Huffpost Pollster, April 16th

[update below]

I’ve been in a tizzy the past week, along with most others here of my general political sensibility, over the stunning surge of Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the polls and the now very real possibility that he could make it to the 2nd round next Sunday—and once there, actually win. My blogging confrère Arthur Goldhammer expressed the general sentiment of those on the smart left, informing his readers early in the week that it was now “Nail-biting time” and that he was “beginning to get seriously worried about this election,” then writing mid-week of “Panic in Paris,” and finally, on Friday, offering an anguished Facebook status update that simply read “I have a very bad feeling about the upcoming French election,” and with numerous commenters, including myself, agreeing entirely.

Now many observers have been tipping their hats to Mélenchon for his astute, well-executed national-populist campaign strategy—again, including myself, after the two times I saw him speak over the past month (here and here)—which is quite different from his more classic leftist one of 2012. But absolutely no one saw him breaking even 15%, let alone reaching 20. This is breathtaking. I have asserted countless times over the years that there is an electoral ceiling of 14% for the radical left in a French presidential election, i.e. of the total score of all candidates to the left of the Socialists (excluding Les Verts), for the simple reason that the last time the gauche de la gauche surpassed this was in 1981, which was two generations ago and another era. Mélenchon’s manifestly successful campaign signifies that we’re maybe entering a new era, of a newly radicalized left and with a national-populist hue.

N.B. Jean-Luc Mélenchon is, at the present moment, the most popular political personality in France (emphasis added). The latest IPSOS-Le Point political baromètre, released last Wednesday, has his favorable rating spiking 15% in one month, to 56% positive/35% negative. Take a look at this graph from the IPSOS website last week

JLM is viewed favorably even by 40% of LR/UDI voters and 38% of FN voters. Behind him is Alain Juppé at +50/-40 and then Emmanuel Macron at +48/-43. Everyone else (save Jean-Yves Le Drian) is in negative territory. The latest IFOP-Fiducial-Paris Match-Sud Radio tableau de bord politique, released on Thursday, likewise shows JLM as France’s most popular politician, with 68% having an overall “good opinion” of him—compared to 46% in March—and 29% a “bad opinion.” Breaking the percentages down by intensity of feeling, 16% have an outright “excellent” opinion of JLM and a mere 8% a “very bad” opinion (FYI, I’m in that 8%). As in the IPSOS ranking, IFOP has JLM followed in popularity by Juppé (+60/-38) and Macron (+55/-40). And he’s the only politico in France whose “excellent” rating is in the double digits.

When I saw these numbers, my jaw dropped. This is, objectively speaking, insane. Jean-Luc Mélenchon is not exactly a newcomer on the French political scene. He’s been around for a while and anyone with a merely passing interest in politics knows him and his trash-talking gauchiste persona. So WTF is going on here? This cannot be just his performance in the March 20th and April 4th multi-candidate debates. Ça ne peut pas suffire. The fact of the matter is, JLM has tapped into something profound in the id of a sizable part of the French electorate—both left and right—which I personally do not relate to but that is there. On this, I received an email a week ago from a faithful AWAV reader in Marseille—who is French, secular Jewish, a retired advertising executive, on the moderate left but no gauchiste—after JLM’s rally in the city. What he wrote is interesting and instructive, as his sentiments are no doubt shared by many

Il y a la politique et puis il y a la politique.

I gave up on joining the crowd sur le Vieux Port, because it was already past 2 pm and I wanted to hear Meluche in good conditions, so I stayed home and watched him on TV… The magic worked, I had to admire the man and the talent.

He brought tears in my eyes. I didn’t agree on all of what he said, but I agreed on his choice of words, the value and the weight of the words, the tone, the gravity, the music, the emotional content.

It is part of my French heritage. It speaks to my roots. This is what France is all about. Something lyrical, fierce, generous and noble as is the Marseillaise.

After the poem by Ritsos, I would have voted for him, right away.

We miss that warmth and “bravoure”. Whatever was likable in Mitterrand was linked to that when it was not just plain theatrical. I remember his first trip to Moscow and the way he mentioned human rights. Chirac somehow still managed to sometimes convey sparks of that, but then it was gone.

Of course one can easily object that we shouldn’t vote for (populist) orators but for programs and candidates, yes and yet… the public speech capacity is meaningful.

We need to vibrate, we need to experience the feeling of shared mutual understanding.

