In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king

Article published on May 13, 2003
community published
Article published on May 13, 2003

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

The results of the first round of the French presidential elections left politicians reeling. Considering the dismal election campaign, it was hardly a bolt from the blue. But what have the French done to deserve this?

The results of the French presidential elections have left voters with no choice but to drink down the bitter cup. There are times when defeat and victory have the same unpalatable taste for politicians and electors alike. Whoever one chose to vote for in the first round, to have no choice in the second round but to vote against xenophobia, demagoguery, intolerance, violence and racial hatred is a profoundly frustrating experience. To witness the democratic victory (albeit in second place) of a man who stands for the exact opposite of every single value that his country has ever felt the duty to uphold down the centuries makes self-exile a tempting proposition

But how did it come to this? should be the question on every politicians lips. To believe that there will be any soul-searching within the political class requires an idealism which died a death on the evening of the 21 April. To believe that the French media will join them when we know that their total lack of objectivity, fuelled by their appetite for rolling news and their obsession with the scoop and the sound byte are one of the reasons for the mediocrity of this campaign- would be just as unrealistic. It is up to us, then, to try to unravel this democratic Waterloo.

Are 17.2% of French voters fascist?

It is hard to believe that all those who voted for Jean-Marie Le Pen are xenophobic, intolerant and full of hatred. Without denying the damage caused by their vote, we have to attempt to understand what lies at the bottom of it. For years now, Jean-Marie Le Pen has traded on insecurity. Numerous factors (especially the media) have made the issue of major concern for the French population. This concern was immediately seized upon by the two main contenders for the presidency (Jacques Chirac and Lionel Jospin) even though they had shown themselves to be incapable of containing insecurity when in power, which goes some way to explaining their lack of credibility. What is more, since the split in the Front National, Monsieur Le Pen has considerably toned down his language, widened his electoral base and left Monsieur Mégret to play the fascist bogeyman.

With his more composed approach, demagoguery and a platform which for years has centred on insecurity, Jean-Marie Le Pen comes over as the right man to address the number one priority of French electors. Meanwhile, his two main rivals suffer from a credibility deficit on this issue, due not only to their political opportunism but also to their distinct lack of competence in security matters. This is only made worse by the fact that their attempts to deal with other issues have been nothing less than pitiful.

A dismal electoral campaign

Whoever stands for president should be able to present voters with a vision, a new road map for society designed with and for the electorate, who will then be granted the opportunity to take a vote on it. Past candidates had identifiable political convictions: some had une certaine idée de la France (Gaullists), others were awaiting the Grand soir (Communist/workers parties) or came to power clutching a rose (Socialist Party). There has been little comment on the fact that the recent election campaign was very much a prime-ministerial one in which we saw Jospin defending his track record as premier and questioning the integrity of the incumbent President and Chirac criticising the Jospin governments term in office and displaying his talent for artistic licence. The age of ideology is over. This is a great pity, because nobody has any idea where they are going any more. Jospin and Chirac made far from inspirational candidates.

It was only to be expected, considering that France has been governed on the basis of opinion polls for the past 7 years: public opinion guided the reduction of the presidential term of office from seven to five years and influenced the insecurity debate and the reform process. With no ideology, no strong political commitment, no roadmap for society, the political class has converged on the soft underbelly of the centre, to the extent that it is impossible to tell left from right. Where does Europe fit in? Ignored by the opinion polls, and hence absent from the electioneering, Europe could have provided a strong political focus, especially bearing in mind the present international context.

The failure to deliver a new vision for France and the omnipresence of the insecurity issue also spelled the end of serious political debate. There is much quibbling over figures, language (zero tolerance, zero impunity, no crime will be left unpunished) and methods. But even this semblance of a debate is left to political nonentities. There is no confrontation between the heavyweights of the political world, no strong stand in favour or against a specific issue, no move that could cause the woolly centrist to defect to the opposition. And what can be said of the programmes thrown up by this election, barely explained, hardly debated, so consensual that there is no way of telling who proposed what and, generally speaking, so sparse compared to François Mitterrands 1981 programme, with its 150 points.

In short, this campaign has been the work of an image-obsessed gerontocracy, carried away by rhetoric, jaded after years in power and bereft of vision, ideas and convictions. The logical consequence of which has been the polarisation of the electorate, with respectively 12% and 20% voting for either extreme and 27% abstention, which represents, at the very least, a real crisis of political representation and, at worst, French voters profound distaste for all things political.

Second-rate media

But would the presidential candidates have made such a poor show if the media had done its job properly? Besides the constant banging on about insecurity and the intolerable bumptiousness of certain commentators, the media displayed a despicable lack of relevancy. Faced with a lacklustre and moribund election campaign, journalists focussed on the selection process the absurdity of which does not merit further consideration-, the canvassing for mayoral signatures, the speculation about likely prime ministerial candidates, the second-round vote transfer and the little killer phrases which everybody loves and which feed the sterile electoral debate, kept alive by obliging political commentators from across the board.

But what about content? Where were the questions about plans for the future, measures, financing, about the concrete substance of the political programmes and its implications? Where were the questions about Europe, foreign policy, control of the globalisation process, ecology? Why were the candidates not given the opportunity to speak for themselves by inviting them to take part in a political debate regulated by the media, which would have left the arguing to the politicians? Instead, we got an arrogant free-for-all about secondary issues of strictly no interest. The emptiness of the running mates proposals was matched only by the vacuity of the political commentary. And instead of deconstructing Monsieur Le Pens demagoguery and xenophobia with a few simple questions (Do you think you did a better job than your predecessors in Vitrolles or Marignanne? How is it possible to close the borders of an economy that is heavily reliant on international and intra-Community trade? Etc), journalists will continue to diabolise him in their simplistic and confrontational way.

Storm clouds on the horizon

Thanks to the mediocrity of the political and media elites, Jean-Marie Le Pen, whose electoral score has risen by a mere 4.3 % i.e. 200 000 votes (well done abstentionists!), easily stood out as the only credible candidate while the sheer number of running mates served to discredit his rivals even further. Let us hope that future elections will see our politicians and the media back in their rightful place, taking the opposite course to that which led to the lamentable election result, a damning indictment of politicians, the media, democracy, France and the French population alike. Unfortunately, judging by peoples initial reactions, the message has fallen on deaf ears. Pity us, we who are faced with the prospect of granting Jacques Chirac five years of penal immunity as a price for our rejection of intolerance and racism. Poor France, what have you got yourself into?