Will France choose fantasy politics or reality?

Will France choose fantasy politics or reality?

Will France choose fantasy politics or reality?
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Most people in Europe are still digesting the results of this month’s European Parliament elections, which rang alarm bells nationally and within the bloc’s institutions. They are now bracing for the impact of the extreme right and populist parties, which won almost a quarter of the parliament’s seats, on the future working of the union.

French President Emmanuel Macron decided to surprise everyone and call for a general election, which will be sandwiched by the Euro 2024 football championship, which kicked off in Germany last week, people departing for their annual summer holidays and the Paris Olympics, which is due to start at the end of July. This all amounts to a less than perfect setting to ensure a large turnout.

Macron’s gamble, though a simple one, could backfire on his presidency — and the nation — as France could be ruled by a far-right government come July 8. The president is presenting people with a simple choice: either back his centrist, pro-business, pro-European, pro-Ukraine status quo politics or vote for the National Rally, led by Marine Le Pen, who tables an ultranationalist, populist, anti-EU, Moscow-friendly agenda.

Macron’s kamikaze decision could still be vindicated if the electorate manages to see clearly what is at stake

Traditionally, the forces of France’s right, left and center have managed to keep the rise of the far right at bay, aided by an electoral system that splits elections into two phases. The first is free for all to run. The candidates who achieve the highest percentage of votes in the first phase usually go to a second round of voting to determine the winner of each seat. Up until recently, when the electorate was faced with a far-right candidate being among the top-two performers, deals were struck locally and nationally to vote tactically to keep them out. This helped to keep Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie, and later his daughter and their far-right movement far away from government.

However, Macron worked to reconfigure the French political landscape ahead of his 2017 election, splitting it between conservatives and progressives and replacing the traditional right-left split.

Fast forward to June 2024 and it is the National Rally that has the wind in its sails. Early polls suggest the party of Le Pen could win up to 265 of the 577 seats in the National Assembly, nearly treble its current tally. And the story could get even grimmer, since the election is likely to be fought three ways: between the National Rally and its allies on the extreme right, the quickly-formed alliance of the forces of the left, and Macron’s centrist Renaissance party. The president’s potential alliance with The Republicans is in tatters after its leader unilaterally called for his center-right party to ally itself with Le Pen and the far right.

Early indications point to a lack of urgency to mount a united front to deny Le Pen and National Rally a majority

Macron’s kamikaze decision could still be vindicated if the electorate manages to see clearly what is at stake socially, politically and economically as a result of the far-right’s fantastical, uncosted reforms. But in an electoral space — in France and elsewhere — that is dominated by Tik-Tok, fake news, trolls and alternate realities catering to every voter’s whim, Macron’s gamble could end up pushing voters into the arms of the political populists, as they seek to escape the often more complex and less appealing hard realities. A lesser evil would be a parliament controlled by the leftist national alliance, setting the stage for a difficult coexistence between a center-right president and a left-leaning government and legislature.

Le Pen indicated this week that her National Rally “roadmap will be the series of proposals we have made in the past to the French people, and which appear essential to us, on purchasing power, security and immigration.” Her party’s 2022 presidential pledges were clearer. She promised to expel more migrants, stop their family reunifications in France, give French nationals priority for jobs, benefits and social housing, and expel immigrants who are unemployed for more than a year. She also pledged to privatize the media, grant police officers protection from prosecution in cases where they are accused of violence, reduce the retirement age, axe inheritance tax for many, exempt under-30s from income tax and offer zero-interest €100,000 ($107,000) loans to boost home ownership.

Many have routinely picked holes in the uncosted plans of Le Pen’s party. And some consider certain policies to be unconstitutional, such as the annulling of taxation for those under 30, while others believe that most of her proposals are incompatible with competitiveness.

As France this week starts a fortnight of frenetic election campaigning, early indications point to a lack of urgency to mount a united front to deny Le Pen and National Rally a majority in the next French parliament, as the left has opted to quickly form its own alliance.

The fear for France is that the far right will not succeed at governing like it does with campaigning, which is maybe plausible. But anyone watching Jordan Bardella, the 28-year-old face of the National Rally and likely leader of its government, addressing his party’s supporters after its European Parliament elections success could not have failed to notice his composure and confidence as he spoke to a sea of cheering youths, who celebrated as he underscored his party’s commitment to close French borders.

The new poster boy of the French far right seems to have captured the hearts and minds of not only the old xenophobes, but also the new generation — and that is the danger for France and Europe. Bardella’s attributes as a young white politician calling for a “France first” vision clearly echoes with a younger population that feels disillusioned and underserved.

Whether his party will collapse the economy or fail in its endeavor to rule France is secondary. For the time being, a section of French people of all ages, like their counterparts in many other countries, are gripped by leaders like Bardella, who project a modern image, turbocharged by the communication of messages with skillfully curated content that appeals to them. And in an age where the digital realm is king, who cares whether what Bardella says is even realistic and could translate into sound policies?

But this seems enough for his 1 million or more followers to propagate and forward his messages on Tik-Tok to create waves that convey vibes or feelings that resonate among them. But these are unlikely to fill the empty stomachs of the needy, provide adequate care for the sick in hospitals or stop immigration.

Mohamed Chebaro is a British-Lebanese journalist with more than 25 years of experience covering war, terrorism, defense, current affairs and diplomacy. He is also a media consultant and trainer.

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