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Leader: the French national crisis

All of the candidates – even Fillon, a socially conservative Thatcherite – can claim to represent change. Yet none appears capable of embodying what de Gaulle called “l’esprit de la nation”.

In 1958, as France reeled from the Algerian War, Charles de Gaulle established the Fifth Republic, creating the role of an all-powerful president. On the eve of its 60th anniversary, the Fifth Republic is in crisis. Economic stagnation, terrorism, a revolt against globalisation and a hatred of elites have destabilised France. “Our country is ill,” said the former prime minister Alain Juppé in a speech in March. “Resistant to reforms that it knows are necessary, angry with its political elites but susceptible to demagogic promises, it is experiencing today a terrible crisis of confidence.” With both the far right and the far left surging, the incumbent Socialist president, François Hollande, did not dare to stand in this month’s election, perhaps the most important in France since the Second World War.

The 2017 election has been among the most tumultuous in France’s history. Neither of the two early front-runners  – Marine Le Pen of the far-right Front National and the centrist Emmanuel Macron, running under the banner of the En Marche! movement (“Onward!”) – was drawn from the conventional governing parties. A third contender, the radical left-winger Jean-Luc Mélenchon, has similarly emerged from outside the political establishment. The greatest, perhaps sole, point of unity is a revulsion against the status quo.

Successive presidents have vowed to transform the country and have failed. Unemployment is at 10 per cent and among the youth the figure is an appalling 24 per cent. Horrific terrorist attacks in Paris and Nice have exacerbated fraught community relations. Mr Hollande, who cuts a tragicomic figure, has proved profoundly unequal to such challenges.

As voters prepare for the first round of the election, Marine Le Pen remains strong. The Front National leader has exploited jihadist attacks and France’s secularist tradition to demonise French Muslims. She has pledged to reduce immigration to a mere 10,000 per year and to seek EU withdrawal if Brussels does not accept her demands for the abandonment of the euro and the passport-free Schengen Area.

By also pledging to increase welfare spending and to reduce the retirement age to 60, she has attracted former Socialist and Communist voters aggrieved by years of economic decline. Though Ms Le Pen has sought to distance the Front National from its fascist and anti-Semitic roots (expelling her Holocaust-denying father from the party he once led), the mask routinely slips. On 9 April, she denied that the French state was responsible for the wartime round-up of more than 13,000 Jews at the Vel’ d’Hiv cycling track in Paris. That she remains a conceivable victor – and the most popular candidate among younger voters – is a mark of France’s malaise.

For liberals, Ms Le Pen’s rise – like the Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s election – is cause for dismay. But Mr Macron’s emergence has provided consolation. The former merchant banker and economy minister bypassed the established party structures by declining to seek the Socialist candidacy and founding his own movement. Aged 39, he is charismatic and confident. He is an unapologetic defender of globalisation, the EU, the eurozone and open borders and is determined to match the boldness and self-confidence of the populist right.

Although the Socialist candidate, Benoît Hamon, has distinguished himself with proposals such as a 32-hour working week and a tax on robots, his association with Mr Hollande has marooned him. As a former member of the ancien régime, he may prove an inadequate representative of change.

The recent surge by the Communist-backed Mr Mél­enchon reflects a desire for a still greater upheaval. His bold interventionism (including a 100 per cent top-rate income tax) and hard Euroscepticism appeal to the disenchanted. More than any other candidate, he stands for fundamental constitutional change through the establishment of a Sixth Republic and a significant reduction in the powers of the presidency.

Yet so open and unpredictable is the contest that even the mainstream centre-right candidate for the Républicains, François Fillon, under investigation for alleged misuse of public funds, has a chance of making the final round.

All of the candidates – even Mr Fillon, a socially conservative Thatcherite – can claim to represent change. Yet none appears capable of embodying what de Gaulle called “l’esprit de la nation”. Victory for Mr Macron, who is committed to liberal economic reform (a hazardous path) and to the EU establishment, risks fuelling yet more discontent. 

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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Stephen Hawking's enthusiasm for colonising space makes him almost as bad as Trump

The physicist's inistence on mankind's expansion risks making him a handmaiden of inequality.

“Spreading out may be the only thing that saves us from ourselves,” Stephen Hawking has warned. And he’s not just talking about surviving the UK's recent run of record breaking heat. If humanity doesn’t start sending people to Mars soon, then in a few hundred years he says we can all expect to be kaput; there just isn’t enough space for us all.

The theoretical physicist gave his address to the glittering Starmus Festival of science and arts in Norway. According to the BBC, he argued that climate change and the depletion of natural resources help make space travel essential. With this in mind, he would like to see a mission to Mars by 2025 and a new lunar base within 30 years.

He even took a swipe at Donald Trump: “I am not denying the importance of fighting climate change and global warming, unlike Donald Trump, who may just have taken the most serious, and wrong, decision on climate change this world has seen.”

Yet there are striking similarities between Hawking's statement and the President's bombast. For one thing there was the context in which it was made - an address to a festival dripping with conspicuous consumption, where 18 carat gold OMEGA watches were dished out as prizes.

More importantly there's the inescapable reality that space colonisation is an inherently elitist affair: under Trump you may be able to pay your way out of earthly catastrophe, while for Elon Musk, brawn could be a deciding advantage, given he wants his early settlers on Mars to be able to dredge up buried ice.

Whichever way you divide it up, it is unlikely that everyone will be able to RightMove their way to a less crowded galaxy. Hell, most people can’t even make it to Starmus itself (€800  for a full price ticket), where the line-up of speakers is overwhelmingly white and male.

So while this obsession with space travel has a certain nobility, it also risks elevating earthly inequalities to an interplanetary scale.

And although Hawking is right to call out Trump on climate change, the concern that space travel diverts money from saving earth's ecosystems still stands. 

In a context where the American government is upping NASA’s budget for manned space flights at the same time as it cuts funds for critical work observing the changes on earth, it is imperative that the wider science community stands up against this worrying trend.

Hawking's enthusiasm for colonising the solar system risks playing into the hands of the those who share the President destructive views on the climate, at the expense of the planet underneath us.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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