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What I learned from the French presidential campaign

A last-minute attack, as many feared, can change everything.

A familiar feeling of tedium was settling in on Thursday night, as my friends and I watched the last TV event before the first round of the French election, held this Sunday. Instead of a never-ending debate with the 11 candidates, this time each candidate had ten minutes to defend their policies. All the same, the event was expected to run to four hours and 32 minutes. After the hard-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon showed the alarm clock he had brought (because it is “time to wake up”), we were, quite ironically, falling asleep.

But around 9pm, something woke us up. Scanning through tweets, I spotted a news alert: “Shooting on the Champs-Elysées.” A policeman had died. My French friend and I looked at each other. It had started again – the dread, the speculation on social media, the comments from politicians, the inevitable recovery from yet another (possibly terrorist) attack. That feeling, too, is now a familiar one.

Last night’s events have shaken what was left of a hectic, infuriating campaign marked by scandals, extraordinary uncertainty and growing resentment towards the French political system. The Champs-Élysées shooting happened on the eve of the last day of campaigning. The conservative François Fillon and the hard-right Marine Le Pen both decided to cancel their events on Friday to hold press briefings instead. However, this meant they were effectively using the events on the Champs-Élysées as a last means of getting their message across. We need more security – vote for me.

By contrast, when news about the shooting filtered into the live TV debate, the centrist Emmanual Macron seemed to try too hard to look presidential, especially compared to Fillon, who channelled his real-life prime ministerial experience.

As my colleague Stephen made clear this morning, it’s Marine Le Pen who benefits from such security scares. But the changed mood could mean it's Fillon, rather than the great liberal hope Macron, who will face her in the run-off. It would be only logical to see the big crowds of undecided voters warm to an experienced conservative with a strong stance on security.

If it’s Fillon-Le Pen indeed, then my first lesson learned on the campaign trail in 2017 will be to never underestimate the voters’ fear – and the candidates’ capacity to play with it. As for lesson number two?

Accusations of rampant corruption will not bury a candidate. Apparently.

Only in March, I was charting Fillon's descent into scandal over multiple accusations of fraud and misuse of public money. It looked like his decision to cling on to his hopes of the presidency was an ego trip that could ruin his centre-right party. He is polling at 21 per cent, with Mélenchon on 18 and Macron on 23, all within the 2-3 point margin of error acknowledged by pollsters.

Fillon is is now on 21 per cent, with Mélenchon on 18 per cent and Macron on 23 per cent, again all within the 2-3 point margin of error used by most pollsters. Against Le Pen, all polls suggest Fillon would be victorious – a scenario now ridiculously plausible.

“So it’ll be Fillon-Le Pen, and Fillon will win,” was our conclusion last night. What a humiliation if France elects the candidate being investigated over allegations of misusing half a million euros of public money. He is even said to be ready to “pay the money back” if elected – an offer that sounds uncannily like a confession. (“Rends l’argent”, meaning “Pay the money back”, has become a meme used against Fillon on social media and on his campaign trail.)

Old French political parties are dying and must come to terms with rapidly changing times.

Fillon may win, but his party, and the centre-left party of the Socialist Benoît Hamon, have lost. The campaign has been fought by independents, from the loud “anti-elite” Le Pen and Macron’s personality-cult movement En Marche! to Mélenchon’s late but powerful Corbyn-like grass-roots movement. Big historical divides of left and right have been rejected by Macron and Le Pen, who both claim to be “neither left nor right”. Even if Fillon, the embodiment of the old politics, wins, he’ll be the last one from the country’s main parties.

Marine will rule France. In the meantime, her agenda will rule everything else.

Le Pen is not playing a short-term game. When her father reached the second round in 2002, I was eight years old. I remember an Italian friend at school saying goodbye to everyone – her parents had planned to move if he won. I grew up seeing his jackass party turning into her nationalist machine. It is hard to see an end to her rule, if only on the ideological front. Le Pen cannot really lose: each campaign she fights is a step closer to the goal and I am now certain nothing can stop her but herself. It will take a Front National presidency to defeat the Front National, for it to go full circle and replace the elite political entities it is now denouncing as out of tune.

There's one last feeling I know I'll come to regard as very familiar – and that's the feeling of grief I'll get seeing Marine Le Pen reach the second round.