All the intellectual abstract matter put aside for a moment, it is like looking into the eyes and being looked into the eyes. I understand why Meluche is increasingly popular, none of the other candidates reaches out to us like he does. (Poutou had such a stroke of genius during the debate when he chastised the crooks). MLP used to be dangerously good at that but luckily now she just sucks.

I can’t feel any real deep public support, it is just the same old crowd of angry, frustrated and scared people.

Hamon is too brainy, Macron appears as your local more or less understanding banker but conveys almost no emotion at all.

I don’t go to church, I don’t listen to homilies, so maybe Fillon does talk to traditional Catholic families and provincial annuitants [but not me]…

In a follow-up email, he added

As I wrote, Meluche…makes me realize how much the other contenders’ speeches are filled with hollow bullshit and lacking human feelings and emotions. And we need that.

They speak the same way computers design cars based on consumer research which is why all the mid range cars look exactly the same.

I was listening to Dupont-Aignan and was surprised with his eloquence, then I saw that he was in a good position among the “hommes politiques préférés des Français” with 28%.

He speaks as a human being.

So I indeed like Meluche’s music, even though I don’t agree with all the verses of his song. Still some are pretty good.

A guy who, in this election, in front of 70 000 people, in Marseille, can ask for a minute de silence in memory of the 30,000 migrants who drowned in the Mediterranean and remind the crowd that two children drown there every day, well I respect his chutzpah.

Oratory touches people. And not all voters, even those interested in politics and who follow campaigns, focus on the actual programs of the candidates or parties and what precisely these are proposing. Voters viscerally connect with candidates who speak to them and share their values. (And all this goes for me too).

E.g. Libération, in its April 13th issue, quoted newly converted Mélenchon voters and their explanations. School teacher Stéphanie, age 42, thus offered this

À force d’écouter et de lire Jean-Luc Mélenchon, je suis tombée sous son charme. Sa manière de parler et d’expliquer sa vision est fantastique. On est obligé de tendre l’oreille. Le déclic est arrivé pendant le débat télévisé. J’ai eu le sentiment de voir des enfants face à un adulte. Il est au-dessus du lot, comme Alain Juppé, il rassure, il a de l’expérience et la France a besoin de ça.

Aujourd’hui, face aux crises que traverse notre pays, il faut une personne qui rassemble. Jean-Luc Mélenchon a l’air sincère, il ne monte jamais les citoyens les uns contre les autres. Après, c’est vrai que je ne suis pas d’accord avec une partie de son programme, notamment l’économie et sa position sur la Russie. Mais il a l’air de savoir ce qu’il fait et pour moi, aujourd’hui, la priorité, c’est la cohésion nationale.

And this from retired university cadre Roland, age 67

[Jean-Luc Mélenchon] est dans une dynamique qui tranche avec les propositions de la plupart des candidats en situation de gagner et qui sont tous pour ce qui a échoué – les guerres en Afghanistan, en Libye, en Irak – avec l’augmentation du budget de la Défense ou le doublement de l’arsenal nucléaire comme l’a inscrit Jean-Yves Le Drian dans la loi de programmation militaire.

J’ai aussi beaucoup aimé le discours de Mélenchon sur les migrants qui sont des victimes et non des coupables. Il s’est clairement opposé à tous les apprentis sorciers qui en font des boucs émissaires, qui poussent à la xénophobie et au racisme comme si l’étranger était la cause de nos difficultés.

I knew something was up early last week when I asked my 23-year-old, Hamon-supporting daughter what her friends were saying about the election. She said that a few who planned to vote for Hamon were thinking of switching to Mélenchon, as a vote utile to insure that a candidate of the left made it to the 2nd round. When I told her that there are significant differences between Hamon and Mélenchon on several major issues, notably Europe, she replied that they were aware of that. But it was clear that they—along with many other voters who have defected to JLM or are considering it—are not overly familiar with JLM’s program beyond the slogans. The fact that he is de gauche suffices.

It would be helpful if voters did look into what JLM is actually advocating. For the record, here is my reply to my Marseille friend

On JLM, who’s the sensation of this fin de campagne, I fear that too many people are privileging form over substance — are being taken in by his lyricism and poetry, and not paying close attention to the actual content of his crazy rhetoric. I can comprehend some of JLM’s appeal but, at least from my way of thinking, there is nothing compelling about his program, which is – take your pick – half-baked, pie-in-the-sky, or downright pernicious and dangerous: on Europe, taxation, geopolitics, a 6ème République, you name it. If JLM were to somehow to accede to the Elysée palace and implement his program, it would be a fiasco of the first order. The only cause of relative optimism in such an eventuality would be the impossibility of JLM attaining anything approaching a parliamentary majority following the legislative election, which would render him politically impotent. With Trump in the White House outre-Atlantique, I don’t want to have to contemplate a similar situation over here.

