May 17. 2021. 5:46

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France gripped by socio-economic, medical and cultural crises

French president Emmanuel Macron: Polls indicate he would win 54 per cent of the vote in a presidential run-off, against 46 per cent for Marine Le Pen. Photograph: Ludovic Marin/AFP

One year before the French presidential election, the most plausible scenario is that President Emmanuel Macron will win re-election after defeating the far-right leader Marine Le Pen, who was already his adversary four years ago.

But if there is a lesson to be learned from the last two decades, it is that predictions in French presidential contests are more often wrong than right.

Macron has not had an easy time of it. In 2018-2019, France was rocked by the gilets jaunes or yellow vest protest movement. That was followed by more unrest over Macron’s attempt to reform the pension system, and then the coronavirus pandemic.

France is now mired in three serious crises, says the eminent political scientist Pascal Perrineau: socio-economic, medical and what he terms a crisis of cultural values. “In the socio-economic and pandemic crises, voters can say, ‘Okay, Macron hasn’t been brilliant, but would other candidates have been any better? Probably not,’” Perrineau says.

More seriously, he points out, “The French no longer agree on what makes France. Do we still believe in a republic organised according to the pact of laicité [government-enforced secularism]? Or do we accustom ourselves to a society in which various communities co-habit? This is a profound debate, an incredibly deep fracture, about the very nature of France.”

This fragmentation is felt most acutely in relation to migration, Islamist attacks and France’s large, north African Arab minority. These issues will dominate the presidential campaign and were at the heart of three leading news stories at the end of April.

Thousands of people demonstrated all over France this week after the supreme court upheld a decision that Kobili Traoré, a Muslim, could not be held responsible for murdering his Jewish neighbour, the retired doctor Sarah Halimi, because he was delirious after smoking cannabis. Traoré severely beat Halimi, shouted “Allah akbar” and threw her from a third-floor window. Macron asked that the law on criminal responsibility be reviewed.

On April 23rd, Jamel Gorchène, a 36-year-old Tunisian who entered France illegally but became a legal resident in 2019, slashed the throat of Stéphanie Monfermé, a policewoman in Rambouillet, southwest of Paris. It was the 18th Islamist attack against French police since 2012, and prompted renewed accusations that Macron is lax on security. A Harris Interactive poll for LCI on April 29th found that 84 per cent of French people think violence is increasing by the day.

‘Hatred between communities’

Twenty retired French generals, 100 lower-ranking officers and close to 1,000 French soldiers expressed outrage at the state of the country in an open letter to Macron published in the right-wing magazine Valeurs Actuelles on April 21st. The date of publication was pointedly timed to coincide with the 60th anniversary of an attempted putsch against Gen Charles de Gaulle during the Algerian war, and the 20th anniversary of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s qualification for the presidential election run-off.

“France is unravelling,” the generals wrote. They alleged that “hatred between communities” was fanned by “a certain anti-racism” and “Islamism and the hordes of the banlieue”. If Macron continued to “dither”, they warned, “Tomorrow civil war will put an end to the growing chaos and the deaths, for which you will be responsible, will be counted in the thousands.” Continued “laxity” would necessitate “the intervention of our comrades on active duty”, they added.

Marine Le Pen qualified her support for the generals’ letter with the words, “I think these problems can be resolved by a political project that is validated by the French in a democratic framework.” In other words, by voting for her in the presidential election.

Far-right Rassemblement National (RN) party’s president Marine Le Pen qualified her support for the generals’ letter: “I think these problems can be resolved by a political project that is validated by the French in a democratic framework.” Photograph: Ludovic Marin/AFP

On Wednesday, the chief of staff of the armed forces, Gen François Lecointre, announced that 18 signatories who were active duty officers would be disciplined.

The Harris Interactive poll indicated that 58 per cent of the population agree with the message of the generals’ letter, though a majority do not want a military takeover.

Le Pen’s support for the generals destroyed years of efforts to improve the image of the far right, says Pieyre-Alexandre Anglade, a deputy in the National Assembly for Macron’s La République en Marche and spokesman for the party in the last European elections. “She has shown that she is exactly like her father. She is from the anti-republican, brutal extreme right,” he said.

Marine Le Pen

Polls indicate Macron would win 54 per cent of the vote in a presidential run-off, against 46 per cent for Le Pen. That represents a 12-point gain for Le Pen – and a 12-point decline for Macron – since 2017.

“It has never been so possible that Marine Le Pen could win,” says Natacha Polony, the director of Marianne magazine and a frequent commentator on French television. “A Le Pen victory is possible now because part of the left will refuse to vote for Macron in the run-off, and because she no longer frightens some people . . . The only certainty is people feel no matter what they do, the same policies are always adopted . . . This country is filled with anger, resentment and frustration, and when that doesn’t find an outlet, it’s very dangerous.”

Polony agrees that the French electorate has always been angry, but says this time is different. The gilets jaunes movement was unprecedented. “People want to kill cops now, which is new. And people who have spent 10 or 15 years in France are taking up arms because they hate this country. That too is new. You cannot say it’s always been like this. There is no means of structuring this anger.”

Three-quarters of the French electorate do not want a repeat of the Macron-Le Pen run-off, which could open the way for a third contender. The French left is decimated, so that candidate would almost certainly come from the conservative party Les Républicains.

Campaign mode

The conservative former prime minister Edouard Philippe is the most popular politician in France at the moment – Marine Le Pen is second most popular – but “politicians are always popular when they are out of power”, Polony notes. Philippe will not challenge Macron. That leaves the LR politicians Xavier Bertrand and Valérie Pécresse, both presidents of French regions, and Michel Barnier, who negotiated the EU’s Brexit agreement with the UK. None of them has yet gained sufficient support to challenge Macron.

As he moves into election campaign mode, Macron’s advantages are four years’ experience at the Élysée, and the weakness of his adversaries. And he will likely benefit from France’s presidency of the EU in the first half of 2022. “Presidents and prime ministers often stop reforming and transforming in the run-up to elections,” Anglade says. “This French presidency [of the EU] is an opportunity for the president to remain active and in charge until the end of his term.”

Anglade calls Europe “a pillar of Emmanuel Macron’s political identity”. He sees the €750 billion EU recovery fund, which was pushed through by Macron and German chancellor Angela Merkel, as one of Macron’s greatest achievements. And the EU’s adoption of a common programme for the distribution of Covid-19 vaccines was the realisation of Macron’s concept of shared EU sovereignty, he says.

Macron will travel to Strasbourg on Europe Day, Sunday, May 9th, for the launch of another of his initiatives, the Conference on the Future of Europe.