I’ve lately been telling French people about the Hail Mary pass. I explain that it’s a desperate move in American football: You’re running out of time to score, so you lob the ball toward the end zone and hope for the best.
The ’ail Marie — as I’ve been pronouncing it — is the best metaphor I’ve found for the French elections this Sunday. The country that gave us the Enlightenment, Cartesian logic, the Napoleonic Code and possibly reason itself may be about to just throw a ball into the distance and see what happens.
Proof of this is the sudden rise of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, until recently an angry ex-Trotskyist on the left wing’s colorful fringe. He probably never thought his policy ideas — like cutting the workweek to 32 hours (from a punishing 35), letting everyone retire at 60, and possibly leaving the European Union and joining an alliance with Venezuela and Cuba — would need to pass a reality test.
Now he’s one of the four candidates who are neck-and-neck, in a race where a third of voters say they might still change their minds. Thursday night’s shooting on the Champs-Élysées — apparently another act of terrorism here — makes the results even more uncertain.
In response to the attack, each candidate appealed to a different side of the French psyche. The xenophobic nationalist Marine Le Pen warned of “uninterrupted terrorism” and claimed she has a “battle plan to protect France.” François Fillon, of the mainstream right-wing party, pledged to make more room in prisons. The centrist Emmanuel Macron vowed to create an anti-ISIS task force, then quoted a line about bravery from “Les Misérables.” Mr. Mélenchon called for sang-froid and decided that the campaign cocktail parties he’d convened around the country should go on.
Until now, security had been just one of many campaign themes. A worker at my local supermarket told me he became a Mélenchoniste because the candidate promised a sixth week of annual vacation. He added that he knew Mr. Mélenchon would be “catastrophic” for the French economy, then gave me a guilty look.
I’d been worried about the French election for a while. For months, Ms. Le Pen had been leading the polls for the first round of voting. But after an American campaign in which the winner’s policies were conveyed in three-word chants like “Build a wall” and “Lock her up,” I was reassured that French elections are usually rational affairs. In the lead-up to the vote, each candidate unveils a detailed “programme” explaining positions on everything from nuclear energy to school lunches.
It can feel like you’re comparison shopping for a flat-screen TV: Newspapers run charts showing each candidate’s stand on different issues. It’s not unusual to hear a French voter say she won’t commit until she has read the programs.
Despite the usual parade of programs, this year’s election seems less like a reasoned debate and more like an avant-garde circus. Posters for François Asselineau, a minor candidate who wants France to leave the European Union at once, simply say, ominously, “Vote your intuition.”
Many French voters are already doing that, which means the future of Europe might hinge on pets. An undecided 20-something told me last week that she was waiting to hear the candidates’ views on animals. I assumed she was just an exceptionally committed cat owner, until I saw a poll in which 39 percent of respondents said that animal policy could influence their votes, up from 29 percent in 2012.
How did it come to this, in the birthplace of Voltaire? A special issue of Philosophie Magazine, now on newsstands, explains that anti-Enlightenment thinkers have always popped up here. “They don’t believe in progress,” a headline warns. “They don’t trust democracy. They’re back.”
It helps to have an electorate that’s more schooled in philosophy than economics. The pro-business newspaper L’Opinion warned on Thursday that there’s so much magical thinking on economic matters right now, “we’re not very far from a psychosis.”
France is also recovering from the five-year presidency of François Hollande, who neither solved the country’s problems nor satisfied its need for a regal figurehead. Now voters are searching for a president who embodies France.
Mr. Mélenchon, “with his little black jacket, he is the left,” the political scientist Pascal Perrineau said. “He incarnates it.”
The center-right Mr. Fillon may have faced some pesky corruption charges. But Mr. Fillon, the son of a provincial notary, looks just like “the son of a provincial notary,” Mr. Perrineau said, a reassuringly familiar image that helped him rebound into a competitive third place. Mr. Fillon might benefit most from Thursday night’s attack: He’s hard-line, but still seems like someone you could invite for dinner.
If — as expected — no one wins a majority on Sunday, the two front-runners will compete in a runoff two weeks later. The possibility of a showdown between Mr. Mélenchon and Ms. Le Pen has added to the surreal mood.
“Up until this campaign you always thought that you couldn’t have two nut cases in the second round,” said Catherine Fieschi, who researches the French electorate as head of the consulting company Counterpoint. “Now there’s a sense of, ‘this has all become absurd and nonsensical, and if you’re going to concoct such an absurd campaign, then we as voters feel entitled to behave absurdly.’ ”
There’s hope in the form of the pragmatic Mr. Macron. He doesn’t fit into an established French political type, but by a slim margin, he has edged ahead of Ms. Le Pen to become the front-runner in Sunday’s vote. (Current polls show that if he goes head-to-head against Ms. Le Pen in Round 2, he will crush her.) An eager volunteer handed me Mr. Macron’s program on the street the other day, and I practically applauded on the Métro while reading it.
I’m hoping that, alone in the voting booth, faced with the gravity of their choice, French voters will, too.
Pamela Druckerman is the author of Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting and a contributing opinion writer.