As for JLM’s thoughts on the Mediterranean migrants, words are cheap and moments of silence are even more so. I would have liked to hear him say what France should have done had those 30K Africans survived their journey: take them all in, grant refugee status, and allow them to integrate the labor market? France is, after all, the fifth largest economy in the world, as JLM likes to remind people, so could surely afford to take in those 30K Africans and then some, n’est-ce pas? Oh well.

I don’t exclude JLM making it to the 2nd round. At this point, all sorts of heretofore improbable scenarios are now in the realm of the possible. If it’s JLM-Macron, the choice is clear. JLM-Fillon: je vote blanc ou nul. JLM-MLP: I’ll obviously vote JLM but this is truly the nightmare scenario, so let’s not dwell on it…

On the JLM-MLP nightmare scenario: pour mémoire, here is what I wrote last February 22nd, when the scenario appeared far-fetched at best

The nightmare scenario: Fillon’s and Macron’s numbers go south…and with Hamon losing ground on the left to Jean-Luc Mélenchon. With the four candidates all bunched in the mid-teens—and Marine at 30%—Mélenchon ekes out a narrow second place finish and goes on to face MLP on May 7th. The right votes as one for Marine and with centrist and center-left voters emigrating en masse to Canada or maybe killing themselves. And Marine wins.

Marine Le Pen will not reach 30% next Sunday and is, at this point, not a surefire slam dunk to make the 2nd round, as has been assumed by all and sundry since the onset of the campaign. She’s down five or six points from her high point in the polls and her campaign is sputtering. Philippe Poutou’s devastating take-down in the April 4th circus-debate—which left her speechless—was possibly a turning point in the campaign, and her gaffe on the Rafle du Vel d’Hiv’—which was less anti-Jewish than just so stupid and gratuitously damaging to her—did not help matters. Years of patient de-demonizing up in smoke. Her favorable/unfavorable rating in the latest IPSOS ranking is +27/-67 (down from 30/66 in March); at IFOP it’s +32/-68 (and with 43% holding a “very bad” opinion of her). Inevitable conclusion: in a JLM-MLP match-up, JLM wins.

For JLM to beat MLP, he would necessarily need at least some votes from the right and, contrary to what I said in February, will certainly get enough. As the latest IPSOS and IFOP rankings show, JLM is attracting a significant minority of right-wing sympathizers, which, in view of his France First nationalist rhetoric, evolution on the immigration issue, and downplaying classic leftist themes, should hardly be surprising. And one domain in particular in which JLM’s rhetoric will be music to at least some right-wing ears is on Europe and particularly Germany. Last week I read JLM’s 2015 book/pamphlet Le hareng de Bismarck: Le poison allemand. The German poison. The book/pamphlet is billed as a “critique” of Germany and its economic policies, though it is, in point of fact, a violent, 200-page diatribe against that country: not just for its ordoliberalism, obsession with inflation, austerity policies et al—which do merit critique (for one that does it excellently, see Guillaume Duval’s Made in Germany)—but of the entire German nation and across the board. The book is an outrage: I was in a state of indignation while reading it, not at what the author was saying but at the author himself. To know what’s in the screed, go to the critique by retired PS politico (and onetime Trotskyist) Henri Weber (on his blog, which is the long version of his Le Monde op-ed on the book; see also the open letter to JLM by Cécile Duflot in Libé). Only a franchouillard nationalist could have signed his name to such a venomous attack on France’s most important partner in Europe. When it comes to franchouillard nationalists—and who have an existential problem with Germany—they are more numerous on the right than the left. Thus a certain indulgence toward JLM from the other side of the political spectrum.

Reading JLM’s ill-informed Germanophobic tract causes one to question the oft-stated observation of him being intellectually cultivated. It also reinforces my assertion last week that he utterly lacks the temperament to be president of the French republic. Honestly, can one imagine him sitting across the table negotiating with Angela Merkel, Wolfgang Schäuble et al (and who are all familiar with what JLM has written about Germany)?

Art Goldhammer has an excellent blog post today, “Response to a reader on why I do not support Mélenchon.” I agree with every last word of it. And if one hasn’t seen my somewhat less measured critique of five years ago, go here.

