. Here it’s called dégagisme, or the popular sentiment to kick out the elites.

Its roots are deep. The late general and French President Charles de Gaulle started his war memoirs declaring that “France cannot be France without greatness.” But after decades of watching their country's transformation from colonial power to more typical nation-state, the French feel particularly removed from exceptionalism. And that defeatism is muddying the waters as the French – and the candidates who want to lead them – try to find a way to address what they see as a looming social crisis.

“I think if you ask the question: what do the people really want? I think the people really do not know what they want,” says Nicolas Tenzer, president of the Center for Research and Analysis of Political Decisions. “There is a real pessimism invading the public space, which means the people cannot figure out what the best solutions are.”

“This grandeur, as Charles de Gaulle used to say, they have the feeling that the grandeur has vanished, that France is becoming a nation just like the others,” says Mr. Tenzer, who authored “The End of French Unhappiness.”

A tight race

The election was not expected to be this turbulent. In fact, pollsters initially projected a fairly ho-hum affair.

But then President François Hollande, amid approval ratings as low as 4 percent, bowed out in December – the first time that’s happened in modern French history.

The primaries saw centrist candidates pushed out by the more ideologically extreme underdogs: Mr. Fillon of the Republicains and Benoît Hamon of the Socialists, who is polling in single digits. With Socialists floundering, the race seemed like Fillon's to lose, despite fractures in his own party.

But then came allegations in January that Fillon paid his wife, Penelope, for work she didn’t do – costing him his standing. The front runners since “Penelopegate” have been Le Pen and Mr. Macron, a 39-year-old former investment banker and economic minister in the ruling Socialist administration who started his own movement, En Marche, last year and whose pro-EU, pro-globalization platform is the inverse of Le Pen’s stance to return to French sovereignty.

And yet the horse race has changed once again in the past month, as the 65-year-old Mélenchon nearly doubled his poll numbers to about 20 percent, virtually tying him with Fillon. His "France Insoumise" (France Unbowed) movement has presented a flashy campaign that has seen him canvassing via hologram – and on a barge that navigated the canals of Paris on Monday – as his competitors stayed in more traditional arenas.

Even Mélenchon's foes can’t deny his oratory force. Compared to Bernie Sanders in the United States, his main pledge is to redistribute wealth. He wants to set a maximum salary so that those earning more than 400,000 euros ($428,000) a year – 20 times more than the lowest-paid employees – would essentially face a 100 percent tax on earnings beyond that limit. He also wants to renegotiate European treaties that he says have turned the EU into a neoliberal project. If unsuccessful, he says he’d hold a referendum on France’s membership. He also wants to leave NATO and the IMF.

A shared populism?

Mélenchon's newfound popularity is not due to a sudden change in message to capture votes. Though a dynamic speaker, he is a familiar face and has never before been seen as threatening to the mainstream.

Rather, it’s the French people who have changed, says Adrien Durand, a literature student handing out fliers on the Quai de Valmy this week as he awaited Mélenchon's campaign barge to approach. “The people can’t take it anymore,” he says.

"Resistance," Mélenchon's supporters chanted from the quays.

It’s the same sentiment that has brought Le Pen closer to the Élysée than at any time since her family’s founding of the National Front (FN). Supporters in each camp deny the similarities – and the two candidates clearly diverge on the question of national identity, where Le Pen focuses her attention so intently – and gains strength.

A terrorist attack on the Champs-Élysées Thursday night could play into Le Pen’s hands, as she told the nation it was time to stop being “naive.” She, along with Macron and Fillon, canceled campaigning today, the last day before the official end of the presidential campaigns. Mélenchon decided to carry on, saying France shouldn’t allow terrorism to disrupt the “democratic process.”

Mélenchon and Le Pen take differing views of immigration, which Le Pen frequently conflates with terrorism. But the two hard-liners converge in their unrelenting criticism of the EU and free trade, are charged with a softness on Russia, and both constantly invoke “the people.” Their supporters both talk often of a “strong” figure who they believe alone can get the job done.

“When you are in front of her, you know she’s the boss, and for us it’s very important to have a boss,” says Arnaud de Rigné, a Le Pen supporter from Nantes who is studying public administration.

“The choice on Sunday is simple," Le Pen said to a rally in Paris, as supporters chanted, “On est chez nous” or “We are in our house,” a common refrain. "It is a choice between a France that is rising again and a France that is sinking."

While both leaders have surged on anger at the political elite, Philippe Moreau Defarges of the French Institute of International Relations says it’s wrong to interpret this as a demand for change among the populace. He sees it rather as their clinging to the past.

“It is a demand to keep France as it is,” he says. “Ms. Le Pen wants to have a France without immigrants, but that France cannot exist…. They want to keep France as they believe it is. It is not a real France. It’s a dangerous dream.”

Where populism isn't

Of course, not all of France is gunning for upheaval, including beyond the cosmopolitan cities that have generally eschewed populism.

In the picturesque farmland of Brittany in western France, the scandals, shake-ups, and suspense of the French presidential election have swept through, but lifelong resident Michel Haudebert isn’t wavering.

