Drawn to extremes in France

With Rick Santorum’s decision to end his campaign, the outcome of the Republican primaries is decided. But a different republican primary is just now heating up. The French Fifth Republic is 10 days away from the first round of its presidential elections.

The latest polls show the two front-runners, the Gaullist (and current president) Nicolas Sarkozy and Socialist Francois Hollande, have each captured slightly less than 30% of the electorate. But the real news is in the pack that follows: Jean-Luc Melenchon, leader of the extreme Left Party, has barreled into third place with 15%, leading by a neck Marine Le Pen of the extreme right-wing National Front.

That these candidates, lodged at either end of the French political spectrum, are vying for third place is not a coincidence. And the peculiar nature ofFrance’s electoral system makes their contest all the more fascinating — and worrisome.

Like the American primaries,France’stwo-round electoral system helps separate the wheat from the chaff. At the same time, though, it allows voters to demonstrate their attachment to this or that indigestible husk or, put another way, their lack of appetite for the typical, some might say bland, grain of wheat. Usually, they register their base instincts, and then dutifully swallow the wheat in the second round, held two weeks later.

Yet this logic fails disastrously at times. In 2002, voters on the left, disenchanted by the colorless Socialist candidate, Lionel Jospin, either delivered their votes to protest candidates or didn’t vote at all in Round 1. The indigestible, in this case, led to the unspeakable:Jean-Marie Le Pen, anti-Semitic and thuggish founder of the National Front, finished in second place — shocking the left into voting for the Gaullist candidate, Jacques Chirac.

Thanks to Melenchon, abstention on the left will not be an issue this time around. He began his mad dash up the polls at a mass meeting at the Bastille. Wearing a trademark red tie, he addressed a crowd of 100,000, speckled with red signs, red flags and red caps — Phrygian-style, one of the emblems of the French Revolution — and called for a “civic insurrection” against a nation “disfigured by inequalities” and a “French volcano” preparing to explode.

The crowd was galvanized, but rather than erupting across Paris, it peacefully dispersed into the Metro, buses and cafes. This was hardly reassuring to some observers, who half expected to see a guillotine planted by Melenchon’s podium. One business leader asserted that a vote for Melenchon was a vote for the Terror.

But the leader most worried about the future, if not his head, is Hollande, who has watched with growing frustration as the fiery Melenchon drains off disaffected Socialist voters. Known as “Monsieur Normal,” Hollande initially won over the French left for the simple reason that he was not Dominique Strauss-Kahn, with his legal woes and his women problems. Indeed, if Hollande resembles another politician, it is Mitt Romney: A technocrat with little government experience, Hollande is willing to pander to his base to win its support.

And pander he has. His recent proposal to slap a 75% income tax rate on France’s wealthiest citizens was widely seen as an effort to defuse Melenchon’s proposals to transform France’s generous safety net into a veritable hammock, with a dramatic increase in the monthly minimum wage and a guaranteed full pension upon retirement at age 60.

But Hollande’s strategy seems to have backfired. Soon after his proposal, he visited London to woo the tens of thousands of French expatriates who left home precisely because of their country’s punishing tax rates. He announced, in English, “I am not dangerous,” But Melenchon only grabbed the remark and turned it around: “I am dangerous,” he regularly announces to his delighted crowds.

Though she would never utter the phrase, so too is Marine Le Pen, daughter of Jean-Marie. She has striven to repackage the National Front, disassociating herself from her father’s forays into Holocaust denial, declaring that she has “a different vision of the past.” Yet her attitude toward Muslims is as brutal as was her father’s toward Jews. Referring to French Muslims praying on the streets of Paris, she has described France as living under a “new occupation” and insists that an untold number of Mohamed Merahs, the gunman who took the lives of seven Jews, Christians and Muslims last month, arrive every day on French soil.

More ominously, Le Pen has coupled fears over immigration and “Islamism” to an elusive but real anxiety over globalization. Like her hero Joan of Arc, Le Pen sees traitors everywhere who have sold out the nation — in this case not to the English but to European Union bureaucrats in Brussels and the captains of global capitalism.

Here, tragically, the extremes threaten to meet. While Melenchon vilifies Le Pen’s racism and has nothing but scorn for her person — “foul beast” and “siren of hatred” are among his gentler phrases — he nevertheless shares Le Pen’s hostility toward globalization and the EU. Like Le Pen, Melenchon decries the EU’s “economic liberalism” that has, in his eyes, ransomed the peoples of Europe. Most important, both cast themselves as challengers to a corrupt political and economic system. They have, as a result, drawn their most fervent support from similar demographics, galvanizing the youth and drawing the support of workers and professionals who, whether former Socialists, Communists or Gaullists, no longer believe these parties are defending their interests. These similarities in fact moved Le Monde to publish a caricature of Melenchon and Le Pen reading from the same speech, titled “They’re All Rotten.”

Will 2012 be 2002 all over again in France? Unlikely: The polls agree that Sarkozy and Hollande will emerge victorious from the first round, and that Hollande will take the second round. Yet, a strong third-place showing by either Le Pen or Melenchon will complicate the final round in the presidential election. Hollande risks becoming hostage to Melenchon’s economic and political proposals, while Sarkozy, in his promise to sharply reduce the flow of immigrants, is already trying to peel off Le Pen’s supporters. While the republic will survive the results, the republican credo will emerge battered. Next month’s victor will have his work cut out to prove that there isn’t something rotten in the state of France.

Robert Zaretsky teaches French history at the Honors College of the University of Houston and is coauthor of France and its Empire Since 1870.

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