Francois Hollande, the French president. Photo: Getty Images
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Trouble for Hollande from the Right and the Left

On yesterday's French legislative elections.

 

Yesterday saw a record low level of participation (48.31 per cent) in France's legislative elections as 6,500 candidates campaigned for 577 seats. People headed to the booths to choose between an average of ten candidates, including a number of smaller fringe parties such as the Pirate party and the Blank vote party, which reflect the broader European tendency towards a balkanisation of politics.

Despite tepid public interest in the elections, their outcome could have a significant impact on the government and its ability to undertake its agenda, which includes raising taxes on the wealthiest, tougher measures to regulate the finance sector, the creation of 60,000 new jobs in education over the next five years, reducing the deficit to 3 per cent by 2017 and outlining a new Franco-German treaty. The high level of abstention increased the number of "three ways" in the second round on 17 June, whereby three candidates reach the second round and which traditionally sees the formation of alliances to achieve a majority, a situation in which smaller parties can become King-markers. Such an outcome is likely to favour Hollande's Socialist party (PS) which already has a national alliance with the Ecology party and a less formal agreement with the Far-Left. 

The party which wins the presidential elections traditionally achieves a majority in the national assembly, a result which could see the Left dominate all the major government institutions and consolidate Hollande's power. Whether the PS will have to be drawn into a coalition with the anti-capitalist Far-Left in order to achieve that majority will determine its ability to manoeuvre subsequently and could further complicate negotiations with European partners on the already thorny issue of austerity, just as Spain has conceded a bailout. Leader of the Leftist Front, Melenchon, who wants a "citizen revolution", has previously expressed his desire to weaken the Right in France in order to create a precedent for Leftist policies in Europe, starting with Greece, which will vote straight after France and Germany, set to vote in October. Such a prospect has Layla and Florian, a young Parisian couple and Melenchon supporters, enthused. They claim the Leftist Front offers a way out of this "corrupt and unjust capitalist system" and reflects the only real alternative: "We don't need three cars or big houses - the current system means the middle class and the elite get richer whilst the poor get left behind - we need a revolution." But their conviction the Far-Left can resolve France or even Europe's problems, is far from unanimous. An elderly couple queuing at the polling office tell me they're concerned there could be a "return" of the communists, as occurred under the government of Leon Blum in 1936, which they recall was marked by "near constant strikes". After casting a vote for the UMP, they praise Le Pen's views on immigration, but say their memory of the war and "the fratricide which occurred" means they would not contemplate voting for an anti-EU party. 

The elections have highlighted tensions with the UMP, which suffered significant losses, over its ideological outlook and strategy . The traditional UMP alliance with Centre right parties has been negatively affected by the poor showing of Francois Bayrou's ModDem party, as well as by the rise of the Far-Right, which has drained some of its electorate. Since the departure of Sarkozy, the party has been embroiled in a power struggle between Party leader hopefuls and the public squabbling has served the interests of the National Front, which seeks to position itself as the "New Right". Despite some pressure from its base to form UMP-FN alliances to keep the PS at bay, the UMP has so far resisted such a move, with Alain Juppé warning of the dangers of an alliance with a party which seeks to weaken the Right, in order to subsume it. But MP for the Gironde and representative of the UMP's right wing, Jean-Paul Garraud, has called on the party to move beyond an "ideological blockage" for pragmatic reasons and unite with the FN, a strategy which though officially denounced, may end up being reflected on the ground. The pressure to concede it even more accute in light of the thirty two "three ways" in which the FN remains present for the second round.

A UMP-FN alliance, though grounded in electoral concerns, also reflects Marine Le Pen's success in transforming the image of her father's party, distancing herself from his racist and anti-semitic rants through a focus on anti-EU rhetoric and economic protectionism, coated in xenophobia. The FN, which achieved almost 18 per cent in the Presidential elections, has traditionally failed to gain seats in the National Assembly - a fact that reflects both an element of protest vote in its score at the Presidential election and the higher levels of abstention in local elections, which disproportionately affects smaller parties. Yesterday, it achieved 13.77 per cent of the votes; a three fold increase on its 2007 showing in the legislatives elections then, through considerably lower than its score in May's election. In the second round the FN may achieve between 0-5 MPs, under the banner of the "Marine blue gathering", a symbolic gain which reflects the growth of the Far-right in Europe and which would undoubtedly negatively impact France's Muslim citizens.

While it looks likely Hollande will get his socialist majority parliament, the chorus of anti-austerity voices from both the Far-Left and the Far-right, which may be rewarded with a parliamentary presence, will complicate his ability to act against the significant challenges faced, including 10 per cent unemployment, sluggish growth, a lack of competitiveness and a massive deficit. Despite the lack of enthusiasm for them, these elections will have a decisive impact on France's policies and given its place in Europe, on the very nature of European policy.

 

Myriam Francois-Cerrah is a freelance journalist and broadcaster (France, Middle East and North Africa, Islam) and a DPhil candidate in Middle Eastern studies at Oxford University.

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France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt