The French easily embrace contradiction and chaos. It’s what makes their politics work: “Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose,” and they said it first: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” The Sunday national election in France proved it again.
The two established political parties finished far out of the money, and Immanuel Macron, the new front-runner, is a banker who is the preferred candidate of the current Socialist president, Francois Hollande, who is so unpopular that he was the first president not to stand for re-election since World War II. He was so unpopular, in fact, that he didn’t publicly endorse M. Macron lest it be the kiss of death.
M. Macron polled 24 percent of the vote in the first round, barely 2 percent more than Marine Le Pen, the most charismatic candidate but who is counted out in the May 7 run-off because she is thought to be too far to the right of everybody else. The only left-wing candidate thought to have a chance to make the run-off was Jean-Luc Melenchon, who wanted to lead France out of the European Union and NATO and join Cuba and Venezuela and Cuba in something called the “Bolivarian Alliance.” In addition to chaotic, French politics can be ideologically nuts.
Everybody counts Marine Le Pen out, and conventional wisdom is often but not always wrong. The public-opinion polls were wrong in predicting the outcome of the referendum of the British vote to leave the European Union, and of course spectacularly, dramatically, comically, farcically, tragically (pick your adjective) and famously wrong in crowning Hillary Clinton the first woman as president of the United States.
The closest thing to a “normal,” i.e., conventional, candidate was Francois Fillon, a former prime minister who posed as a disciple of Maggie Thatcher and who was nevertheless regarded by many of the elites as respectable enough. But there were skeletons in his closet and he couldn’t keep the closet door shut. Scandal followed scandal. There’s a current investigation now in the juiciest of these, his paying of more than $1 million in government money to his wife and others in his family who were hired as “parliamentary assistants.” He didn’t even have to teach them to type.
In the end, he emerged as the status-quo candidate of an electorate yearning for someone to upset the status quo. He’s young, energetic and attractive, and naturally compared to the icon of charisma, John F. Kennedy. JFK was a long time ago, but political writers on both sides of the Atlantic are fond of cliches.
M. Macron goes into the run-off with Marine Le Pen all but staggering under great expectations and good wishes of “respectable” institutions and individuals who are terrified of Madame Le Pen and what would be the “deplorables” of Hillaryworld. Nice people don’t let nice people vote for candidates who aren’t very nice, neither here nor there. Lightning of a rare and serious kind would have to strike and lightning in France is not like the lightning of what the French, with a sneer, call “the Anglo-Saxons.” In the French vernacular, everyone else, like it or not, are “Anglo-Saxons.”
But the French world, like the world of everyone else, has been turned upside down, and making sense of elections is difficult. The usual beliefs and values of ordinary Frenchmen — the certainty that French culture, the verities of the permanently true, the very ideal of French citizenship — have been called into question. One inquirer into the nooks and shadows of the French election campaign, Charlie Cook of City Journal, writes that ordinary Frenchmen he encountered were reluctant to talk about politics lest they fall into the “many trapdoors of political conversation,” especially voters of the National Front.
That would be the party of Marine Le Pen, who has made talking about the forbidden in polite parlors possible for the brave and daring. She campaigns boldly in defense of borders and national identity, opposes the mass migration that is strangling French identity, and national sovereignty and the transfer the authority of national governments to international bodies.
These are the values and considerations that the elites, in France as in Britain and the United States, don’t want to talk about and don’t want anyone else to talk about. Silence won’t make them go away, but the wealthy and the well-connected can still live lives oblivious to things unpleasant.
Madame Le Pen will make a lot of these people very uncomfortable over the next fortnight, if in the end she cannot shake her father’s rough reputation written in a presidential campaign before hers. But the deplorables of France, like the deplorables in America, are not going away. Other seasons will produce other candidates. Things must change to stay the same.
• Wesley Pruden is editor in chief emeritus of The Times.