Bucking national trends, the cement factory worker says his vote is likely to go to Mr. Hamon, the Socialist; his wife, Marie-France, who works in a food factory, thinks she’ll cast her ballot for Macron. Mr. Haudebert adds he’d vote for Macron in a run-off against Le Pen, as the vast majority of French have said in polls they’d also do.

“Marine Le Pen? Out of the question,” he says from his kitchen table in their traditional stone home in the tiny village of St.-Marc-Le-Blanc.

In fact, while the FN has made significant inroads here, dominating the local narrative, the party is more unpopular in Brittany than anywhere else in France. In the latest survey by Cevipof of Sciences Po, Le Pen will receive her worst score in the nation here, with 14 percent of the vote. That’s much lower than the national average of 22.5 percent. In Paris, she’s polling at 17.5 percent, ahead of rural Brittany. “The [FN] vote is much higher than it was, so we say [Brittany] is no longer a land to missionize. But it’s also not a favored land,” says Thomas Frinault, a political analyst at the University of Rennes 2.

The economic, cultural, and social history of Brittany – particularly a leftist Catholic influence – coupled with a strong cultural and linguistic identity that doesn't mesh with FN's nationalism, is behind “a long tradition of moderate votes in Brittany,” says Jean-Luc Richard, a sociologist and demographer at the University of Rennes 1.

Many here also feel they’ve simply got a lot to lose. Mr. Haudebert says the couple isn’t “rolling in money” – he classifies them lower middle class - but they have a comfortable life and feel part of a larger world. “What is Marine Le Pen’s program? Get foreigners out? It is an empty dossier.”

Tellingly, centrist Macron gets his best national scores here, at 28.5 percent, according to the Cevipof poll.

Stature, lost

Macron has tried to paint himself as the post-ideological candidate of hope. He pledges more support for the most vulnerable, but promises to tackle the economic reform that has befuddled his predecessors. “The world around us is changing. War, the terrorist threat, the uncertainty on the other side of the ocean, the threat at our borders of several authoritarian regimes. Yes, we will have to be strong, uncompromising,” Macron told a Paris rally Monday.

But while he’s squeaked ahead of Le Pen in most polls, his support is the “softest.” If Le Pen’s voters are the most “convinced,” with 85 percent saying they will definitely vote for her, according to Frederic Micheau of polling firm OpinionWay, Macron’s is the weakest with 55 percent decided. “Will this electoral group actually vote for him on the day, or will they go back to their political families?” he says. Such defection could ultimately boost Fillon, the only competitive mainstream candidate in the running.

Indecision is not the only uncertainty that could generate a surprise Sunday. Dominique Marion, watching a bicycling race on a quiet Sunday in small-town Brittany earlier this month, says she feels anxious. “This is the first time in my life, that two weeks from the election, I don’t know who I’m voting for,” she says. She joins the many voters who remain undecided at this juncture – polls put their ranks at anywhere from 25 to 40 percent of the electorate. And abstentions are expected to be high by French standards: an Elabe poll Monday showed only 68 percent are certain to vote in the first place.

Pascal Perrineau, an expert on populist movements at Sciences Po in Paris, says that the turbulence of the race is tied to geopolitical and economic transformations that affect governance far beyond France.

In an open, intertwined world, he says, leaders have less power today, “and public opinion senses it.” Modern politicians lack the authority held by the presidents of the '50s, '60s, and '70s, let alone the “political giants of World War II”: Roosevelt, Stalin, and Churchill. “Politicians today can look like dwarfs” in comparison, he says. “We have the impression that the old political force is dying right in front of our eyes.”

This parallels the generalized sense of decline since World War II that has been an undercurrent in the election, says Mr. Moreau Defarges.

“Like Britain, like the US, [the French] are discovering they are no more the first ones, and they can’t bear that. France was a great power, a universal power, Britain was the empire, the US was … the biggest power on earth,” he says. He faults both Le Pen and Mélenchon for pandering to a false idealism, and says it is Macron and Fillon who are promising real change with tough-minded economic reforms. “We must live with our present, in the 21st century.”

'Completely crazy'

The sentiment goes some way to explain the disconnect between the despair expressed and the comfort of a French middle class where social security is still robust, vacation time ample, and access to education and healthcare is free. Moreau Defarges says there is an element of the “spoiled child” in France, but also a genuine fear of the future.

“What matters is not what you have, what matters is what you can have in the future," he says. Chronic unemployment, particularly among young people, immigration, and inequality give people "the feeling they have no future. We need someone who is able to say, 'This is our future.'"

Some of these contradictions are most obvious at the borders of France and the EU. Franck Buchy, a reporter for a local newspaper in Alsace in the Grand Est region bordering Germany, calls his a region “turned toward Europe.” Thousands of Alsatians cross the border every day to work in Germany or Switzerland. “But their better development, and economies with low unemployment, makes our problems more painful,” he says. And it feeds into French frustration “that politicians can’t do anything to change the economic and social situation" at home, he says.

It’s one reason behind the gains of the FN in the Grand Est – where Le Pen is expected to capture one of her highest scores. And it’s just one of several paradoxes behind what he sums up as “an electoral campaign that is completely crazy.”

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