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The bonfire of the French elite

The casualties are significant. A sitting president, a former president and three former prime ministers have all fallen by the wayside of the most fiercely contested French presidential election in decades. In light of the failure of establishment figures, two unconventional candidates have gained ground: The centrist Emmanuel Macron and his En Marche! Movement, and Marine Le Pen’s Front National.
In a context of weakened mainstream parties, angry youth and a failing economy, election shocks will be no surprise come April 23 as France suffers its worst political crisis since the collapse of the Quatrième République in 1958.
As the post-war French political class totters, it is worth exploring why it has failed. The ruling elite are broadly the product of two selective schools: The Ecole Nationale d’Administration (ENA) and the Ecole Polytechnique (EP). Hot-housed in particularly demanding programs, they are then parachuted into top government jobs, maturing into experts in the management of a system of which only those like themselves are a part.
As functions of state-sponsored meritocracy, the institutions were behind the great achievements of France’s Trente Glorieueses, a period of economic growth that led to the development of Europe’s fastest trains, France’s nuclear program and the Concorde.
But as this elite self-perpetuated to replace its predecessor, it grew clubby and complacent, restricting opportunity and growing incapable of keeping France economically competitive and politically relevant in a globalized world.
As these elites’ expertise has become restricted to ensuring their survival, they have grown capable only of managing the smart arrondissements of Paris that they occupy. Ill-equipped to marshal an increasingly diverse French society to prosperity, the electorate have grown weary.

In a context of weakened mainstream parties, angry youth and a failing economy, election shocks will be no surprise come April 23 as France suffers its worst political crisis since the collapse of the Quatrième République in 1958.

Zaid M. Belbagi

Originally spawned from dejected nationalists, Nazi sympathizers from Vichy France and returned colonial settlers in the 1970s, the Front National recently became a major force in politics after Le Pen dropped the toxic anti-Semitic brand of her father. A poorly integrated Muslim community making up 7-8 percent of the population has given her movement a new lease of life.
Preying on fear brought about my home-grown terror, Le Pen has offered voters a nationalistic, anti-EU, anti-Islam anaesthetic to soothe the pain of a struggling economy. Her support, not dissimilar to Donald Trump’s, is tied to education.
In stark contrast to the rising stars of the ENA and EP, only 8 percent of French citizens with a degree voted for the Front National in 2014; 41 percent of those without a high-school diploma did. In industrial towns and what has been labelled “peripheral France,” job losses have accentuated a backlash against immigrants and the self-serving political elite, thereby positioning Le Pen as a viable alternative.
The tired political party system is in part to blame. In a country where the 35-hour work week is the norm and where social spending is seismic, the dreams of socialist parties worldwide are the realities for French citizens. Half a century of leftist-driven consensus has resulted in the acceptance of a system that even hard-right political parties cannot question, a welfare state fueled by generous government spending.
But a left that was designed to protect factory workers and agriculture has struggled to stay relevant in a rapidly globalized world. The incumbent socialist President Francois Hollande is the first in history not to seek re-election, a striking example of how the left has failed and is struggling to continue to occupy the mainstream in France.
In this context, voters have been drawn to the Front National and En Marche! with a view to seeking out candidates offering inventive solutions to France’s many challenges. This has taken the form of Le Pen’s anti-establishment rhetoric, and Macron’s rationale of rebuilding the economy on a more competitive and equitable platform.
The traditional right is also in a period of strife. The UMP’s evolution to the Republican Party failed to captivate voters, and conservative graduates of France’s administrative schools have suffered the same fate as their socialist counterparts. Blamed with over-enthusiastically integrating France into the EU and the subject of frequent scandals, France’s conservatives are also viewed as part of the general malaise.
The campaign of the current candidate Francois Fillon has been mired by the “Penelopegate” affair, during which he has been formally charged as part of a widening embezzlement investigation concerning the fictitious employment of his wife in his parliamentary office. Such impropriety has further alienated the conservative voter base, which has already been rattled by the campaign for gay marriage and the state of insecurity in France.
This state of affairs is to the advantage of both the Front National and En Marche! “The collapse of traditional parties and the systematic disappearance of almost all of their leaders shows that a great political re-composition has begun,” Le Pen said recently. As France heads toward a presidential election under a state of emergency that has been renewed four times since November 2015, the stakes are high for a country in crisis.
For Le Pen, it is an opportunity to draw dejected voters with a message of insular nationalism in response to the perceived pitfalls of diversity and globalization. For Macron and his mass volunteer movement, this is a chance to recalibrate France as progressive, confident and importantly competitive.
But in both cases, the unconventional candidates are selling their voters a dream. If either wins, they are unlikely to enjoy a parliamentary majority that would allow them to implement the reforms they have in mind.
Much is at stake in this election: The future of immigrant communities in Europe and the EU itself. As such, it is critical that the French electorate makes the right choice, the moderate one. To quote Montesquieu: “The spirit of moderation should also be the spirit of the lawgiver.”

• Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator. He also acts as an adviser to private clients between London and the GCC.