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Donald Trump's cartoon nuclear rhetoric draws on a culture of American jingoism

Senior Republicans avoided condemning Trump's incendiary speech, and some endorsed it. 

From recent headlines, it seems as though Donald Trump isn't content with his Emmy-by-proxy. The US president told the United Nations General Assembly this week: “The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.” Trump’s speech raised eyebrows for its bellicose tone, especially when contrasted with his predecessor’s endorsement of a war-averse approach. 

A widely circulated image of Trump's chief of staff John Kelly with his head in his hand might suggest that most listeners loathed the speech. But Trump said many outrageous things on the campaign trail and voters - at least a critical number of them - agreed. So how did his words go down at home? 

My contacts in international security were unwilling to go on the record condemning it. They were mainly Americans in their twenties, hoping for a government job one day, and fearful of saying anything that could be interpreted as "un-American".

The one person who would speak to me asked for their name to withheld. A former military analyst in the US Department of Defence, they told me that “the US has the military capability and legal responsibility to address threats to itself or allies". What Trump said, they suggested, should be seen in the context of the wider US institutions. "While Trump may have advocated for isolation in the past, the political and military forces he leads are built to enforce the adherence to international law and regional security," the former analyst said. "They provide a real counterweight to the bombast in Pyongyang.”

Trump's speech may have been colourful - his nickname for the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, "Rocket Man", is a reference to Elton John’s mid-Cold War musical hit – but the speech should be seen as yet another reassertion of US military dominance. North Korea may boast of its Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) development,  but its arsenal is simply not well-equipped enough to present the same existential threat to the US that the USSR did at its peak. 

Rather than lacking comprehension, the analyst said of the speech: “Trump's rhetoric is intended to galvanise recognition that the current rules based order is threatened by North Korea's actions”.

Trump’s jingoism is not unique amongst the current American elite. Back in 1983, in his book, The Wizards of Armageddon, the liberal journalist Fred Kaplan characterised the hawkish US military strategy as simply ejaculating combative statements without a long-term plan. Kaplan quoted Herman Kahn, one of the early nuclear strategists, who called one proposal targeting the USSR a “war orgasm”. 

The US Senate recently passed a defence policy bill to increase military spending to $700bn, which includes $8.5bn for missile defence purposes. Overtly catastrophic language, meanwhile, has long been a staple of US foreign policy debates. In 2015, Trump's rival for the Republican presidential nomination, Ted Cruz, made headlines when he vowed to carpet-bomb Isis until he found out "if sand can glow in the dark". While most leading Republicans chose to stay silent after Trump's speech, a few, such as Paul Ryan and Rand Paul, publicly endorsed the message. Cruz, despite the rivalry, was among them. 

On social media, the American public are vocally divided. Some called for Trump to be denounced for his inflammatory speech, but others tweeted #MakeAmericaGreatAgain. Even some Trump sceptics agreed that the North Korea “nuclear summer” needed to be kept in check.

By contrast, overseas listeners have perceived the speech, and this administration’s foreign policy, as unnecessarily incendiary. Matt Korda, a Canadian research assistant on strategic stability at the UK-based Centre for Science and Security Studies,  told me: “Kim Jong-un perceives his nuclear weapons to be the only thing guaranteeing his regime's survival”.

“He will never give them up, no matter how much Trump threatens him," Korda added. “On the contrary: Trump's threat to ‘totally destroy’ the entire country (including millions of innocent and oppressed civilians) will only tighten Kim's grip on his nuclear weapons”.

The effects of Trump’s speech are yet to fully play out, but it is clear that his words have rallied at least a section of American society, and rankled everyone else. The Donald may seem to be mirroring the culture of nuclear recklessness his North Korean opponent helped to create, but this is also the kind of hostile and hyperbolic rhetoric which fuelled his rise to power. In reality, once Trump’s unpleasant vernacular is decoded, he can be seen to be echoing the same global view that has long pervaded the collective American consciousness. Trump's speech was not addressed at his UN doubters, but rather at his domestic fan base and his allies in the South Pacific. This is not a shift in US foreign policy - it is tradition with a spray-tan.

 

 

Anjuli R. K. Shere is a 2016/17 Wellcome Scholar and science intern at the New Statesman