No Place to Go but Up in France

The election in France on Sunday won’t decide its next president but will more likely offer a miserable precedent: a success for a “Rejection Front” that combines the bleak compatibility of the extreme left and right.

Notionally at least, with the Left Front and National Fronts scores added together, the beyond-the-mainstream candidates’ total share of the vote could beat the individual first-round scores of either President Nicolas Sarkozy or the Socialist, François Hollande.

That doesn’t change the near certainty that Marine Le Pen at the far right and Jean-Luc Mélenchon on the left’s distant shore get eliminated on April 22 while Hollande and Sarkozy advance to the final round two weeks later.

But if the Rejection Front (my designation) does as well as most polls suggest, France will have legitimized two political currents that spurn serious solutions for France’s economic grief, reject civility and common sense and variously propose regression through loony yet authoritarian economics, class warfare, class or racial prejudices, anti-Western instincts, and the politics of endless rage.

Sarkozy and Hollande are each projected to win between 26 and 29 percent of the votes cast in the first round among 10 contenders. That means that if parallel estimates hold for Le Pen (16 to 18 percent) and Mélenchon (around 15), extremism’s total beats either mainstream guy.

This isn’t a nerdy detail, but a miserable political signpost in an important and usually intelligent country struggling to retain influence in the world.

Mélenchon, who has Communist Party backing, infantilizes the French with promises of an “insurrection” that in the face of the country’s pledges of austerity would create 500,000 new places in public nurseries, 200,000 new low-rent apartments per year, total reimbursement of all individual health expenditure and tenured status for 800,000 public service workers now without permanent contracts. It is not clear how the Left Front would handle the costs (the health bill alone is estimated at €40 billion yearly), but Mélenchon has given a hint: confiscation of annual individual income above €360,000.

Mélenchon’s world-view goes hand in hand with his economics. He describes the United States as “the world’s primary problem” and wants the U.S. Sixth Fleet out of the Mediterranean. More: Hugo Chávez of Venezuela is a hero, the Chinese invasion of Tibet was justified, and Cuba isn’t a dictatorship.

In a French political universe where no one need tell a significant percentage of the truth, dealing in fantasy is an easy alternative. The problem with Mélenchon is that his routine is showing it works in 2012 France. As Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the left-wing ecologist politician, has said, “He’s succeeded in restoring national nostalgia for old-time class conflict and statist tradition.”

While Mélenchon’s role in the Rejection Front refuses reality, Marine Le Pen’s National Front summons French instincts in the direction of bigotry and spite. Again, it seems to be working.

With less of a growl than her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, she pitches an anti-immigration line of carefully gauged excess meant to shake out votes from the majority of the population, shown by surveys to regard integration as a failure because of a lack of immigrants’ effort. Polling illustrates that she is on to something. Le Monde’s lead story on April 10 reported that more 18- to 24-year-olds (26 percent) would vote for her than any other presidential candidate on Sunday.

So who or what to blame for a significant part of France buying into off-the-wall economics and cosmeticized prejudice? An easy rationale would be that, after all, this is the ancient and resilient society that made ironic emblems of its selfish or self-destructive yearnings — “après moi le déluge” or “la nostalgie de la boue.”

Pick Sarkozy and Hollande’s triviality instead. They never confronted voters with the perspective of harder times through the reality of France’s debt and deficit-reduction obligations, or considered big-bang programs for Muslim immigrants that would link sweeping affirmative action and requirements for their assimilation.

Hollande shied from taking a direct swing at Mélenchon’s calls to the streets for fear of not being able to recuperate his voters in the second presidential round. Rather, he seemed to justify the far-left’s reflexes with a call for a 75 percent tax rate on income over €1 million.

In turn, Sarkozy’s tactics have been to increase the Left Front’s vote total and reduce Hollande’s in the first round with compliments for Mélenchon like, “I have to say, concerning his comprehension of things having to do with humanity, I have no complaints.” On integration and immigration, Sarkozy the candidate would not condemn the National Front or Le Pen line by name to assure picking up their votes in the May 6 runoff.

Through their complaisant maneuvering, Sarkozy and Hollande have reduced the stature of responsible politics in France and with it given both halves of the Rejection Front enough momentum so that, side by side, they may enter the National Assembly in June legislative elections. Leaving this likely indelible (and repugnant) trace behind, the quality of the French presidential race and runoff round beginning Monday has no place to go but up.

John Vinocur is senior correspondent at The International Herald Tribune.

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