This post is almost 2,800 words and I’ve hardly had a word about the other candidates, and notably Emmanuel Macron. As his big Paris rally is tomorrow afternoon, and which I plan to attend, I will do so after that. Likewise for Marine LP, whose Paris rally is tomorrow evening (and which I’ll also try to make it to). Benoît Hamon is having an concert-rally at the Place de la République on Wednesday, which I’ll check out. As for François Fillon, I didn’t go to his meeting at the Palais des Sports last Sunday. Seeing him at the Trocadéro was enough.

With a week to go, I’m going out on a limb, rolling the dice, and provisionally predicting that Mélenchon and Macron will go to the 2nd round, for the sole reason of their positive favorable/unfavorable ratings. Marine LP’s already execrable numbers have worsened and Fillon’s are catastrophic: +24/-70 at IPSOS, +27/-72 at IFOP, i.e. even worse than Marine’s. The French people in their considerable majority want neither of these two.

À suivre.

UPDATE: Guillaume Duval of Alternatives Économiques had a tribune in Libération, dated April 12th, critiquing both Macron and Mélenchon. On the latter:

A gauche de la gauche, on suit désormais le panache rouge d’un vieux tribun blanchi sous le harnais de la politique politicienne depuis son plus jeune âge. Il parle certes très bien et maîtrise tous ses classiques à gauche, mais il n’en propose pas moins un programme surréaliste sur le plan économique. Alors que la France se place déjà en tête de tous les pays développés avec 56 % du PIB de dépenses publiques, il entend porter ce ratio à 64 % en un seul quinquennat en augmentant ces dépenses de 173 milliards d’euros par an. Et cela tout en empruntant aussi, dès la première année, 100 milliards d’euros supplémentaires sur les marchés financiers, soit l’équivalent de 4,5 points de PIB, alors que la France approche déjà les 100 % du PIB de dette publique. Soit dit en passant pour un programme qui se veut très «écolo», il est aussi, parmi les principaux candidats, celui qui mise sur le niveau le plus élevé de croissance économique pour boucler son affaire. Tout cela sans que lui-même ni ses partisans ne doutent un instant de la faisabilité politique, sociale et économique, interne au moins autant qu’externe, d’une telle politique ni de ses conséquences potentiellement désastreuses si elle était effectivement mise en œuvre. Il faut dire que Jean-Luc Mélenchon est de longue date un admirateur de Hugo Chávez et de Nicolás Maduro…

Libération’s Jean Quatremer, in a Facebook debate yesterday with a Mélenchon-supporting academic sociologist, nailed it with this comment (my translation)

JLM: here is a man who wants to sit at the table with a dictator [Putin] to discuss the borders of a country [Russia] that has not asked anything of him, exactly like at Munich, who admires Chavez, Maduro, Castro, who wants to leave the EU, NATO, the IMF, World Bank, the OECD, to abrogate all trade agreements, close France in on itself, except to join the Bolivarian Alliance… yes this man is clearly not a democrat. His Sixth Republic is exactly the type of exercise that would allow him to consolidate his power. I am astounded at the blindness of people whose precise profession is to engage in critical thinking.

And on what basis would France join the Bolivarian Alliance? Because France is a South American power, so says JLM, as Guiana is a French département. Sans blague.


Le Huffington Post, April 14th

Marine Le Pen: the movie

[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below] [4th update below] [5th update below]

The Financial Times website has a 15-minute video report, dated March 31st, on “the town that turned to Le Pen.” The town in question is Hénin-Beaumont, in the heart of France’s northern Rust Belt, which has become a Front National fief since Steeve Briois, a party heavyweight and Marine Le Pen ally, was comfortably elected mayor in 2014—and with Marine having lost the legislative constituency in 2012 by the narrowest of margins (0.22%; though she had the satisfaction of trouncing Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the 1st round). The FN is presenting Hénin-Beaumont as a model of FN good governance (contrasting with Vitrolles, the FN’s showcase municipality in the 1997-2001 period, where the FN experience ended in fiasco). If the 2015 regional election score in Hénin-Beaumont is any indication—Marine LP’s list taking 60% of the vote—the FN will be running the town for a while to come. So the FT’s Paris bureau chief Anne-Sylvaine Chassany went up there to find out what’s going on. Her report is worth the watch.

On the subject of Hénin-Beaumont and the FN, a feature-length film, directed by Lucas Belvaux, opened in February, Chez nous (in English: This is our land; FYI, “On-est-chez-nous!” is the chant most often heard at FN rallies). The FN flipped out when the film’s imminent release was announced in January, denouncing it as malevolent propaganda whose sole intention was to sully the party during the presidential campaign, and with the FN’s troll army going into action on social media to trash it—though, as one could have expected, not a single FN person had actually seen the film. Here’s a description of the plot, which I’ve cribbed from Atlantico and modified à ma guise

In Hénart, a fictitious town in the north, everyone knows and likes Pauline Duhez (Émilie Dequenne), a self-employed nurse who is out and about making house calls almost every day. It is thus normal that on the occasion of the municipal elections, Philippe Berthier (André Dussollier), a well-to-do medical doctor, former member of the European Parliament, and prominent local notable, proposes that she join the list of Agnès Dorgelle (Catherine Jacob), the national leader of the Rassemblement National Populaire (RNP). Berthier’s plan is the following: Pauline will be the n°2 on the list, behind the Parisian Dorgelle, and do the job for her as mayor while Dorgelle gives priority to her commitments on the national level.

Pauline, who is mostly apolitical, hesitates at first, saying she lacks the experience and is not sure she would be up to the job, but then succumbs to Dr. Berthier’s entreaties, adopts the RNP’s positions and eagerly plunges into the campaign, even though it means some changes in her work – which she loves – as a nurse. But things start to get complicated: with patients, who disapprove of her engagement with the RNP, and, above all, her retired former trade unionist, PCF-voting father, who stops speaking to her when he sees her on television as the RNP candidate. She then learns that Berthier has concealed from her shady parts of his political past. Adding to this is her new boyfriend, Stanko (Guillaume Gouix), with whom she had gone out in high school two decades earlier, who had been a member of the RNP’s security detachment of tough guys under Berthier’s supervision but been expelled for extremism and violent behavior – as this was tarnishing the public image of the RNP, which wants to appear respectable – and is now in a gang of neo-Nazi/skinhead goons that goes on migrant-bashing expeditions at night, but which he has concealed from Pauline.

So what was to have been a cakewalk to victory in the election becomes more complicated for Pauline. Skeletons come out of the closet and with Agnès Dorgelle, who wants people to forget about the past declarations of her father – from whom she had inherited the RNP leadership – on Jews, Arabs, and immigrants, is having a hard time burying the sulfurous past of her close collaborators. But she forges on…

It is rather obvious from the outset that Hénart is Hénin-Beaumont—the film was shot in the vicinity: in Bethune, Lens, and other localities in the Pas-de-Calais—the RNP is the FN’s big tent RBM (Rassemblement Bleu Marine), and the blond Agnès Dorgelle is, of course, Marine Le Pen. The FN’s ire toward the film, as Le Monde’s Raphaëlle Bacqué reported, was indeed focused on the casting of Catherine Jacob as the Marine lookalike, with, e.g., Steeve Briois calling her a “pot à tabac” (an uncomplimentary expression for a short, overweight woman)—not that the frontistes could have said anything else about the film, as they had not and would not see it.

Reviews were good on the whole—by critics and Allociné spectateurs alike, though there was an early troll campaign to lower its Allociné rating—but with some critics reproaching it for being too unsubtle. I thought it was quite good myself. The casting is pitch-perfect, particularly Émilie Dequenne, who merits a César nomination for her performance (pour mémoire, she was nominated for one in 2015, for her role in Belvaux’s Pas son genre). André Dussollier is likewise first-rate as the provincial bourgeois facho. And the depiction of the FN’s modus operandi and rhetoric is totally on target. I detected nothing that did not ring true and, with the exception of the flawed final scene, no contrivances. The film is very good in its portrayal of the cynicism of the FN, of the way it goes about recruiting and then manipulating candidates on the local level—and it is absolutely the case that the party seeks out political novices and ingenues, whose strings can be pulled from on high. Also spot on is the ambiguity of the party’s relationship with the violent elements on its fringe, whom it wants to keep out of sight, not out of fundamental political differences but because the goons make the party look bad and undermine its efforts at respectability and de-demonization.

Hollywood press critics who saw ‘Chez nous’ at the Rotterdam film festival gave it the thumbs up, e.g. from The Hollywood ReporterScreen Daily, and Variety, with the latter’s Jay Weissberg having this to say

The film is a shoo-in for Stateside distribution, since Belvaux’s theme is the cinematic equivalent of all those articles trying to understand the disgruntled white voters who supported Trump.

See also critic Boyd van Hoeij’s March 9th piece in The Atlantic, “Inside France’s most controversial film of the moment.”

