The battle for the soul of France

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More than any other French presidential election in living memory, this one, ending on 7 May, is a battle for the soul of France. Its outcome will reverberate throughout Europe, the Eurozone and the world. Even in the still-likely – though by no means certain – event that Marine Le Pen loses, the country has revealed itself to be so fractured, so bitterly divided, that the months and years ahead promise verbal and probably physical clashes between partisans of the left, right and centre.

Marine Le Pen, no doubt aided by Russian-funded alt-right internet trolls, is currently winning the PR war, aided by her decision to step down from the presidency of the Front National, and a neat bit of rebranding. Her second-round campaign poster shows her perched on a desk, a bit of knee coquettishly peeking out from her shortish skirt, against a background showing a well-stocked bookcase. She looks more intellectual, less stout and more feminine than usual, perhaps thanks to Photoshop (her supposed “lack of femininity” has apparently been putting off some potential voters, particularly middle-aged women).

Her protectionist “France First” programme, promising a Frexit and a return to the franc, attracts voters of all ages from the northern and eastern industrial heartlands of France, and her anti-immigration rhetoric appeals to white supremacist voters, many clustered round the southern cities of Nice and Marseilles. Thursday’s announcement during a radio interview by one of the vice presidents of the FN, Florian Phillipot, that they plan to ban ritual slaughter, meaning an end to both kosher and halal meat in France, will certainly appeal to the latter.

More interestingly, in a clear attempt to endear herself beyond her hyper-nationalist loyal voter base, she announced in a television interview this week that she considers herself to be “European”. Her strategy seems to be working; she has risen 6 points in the polls since last week’s first round, dangerously narrowing the gap with Emmanuel Macron, with another week to go. She has already gone through the 35 per cent ceiling that pundits predicted for her. If this trajectory continues, she might win.

Aiding her, albeit by omission, are frustrated supporters of the leftist Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who received just under 20 per cent of the vote in the first round. Mélenchon has refused to advise his supporters to back Macron, and social media is awash with claims that the “ultra liberal” Macron is no less evil than the neo-fascist Le Pen. The hard left rhetoric is frightening, the maddened expression of a desperate, angry nihilism.

The loudest, and strangest, argument on the left against voting for Macron is that a President Macron would reinforce Marine Le Pen, who will then be bound to gain power in the 2022 elections. Given that if Macron loses that means that Le Pen wins next week, this makes literally no sense. As philosopher Raphaël Enthoven pointed out on Twitter, it’s like committing suicide because you are afraid to die. It is hard not to wonder if some from the far left are actively hoping to see Le Pen become president. What a wonderful justification for another long-awaited, bloody revolution!

Meanwhile Sens Commun, a right wing traditionalist Catholic movement, has also refused to back Macron in the second round. “We believe that the programmes proposed by both candidates will be devastating for our country”, they announced in a communiqué, calling on their followers to “follow their conscience”. Strongly opposed to President Holland’s introduction of the gay marriage bill and hoping to roll back abortion rights, this anti-progressive movement was one of the principle backers of François Fillon (who himself immediately called for his supporters to back Macron in the second round), and had informally been promised a place on the Les Républicains’ list if he won the election. Might a tragic collusion between the hard left and the Catholic right be what Marine Le Pen needs to win?

Macron’s active support for European integration, and his vision of France as open to the world, is widely caricatured on both left and right as at best empty rhetoric, at worst the expression of a pure neo-liberalism which will advantage only the elites, leaving the workers worse off than ever. He is routinely labelled – with the kind of dog-whistle antisemitism that is barely noticed in all the mayhem – “the Rothschild candidate”. (I can’t help feeling that “the HSBC candidate” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.) To be able to quell the angry voices opposing him from all sides he needs not just to win, but to win with a convincing majority.

Most Jews will be voting for Macron; they share his values for an open, tolerant, forward-looking France. And Jews have a long memory. Three quarters of a century ago fascism ripped apart the country’s soul. The Front National’s new interim president, Jean-François Jalkh, who joined the party aged 17 when it was founded in 1974, is on record for his belief that Zyklon B could not have been used to kill Jews and for his approval of the work of disgraced Holocaust denier Robert Faurisson. Twitter exploded with news of the appointment, and Le Pen, still mindful of her attempts to “dediabolise” her party, fired Jalkh on Friday afternoon. But even Jalkh’s four-day tenure as president is a reminder that anti-Semitism and holocaust denial are integral to the party and that many of her closest aides are shamelessly nostalgic for the Third Reich.

The stakes are high for everyone, in France and beyond. Two weeks in politics has never felt so long.

This Plus61J article may be republished with this acknowledgement: ‘Reprinted with permission from www.plus61j.net.au

And see: ‘But is it good for the Jews’?

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About Author

Natasha Lehrer

Natasha Lehrer is literary editor of the 'Jewish Quarterly' and was a judge for the 2017 JQ-Wingate Prize. She writes long form journalism and literary criticism for the 'Guardian', the 'Times Literary Supplement', 'The Nation', and 'Haaretz', amongst others. She won the 2016 Scott Moncrieff Translation Prize for 'Suite for Barbara Loden', by Nathalie Léger. She lives in Paris.

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