The days of grandeur are over

Whoever wins France's presidential elections will enjoy more power than any other western leader. Ex

Tony Blair has had pretty much of a free hand to act. The job of British prime minister offers the freedom to chalk up personal triumphs, but also to get things horribly wrong. All on one's own. Now look across the Channel. The personal dominance allotted to the winner of France's presidential elections far exceeds even that which Gordon Brown is about to inherit.

It's hard to think of any politician in the western world who can look forward to wielding greater personal power than either Nicolas Sarkozy or Ségolène Royal, one of whom - this is a safe-ish prediction - will shortly occupy the Élysée Palace. True, Jacques Chirac looks anything but omnipotent as he limps to the end of his mandate. But that is because he has lacked the legitimacy which Sarkozy or Royal will have: he brought his own fate on himself by sacking parliament, then winning re-election by a strange landslide that was no reflection of his popularity because the run-off opponent he faced was the far right's aged prince of xenophobia, Jean-Marie Le Pen, with whom four in five voters wouldn't share a baguette.

With a "clean" victory and a supportive parliament likely to be elected in its wake, the new winner will rule alone, as indeed General de Gaulle's constitution recommends. This isn't the place to ask why parliament accepts its sorry back seat (which both Sarko and Ségo talk of upgrading). Consider, rather, how the winner will confront the world. For though the president may feel some constraints on his domestic policy, international affairs are a strictly personal business - a "presidential preserve", as François Mitterrand put it in huntmaster's language.

On Europe, the conservative Sarkozy is the more enthusiastic about political union. He wants a slimmed-down EU constitution, and to have it ratified by parliament, so as not to give his pesky compatriots another chance to sink it by referendum. And sorry, Turkey, you are not Europe. "Limitless enlargement risks destroying European political union and I shall not accept it." Royal would put a constitution to another referendum, as long as it guarantees welfare programmes - which Sarkozy cares less about.

Rude young man

There was a revealing moment, during a distant tiff over EU farm policy, when Chirac remembered the superior dignity of his post and called Blair "a very rude young man". Brown won't face such savaging. Sarkozy, though a loose canon of repute, is embarrassingly impressed by the UK's economic record. In this campaign he plays the "English candidate", referring to Britain's low unemployment, the way les Anglais handle problems, the free-market liberalism of the Thatcher-Blair-Brown school. Iraq is not part of his passion for all things English, of course, but he regularly responds to questions with: "When I was in London . . ."

Indeed, the nervy, impulsive Sarkozy looks an easier pal for PM Brown than the serene Royal who, despite sharing Brown's basic Labour beliefs, unselfconsciously names Joan of Arc as her role model. This could be a little troublesome. Her new-found nationalism isn't all electoral strategy: a switch to singing "La Marseillaise" in place of the customary socialist "Internationale" at campaign meetings, and her appeal to the French to hang out the Tricolour from their homes on national holidays, do suggest a Maid of Orléans streak.

The change at the Élysée will surely have its main - salutary - effect on the greatest rupture seen in transatlantic relations in many decades. The rift and mutual resentment between George Bush's America and France over Iraq has focused on the diverging world philosophies of the US and continental Europe. But Sarkozy is an Atlanticist, at one with the American way in many things, if not in the matter of the Middle East war. He is probably right when he says he can speak to America as a friend, and tell it the truth when he thinks it is wrong. Unlike Chirac, he has the language to do so. For her part, Royal should generally see eye to eye with a Democratic US president, though the good times forecast for a love-in with Hillary Clinton may be exaggerated. There must be a reason why these two strong-minded women have refrained from meeting each other.

Sarko and Ségo present themselves as new. They want to appear new to the world, as well as to France. How will their newness show itself? I sense that it will be something quite profound in its way - a departure from the French obsession with grandeur.

Grandeur doesn't go with Sarko's personality or (I shall be in trouble for this) with Ségo's womanhood and her insistent self-identification with everyday French motherhood, to which even Joan of Arc takes second place. This could be good news for world diplomacy. Even in Africa, where preceding residents of the Élysée from de Gaulle onwards have run shady private networks to impose their political will, French grandeur is not always a benediction.

