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21 April 2017updated 24 Apr 2017 6:14pm

What I learned from the French presidential campaign

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

By Pauline Bock

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.

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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.