The film has not been a big hit at the box office—with a mere 310,000 tickets sold seven weeks after its release—which is too bad (as I had declared on social media after seeing it that it was “Un bon film, à voir par tout citoyen avant le 1er tour de l’élection présidentielle”…). As for why it has been a relative commercial failure, perhaps people just don’t want to see an overly political film, particularly when they’re being bombarded daily with politics, and during an interminable, exasperating campaign to boot. Allez savoir. Émilie Dequenne and Lucas Belvaux appeared on February 4th on France 2’s late night “On n’est pas couché.” Trailer is here.

On how the FN operates behind the scenes—and manipulates and exploits its own candidates—France 2’s Envoyé Spécial had an exceptional one-hour reportage on March 16th, “Front national: les hommes de l’ombre,” on the three men at the heart of the FN’s finances: Frédéric Chatillon, Axel Loustau, and Nicolas Crochet. The three are formally independent businessmen and simple FN members with no official function in the party—and have no public profile—but are, in fact, in Marine LP’s inner circle. They’re her closest associates and her buddies—particularly Chatillon—whom she’s known since her late teens-early 20s, having partied together in their wild-and-crazy youth and who knows what else. And, as it happens, the three camarades were militants during their student days in the extreme right-wing GUD, known since its inception for physically bashing leftists. As one learns in the reportage, while Chatillon et al may no longer wear black rangers and wield truncheons, their facho politics have not changed an iota. They’re way out there on the extreme right, with the requisite antisemitism and all; thus their non-public profile in the party. If Marine is going to de-demonize the FN, the three camarades must stay out of sight.

But this is hard to do, as the three are so central to the FN’s money-making operations and corruption—and which involves, entre autres, legally obligating novice FN candidates to purchase their campaign material and other services at inflated prices from enterprises owned by Chatillon et al. Marine LP’s former geopolitical adviser, Aymeric Chauperade, is thus quoted in the reportage

Marine Le Pen minore ou néglige la dangerosité de ces gens-là. Il n’y a aucune raison que ce groupe disparaisse. C’est le groupe qui aura amené Marine Le Pen au pouvoir. Manifestement elle ne peut rien faire sans eux et elle ne peut rien faire contre eux, c’est ça qui est évidemment très grave.

It was said that Chauperade broke with Marine in 2015 over foreign policy differences but he asserts in the reportage that it was due to the influence of the three camarades. The Envoyé Spécial report, which is a must, may be watched here.

On Chatillon et al, also see the articles in the March 22nd and March 29th issues of Le Canard Enchaîné (to enlarge the images, right click to open in a new tab).

Another reportage—this in English—is a half hour analysis on the BBC, first aired on March 20th, “Detoxifying France’s National Front.” The description:

Has Front National leader Marine Le Pen really detoxified the party founded by her father 40 years ago? Is it a right-wing protest movement or a party seriously preparing for power? Anand Menon, professor of European politics at Kings College London, analyses the process the French call dédiabolisation. Le Pen has banished the name of the party and even her own surname from election posters and leaflets. Her party is making inroads into socialist and communist fiefdoms in northern and eastern France. Combining nationalism with a message designed to reach out to the left, she speaks up loudly for the have-nots, people who live in the land she calls “the forgotten France.” She targets trade unionists, teachers and gay voters. But widening the party’s appeal leads to a tricky balancing act. Can Marine Le Pen manage the process of political exorcism without alienating die-hard supporters?

Stanford University professor and FN specialist Cécile Alduy, who posted the link on Facebook, wrote that it’s “[o]ne of the best radio shows I’ve listened to in a long time, and the best reporting on the National Front in English you can find around.” Indeed.

L’Obs/Rue 89 has a post dated March 26th on the research of Université d’Avignon political scientist Christèle Marchand-Lagier, “Qui vote FN? Pourquoi? 3 idées reçues sur les électeurs du Front national.” Based on years of interviewing FN voters in the Vaucluse—Marion Maréchal-Le Pen’s fief and an FN bastion—Marchand-Lagier concludes that many FN voters (a) are not particularly ideological, are not well-informed about the FN’s program, and don’t vote for the party with the expectation that it will come to power and change their lives for the better; (b) are far more middle class than lower; and (c) could change their votes in the future, signifying that a significant portion of the FN’s vote remains one of protest rather than adhesion. That’s good to know.