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2007 issue of the New Statesman, France: Vive la différence?

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The French millennials marching behind Marine Le Pen

A Front National rally attracts former socialists with manicured beards, and a lesbian couple. 

“In 85 days, Marine will be President of the French Republic!” The 150-strong crowd cheered at the sound of the words. On stage, the speaker, the vice-president of the far-right Front National (FN), Florian Philippot, continued: “We will be told that it’s the apocalypse, by the same banks, media, politicians, who were telling the British that Brexit would be an immediate catastrophe.

"Well, they voted, and it’s not! The British are much better off than we are!” The applause grew louder and louder. 

I was in the medieval city of Metz, in a municipal hall near the banks of the Moselle River, a tributary of the Rhine from which the region takes its name. The German border lies 49km east; Luxembourg City is less than an hour’s drive away. This is the "Country of the Three Borders", equidistant from Strasbourg and Frankfurt, and French, German and French again after various wars. Yet for all that local history is deeply rooted in the wider European history, votes for the Front National rank among the highest nationally, and continue to rise at every poll. 

In rural Moselle, “Marine”, as the Front National leader Marine Le Pen is known, has an envoy. In 2014, the well-spoken, elite-educated Philippot, 35, ran for mayor in Forbach, a former miner’s town near the border. He lost to the Socialist candidate but has visited regularly since. Enough for the locals to call him “Florian".

I grew up in a small town, Saint-Avold, halfway between Metz and Forbach. When my grandfather was working in the then-prosperous coal mines, the Moselle region attracted many foreign workers. Many of my fellow schoolmates bore Italian and Polish surnames. But the last mine closed in 2004, and now, some of the immigrants’ grandchildren are voting for the National Front.

Returning, I can't help but wonder: How did my generation, born with the Maastricht treaty, end up turning to the Eurosceptic, hard right FN?

“We’ve seen what the other political parties do – it’s always the same. We must try something else," said Candice Bertrand, 23, She might not be part of the group asking Philippot for selfies, but she had voted FN at every election, and her family agreed. “My mum was a Communist, then voted for [Nicolas] Sarkozy, and now she votes FN. She’s come a long way.”  The way, it seemed, was political distrust.

Minutes earlier, Philippot had pleaded with the audience to talk to their relatives and neighbours. Bertrand had brought her girlfriend, Lola, whom she was trying to convince to vote FN.  Lola wouldn’t give her surname – her strongly left-wing family would “certainly not” like to know she was there. She herself had never voted.

This infuriated Bertrand. “Women have fought for the right to vote!” she declared. Daily chats with Bertrand and her family had warmed up Lola to voting Le Pen in the first round, although not yet in the second. “I’m scared of a major change,” she confided, looking lost. “It’s a bit too extreme.” Both were too young to remember 2002, when a presidential victory for the then-Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, was only a few percentage points away.

Since then, under the leadership of his daughter, Marine, the FN has broken every record. But in this region, the FN’s success isn’t new. In 2002, when liberal France was shocked to see Le Pen reach the second round of the presidential election, the FN was already sailing in Moselle. Le Pen grabbed 23.7 per cent of the Moselle vote in the first round and 21.9 per cent in the second, compared to 16.9 per cent and 17.8 per cent nationally. 

The far-right vote in Moselle remained higher than the national average before skyrocketing in 2012. By then, the younger, softer-looking Marine had taken over the party. In that year, the FN won an astonishing 24.7 per cent of the Moselle vote, and 17.8 per cent nationwide.

For some people of my generation, the FN has already provided opportunities. With his manicured beard and chic suit, Emilien Noé still looks like the Young Socialist he was between 16 and 18 years old. But looks can be deceiving. “I have been disgusted by the internal politics at the Socialist Party, the lack of respect for the low-ranked campaigners," he told me. So instead, he stood as the FN’s youngest national candidate to become mayor in his village, Gosselming, in 2014. “I entered directly into action," he said. (He lost). Now, at just 21, Noé is the FN’s youth coordinator for Eastern France.

