Something is new in France: A new system has been created for selecting the president of the republic. No longer quite a democracy, not a dictatorship either, it doesn’t yet have a name. An acronym or composite made up of “democracy,” “dictatorship” and “plutocracy” would do the trick nicely.
The mechanism worked like this: First, the leaders of major financial, industrial and commercial groups, as well as eminent advisers to the government, chose the future president of the republic — in this case, Emmanuel Macron — and instructed him on his mission. Then these oligarchs mobilized the state, the government, the law, the media, communicators, artists, freelancers, pollsters, bookmakers and civil society leaders to carry him to the highest office in the land. The machine went to work, and in a single rotation turned the applicant into the people’s candidate, the favorite, the unconquerable hero. Even he became convinced.
The rest was a simple formality: It was just a matter of eliminating the other candidates. The campaign’s starting line, packed with contenders, depressed the people by illustrating just how much political parties had divided the country. Party primaries were proffered as a remedy: They would sort everything out mercilessly. And so they did. The serious candidates — Manuel Valls, on the left, and Alain Juppé, on the right — were eliminated.
The law then issued fatwas against the leading candidates who remained, and the press, the oligarchy’s secular arm, proceeded to hunt them down. François Fillon, of Les Républicains, and Marine Le Pen, of the National Front, were hounded for what, by the standards of French politics, amounts to shoplifting, their photographs plastered on the front pages of newspapers.
Certainly, he greatly enlivened the campaign. What an entertainer, what a strategist, that Jean-Luc! Thank you for the good times. Our incorrigibly romantic side appreciated that slogan you coined on the eve of the first round of voting: “Let the happy days come. Let us taste happiness!”
By weakening Les Républicains, the Socialist Party and the National Front, Mélenchon will have served Macron and the oligarchs — while scoring something of a win for himself. See you for the legislative elections in June.
The other unknown in this story was the people. It’s too stupid, it was said; a flock of anxious sheep, and unpredictable. In fact, maybe the moment has come to change the people. This one’s time is over. It still talks about Charles de Gaulle, Jean Jaurès, Joan of Arc. And it did balk a little: On election day, registered voters abstained in record numbers.
Out of this great hodgepodge now comes Macron. Never before elected to office, the head of a movement just one year old, he is France’s new president. Any doubts that he would eventually win were a pretense to deflect suspicions about political manipulation. Fillon was investigated for embezzlement, and French judges asked to lift Le Pen’s immunity as an European Union parliamentarian so they could look into charges that she diverted money. Yet they wouldn’t start an inquiry into Macron’s assets, even though many candidates called for one.
But even this is small potatoes, horseplay, piddling tales about big ambitions. Valls, Juppé, Le Pen, Fillon, Macron, Mélenchon, John Doe — they’re all the same, give or take. France changes presidents every five years, but nothing about them ever really changes.
France no longer governs itself anyway; Europe always has a say. And because of globalization, the world now turns only one way — the way of the banking cartel, which took over from the oil producers’ cartel, which had taken over from the mining cartel.
That’s why it was so important for globalized issues — Islamization, terrorism, climate change, migration, the erosion of international institutions — to be discussed during the campaign. Yet they were barely evoked. Maybe it’s because we feel helpless in the face of these problems. But being unable to change something isn’t a reason not to look at it.
Nor did this presidential campaign do much to address the midterm and long-term strategic choices that France faces. Can the country reinvent its institutions? More important: Can it reverse its decline? Can it reclaim its role as the engine of Europe, especially versus Germany? Instead the campaign was about resource management and account balances. While talking shop the candidates waxed lyrical at times only to sound grand. Throughout they bowed to the tyranny of short-termism and make-no-waves-ism.
On both the left and the right, the grand old parties of yore have been shattered, discredited. The reshuffling of France’s political life is like spring cleaning. Meanwhile, the presidency has been considerably weakened. Thank you, Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande. Macron, who inherits a much depreciated office, will soon discover how little room to maneuver he will have in that position — and all the more so because he will also be the hostage of the disparate troupe that got him there.
Boualem Sansal is an Algerian writer and essayist, and the author of 2084. This essay was translated by John Cullen from the French.