French voters will head to the polls to vote for the country’s next president on April 23. While most Americans have their hands full handling the dramatic shift in political climate after the election of current President Donald Trump, many French citizens who are studying, working, and living in the states find themselves in a position to prevent a similar situation from arising in their home across the Atlantic.
The failure of neoliberal economic policies across the globe, along with with pervasive political malfeasance, has created a wave of political opportunism and populist backlash which saw Trump’s election in the U.S. and the affirmative vote of U.K. citizens to withdraw from the European Union.
Stéphanie Roulon is a senior instructor of French and the first-year language program coordinator at Portland State. A dual-citizen, she has lived in the U.S. for over 20 years. After voting in France’s presidential election in 2007, she took a break from participating in French politics.
“I felt like, I live here, I pay taxes here,” Roulon explained. “I don’t feel like I should be the one making any decisions for people who live there.”
Despite past statements from family and friends back home insinuating that her understanding of the social and political situation of France was limited by her residence in the U.S., the attitude regarding this year’s election appears markedly different.
“This year is more like, ‘You’re gonna vote, right!?’,” Roulon said.
Much of this concern comes from the rise of Marine Le Pen, current leader of the far-right National Front party of France. Le Pen took over the reigns of the party from her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen in 2011. Long infamous for his anti-Semitic and xenophobic comments, the elder Le Pen was ultimately expelled by his daughter from the party he founded.
While Le Pen has distanced herself from many of her father’s comments as she attempts to shift the position of her party toward mainstream French politics, she continues to perpetuate a narrative of French national identity that plays on tendencies for the latent nationalism, racism, and xenophobia in societies to be exacerbated in times of uncertainty and instability.
If no presidential candidate receives a majority of votes during the first round, the top-two candidates will participate in a second round run-off, scheduled for May 7.
In addition to an executive branch composed of the president, the prime minister, and junior and senior ministers, the French Parliament serves as France’s bicameral legislative body, which is made up by the Senate (whose members are appointed by other elected officials such as mayors, councilors, etc.) and the National Assembly (with members who are elected for 5-year terms by universal suffrage).
Annabelle Dolidon is an assistant professor of French at PSU. She has been teaching French language and literature at PSU for nine years, and like Roulon, has been living in the states for almost two decades. She has consistently participated in French presidential elections but agrees that Le Pen represents a singular threat.
“She’s dangerous because she’s smart,” Dolidon said. “She’s articulate, she’s blonde, blue eyes. And people listen to her, because even though she has radical ideas and she doesn’t hide from them, she articulates them in a logic that people can follow.”
But while the tradition of intellectualism in French society and the secular political landscape in France led to the rise of someone like Le Pen instead of a reality TV star charlatan like Trump, the analogues between the situation in France and that of the U.S. remains stark.
“Just because Marine Le Pen perhaps can form a complete sentence compared to other people,” Dolidon explained, “doesn’t mean she’s less of an extreme-right candidate.”
The problem in France, as elsewhere, is that both the conservative and liberal parties which serve as alternatives to radical platforms such as Le Pen’s are less than inspiring when they make claims to alleviate the social and economic strife.
“In France, if you look at the candidates…it’s a mess,” Roulon explained. “Le Pen doesn’t have to do anything to do right now—just sit and wait.”
François Fillon, the conservative Republican party candidate for president and, until recently, the leader in the polls, saw his lead slip as allegations emerged that he used public funds to hire his wife for a non-existent job, in addition to highly-overpaying his children for jobs he procured for them.
While Le Pen herself is currently under investigation for potentially fraudulent campaign financing, among other issues, her position in the polls has been largely unaffected.
Benoît Hamon, the Socialist candidate for the presidency, doesn’t need any scandals hanging over his head to ensure that his chances of entering the Élysée Palace will remain negligible. The legacy of outgoing Socialist Party president Francois Hollande, possibly the least popular French president in history, appears to be more than enough to ensure Hamon does not make it past the first round of voting.
Emmanuel Macron, the former finance minister of Hollande’s administration, severed his ties with the Socialist Party last August and began his campaign for president as a member of the political party En Marche!, which he founded in April the same year. In preliminary polling he has fared well against Le Pen, but as the cases in both the U.K. and the U.S. have illustrated, when media institutions are just as disconnected from the electorate as the political establishment, their inability to accurately gauge the direction of public sentiment should come as no surprise.
“If Marine Le Pen doesn’t get elected,” Roulon explained, “it’s definitely going to be a no to her, not necessarily a yes to someone else specifically.”
She went on to reference France’s 2002 presidential election, when the highly unpopular incumbent Jacques Chirac was carried to a landslide victory after the elder Le Pen unexpectedly advanced to the second round of voting.
At the time it was reported that “Socialists and conservatives alike described the result as…a ‘disgrace to French democracy.’”
As Dolidon explained, “Usually the first round is a protest vote, so people don’t necessarily vote for their candidate. They vote to say what they’re pissed off at.”
But the danger in such a tactic now is much greater than in past, when the lines between those who are angry, why, and what they’re willing to do about it become increasingly blurred.
Dolidon alluded to the recent surge in sales of George Orwell’s 1984 as a reminder of the warnings that dystopian imaginings of the future represent. But what she keeps in mind during all of this has its roots in the past as much as the future.
The crimes against humanity committed by the Vichy government in unoccupied France during World War II remain a difficult subject to address in French society. Comments from Jean-Marie Le Pen about gas chambers being a “detail” of World War II represent an unwillingness to come to terms with these legacies and the implications they have for the current political and social climate.
Whether those that go along with a nation’s descent into fascism do so out of nationalist ardor, apathy, fear, or opportunism, the end result is the same.
“That’s the fear I think everybody should have,” Dolidon said. “And I have that fear myself. That put in some circumstances, who would you become? Given the freedom to do whatever you want, or…pushed to fear for your family—even if that fear is paranoia—what would you do?”