Metz, Creative Commons licence credit Morgaine

Next to him stood Kevin Pfeiffer, 27. He told me he used to believe in the Socialist ideal, too - in 2007, as a 17-year-old, he backed Ségolène Royal against Sarkozy. But he is now a FN local councillor and acts as the party's general co-ordinator in the region. Both Noé and Pfeiffer radiated a quiet self-confidence, the sort that such swift rises induces. They shared a deep respect for the young-achiever-in-chief: Philippot. “We’re young and we know we can have perspectives in this party without being a graduate of l’ENA,” said another activist, Olivier Musci, 24. (The elite school Ecole Nationale d’Administration, or ENA, is considered something of a mandatory finishing school for politicians. It counts Francois Hollande and Jacques Chirac among its alumni. Ironically, Philippot is one, too.)

“Florian” likes to say that the FN scores the highest among the young. “Today’s youth have not grown up in a left-right divide”, he told me when I asked why. “The big topics, for them, were Maastricht, 9/11, the Chinese competition, and now Brexit. They have grown up in a political world structured around two poles: globalism versus patriotism.” Notably, half his speech was dedicated to ridiculing the FN's most probably rival, the maverick centrist Emmanuel Macron. “It is a time of the nations. Macron is the opposite of that," Philippot declared. 

At the rally, the blue, red and white flame, the FN’s historic logo, was nowhere to be seen. Even the words “Front National” had deserted the posters, which were instead plastered with “in the name of the people” slogans beneath Marine’s name and large smile. But everyone wears a blue rose at the buttonhole. “It’s the synthesis between the left’s rose and the right’s blue colour”, Pfeiffer said. “The symbol of the impossible becoming possible.” So, neither left nor right? I ask, echoing Macron’s campaign appeal. “Or both left and right”, Pfeiffer answered with a grin.

This nationwide rebranding follows years of efforts to polish the party’s jackass image, forged by decades of xenophobic, racist and anti-Semitic declarations by Le Pen Sr. His daughter evicted him from the party in 2015.

Still, Le Pen’s main pledges revolve around the same issue her father obsessed over - immigration. The resources spent on "dealing with migrants" will, Le Pen promises, be redirected to address the concerns of "the French people". Unemployment, which has been hovering at 10 per cent for years, is very much one of them. Moselle's damaged job market is a booster for the FN - between 10 and 12 per cent of young people are unemployed.

Yet the two phenomena cannot always rationally be linked. The female FN supporters I met candidly admitted they drove from France to Luxembourg every day for work and, like many locals, often went shopping in Germany. Yet they hoped to see the candidate of “Frexit” enter the Elysee palace in May. “We've never had problems to work in Luxembourg. Why would that change?” asked Bertrand. (Le Pen's “144 campaign pledges” promise frontier workers “special measures” to cross the border once out of the Schengen area, which sounds very much like the concept of the Schengen area itself.)

Grégoire Laloux, 21, studied history at the University of Metz. He didn't believe in the European Union. “Countries have their own interests. There are people, but no European people,” he said. “Marine is different because she defends patriotism, sovereignty, French greatness and French history.” He compared Le Pen to Richelieu, the cardinal who made Louis XIV's absolute monarchy possible:  “She, too, wants to build a modern state.”

French populists are quick to link the country's current problems to immigration, and these FN supporters were no exception. “With 7m poor and unemployed, we can't accept all the world's misery,” Olivier Musci, 24, a grandchild of Polish and Italian immigrants, told me. “Those we welcome must serve the country and be proud to be here.”

Lola echoed this call for more assimilation. “At our shopping centre, everyone speaks Arabic now," she said. "People have spat on us, thrown pebbles at us because we're lesbians. But I'm in my country and I have the right to do what I want.” When I asked if the people who attacked them were migrants, she was not so sure. “Let's say, they weren't white.”

Trump promised to “Make America Great Again”. To where would Le Pen's France return? Would it be sovereign again? White again? French again? Ruled by absolutism again? She has blurred enough lines to seduce voters her father never could – the young, the gay, the left-wingers. At the end of his speech, under the rebranded banners, Philippot invited the audience to sing La Marseillaise with him. And in one voice they did: “To arms citizens! Form your battalions! March, march, let impure blood, water our furrows...” The song is the same as the one I knew growing up. But it seemed to me, this time, a more sinister tune.