Also refuting idées reçues is demographer Hervé Le Bras in a piece in Slate.fr, dated April 10th, “Qui vote FN? Pas forcément ceux à qui l’on pense.” Cool maps, as one usually finds in Le Bras’ publications. In short, a sizable part of the FN vote resembles that of Trump’s in the US: periurban, small provincial towns, and rural (i.e. not urban); middle class but who fear downward mobility (and which they see around them); and a sentiment of isolation from mainstream (urban) society and abandonment by the state.

Marine LP is having her Paris rally next Monday, five years to the day from the one in 2012. And as with that one, it will be held at the Zénith, which seats 6,300 (and with no standing room-only pit). This is not the largest arena in the city, e.g. some 12,000 can pack the Palais des Sports, and Bercy—where Emmanuel Macron will be holding his rally on Monday as well—can accommodate 20,000. Marine may be high in the polls—in the one out today from IPSOS, she’s tied with Macron for first, at 24%—but still can’t draw big crowds, and certainly not from the Paris region. Not what one would expect from a candidate who has an outside chance of being elected president of the French republic.

UPDATE: The New York Times’ Adam Nossiter has a detailed article (April 13th) on Marine LP and Frédéric Chatillon et al, “Le Pen’s inner circle fuels doubt about bid to ‘un-demonize’ her party.”

2nd UPDATE: Valérie Igounet and Vincent Jarousseau—a historian at the CNRS and photographer-documentarian, respectively—have a photoessay in the Spring 2017 issue of Dissent, “Scenes from the Front: France’s Front National in Power,” which is mainly of Hénin-Beaumont.

3rd UPDATE: Paris-based journalist Scott Sayare has a very good article (April 20th) in The Guardian on “How Marine Le Pen played the media.” The lede: “For years, she has accused French journalists of bias against her family and her party. Yet Marine Le Pen has managed to lead the far-right Front National into the political mainstream – and she couldn’t have done it without the press.”

4th UPDATE: Cécile Alduy of Stanford University has a must-read piece (April 23rd) in Politico, “What a 1973 French novel tells us about Marine Le Pen, Steve Bannon and the rise of the populist right.” The lede: “Stridently anti-immigrant, The Camp of Saints was originally ignored or pilloried. Now, it’s found a following.”

5th UPDATE: France Culture’s excellent ‘La Suite dans les idées’ program, hosted by Sylvain Bourmeau, has a half-hour interview (May 27th) with University of Rouen sociologist Violaine Girard, entitled “Le FN pavillonnaire est-il vraiment si populaire?,” in which Girard, based on her field research, refutes the idée reçue that periurban FN voters are victims of the economic crisis and experiencing downward mobility.

Le CEVIPOF de Sciences Po a développé, en partenariat avec le quotidien 20 Minutes, une boussole présidentielle, qui permet aux citoyens de tester leurs convictions politiques par rapport à celles des onze candidats à l’élection présidentielle. Le test est bien conçu à mon avis—comme le Politest, qui a été crée en 2006 par des étudiants à Sciences Po (et actualisé en 2012). Pour accéder à la boussole, allez ici.

France 24, pour sa part, a créé une boussole électorale aussi, qui n’est pas mal. And it may be taken in English.

To take the Politest—”the test to see where you are situated politically”—in English, go here.

My results for the two “boussoles” are below (screen shots). I am closest to Benoît Hamon, not surprisingly, though just a little to his right 😉

According to the France 24 one, the candidate whose positions I am in the most agreement with is… Nathalie Arthaud. Allez savoir…

As for how I will be casting my ballot on April 23rd, I am still undecided between Hamon and Emmanuel Macron, and will likely remain so until the day of the vote…

[update below]

I was initially going to post this as a comment on Facebook but decided to do so on AWAV instead. I saw Jean-Luc Mélenchon today, at a half-day forum at Le Monde HQ on “What foreign policy for France in 2017?,” co-sponsored by Le Monde and the European Council on Foreign Relations. The chef de file of La France Insoumise fielded questions for 45 minutes from Le Monde’s Arnaud Leparmentier—known for his social-liberal bent—and ECFR’s Manuel Lafont Rapnouil. I’ve seen JLM at rallies addressing the faithful and countless times on television, but this is the first time in a smaller forum—and before an audience that clearly did not include too many of his supporters.

He was vintage showman Mélenchon, trash-talking and blustering from the get go. Quel guignol. I openly laughed at three moments at least, though not because he was trying to be funny. This is not exactly a revelation but on form JLM is the mirror image of Marine Le Pen. The manner in which the two confront journalists asking pointed questions is identical. And on substance, there is more overlap between them than one may imagine. E.g. JLM’s ‘France First’ nationalism is striking, as is the attitude toward the European Union, which took up much of the back-and-forth. Now JLM does differentiate himself from MLP in that he is not, in principle, hostile to the construction of Europe and does not advocate a fast withdrawal from the euro. But these are nuances. His attitude toward the EU and Germany is that they must simply capitulate to French demands et c’est tout. So a president Mélenchon would go to Berlin—or, better yet, summon Angela Merkel to Paris—and announce that the EU treaties need to be revised. Or else. I was trying to imagine the scene: of Mélenchon, flanked by Alexis Corbière and Liêm Hoang-Ngoc, reading the riot act to Madame Merkel and Wolfgang Schäuble. Ça prêtait à rire. When Leparmentier asked JLM who his allies would be in the European Council—i.e. what other EU member state would ally with France in its surenchère with Germany—and his “Plan B” in the event that Merkel & Co., along with most of the rest of the European Council, laughed in his face and told him he was off his rocker, he resorted to the time worn tactic of talking his way out of the rhetorical corner he had painted himself in to, of talking and talking and talking until the next question. It was likewise with a question on Russia, Crimea, and the inviolability of borders, in which he found himself ensnared in a total contradiction. So he just talked his way out of it.

One thing I’ll hand to JLM is that he is intellectually cultivated and no dummy. Ce n’est pas un con. And he does put on a good show. But he utterly lacks the temperament to be president of the French republic.

One new thing: JLM was asked to explain why Trump won the US election. It’s the first time I’ve heard JLM, for whom anti-Americanism is in his DNA, talk about internal US politics (entre autres, he’s steeped in the culture of the Latin American left, systematically referring the US as the “North Americans,” the “Yanquis,” etc). Though extolling Bernie Sanders—whose campaign he studied closely—he was nonetheless disconcertingly complaisant toward Trump’s campaign rhetoric and comprehending of why he won. I didn’t like that—as he is utterly wrong—but did find lucid one of his concluding remarks on this, which is that it is erroneous to think that the working class has always voted for the left. As JLM insisted, even when the PCF-led left was at the peak of its strength, at least 30% of the working class voted for the right. And these days that percentage is higher. And he explained why.

JLM is, as one knows, flying high in the polls at the moment, reaching 15 to 16%, which has made him the media star of the moment: e.g. making the cover of yesterday’s JDD and the subject of today’s Thomas Legrand édito politique and C dans l’air. And the rise is all at Benoît Hamon’s expense. That’s really too bad, as Hamon doesn’t deserve to be sinking in the way he is. I’m just a little dubious about JLM’s rising numbers, though, as I’d like to know where they’re coming from. Somehow it doesn’t make sense that there would be sizable defections from Hamon in his direction. There are anecdotes of Marine LP voters now tempted by JLM, which would be nice, but her numbers are showing no drop so far.

Despite my skepticism as to his present polling, it is clear that JLM is running a very good campaign and has modified both his rhetoric and image from that of 2012. He’s always known how to give a good speech—to put on a show—but has perfected his technique. The discourse is more populist and nationalist, and with a new ambiguity over immigration, which may not be to my taste but will be more so to the kind of voter attracted to his style of populism. In 2012 JLM was clearly the candidate of salaried public sector employees—with their special retirement regimes and a general status perceived by others as privileged, thus limiting his appeal—and with the Communist Party and unions in the front lines of his campaign; this time the PCF, CGT, and intérêts catégoriels of SNCF cheminots et al have been sidelined. At the March 18th rally at the République, their presence was discreet. And he has mastered the Internet and social media, notably in his use of YouTube.

The change in JLM’s strategy may be summed up in his campaign posters of 2012 and this year, seen below. In 2012, he resembled an Eastern European communist party apparatchik, as I wrote in my anti-JLM broadside back then. He was sinister looking; in one wall poster I saw at the time, someone had put a moustache on him, so he uncannily resembled you know who. In 2017 he’s Tonton Jean-Luc. La force tranquille à gauche de la gauche. We’ll see on April 23rd if it works for him.

UPDATE: Le Monde has an account of the April 3rd forum here. For the record, the other interventions were by Pouria Amirshai (for Benoît Hamon), Jérôme Rivière (for Marine Le Pen), Sylvie Goulard (for Emmanuel Macron), and Jean-Pierre Raffarin (for François Fillon).

Mélenchon 2012 – 2017 : ce qui a changé

Democracy: the movie

[update below]

Yesterday was the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, a.k.a. the Treaty Establishing the European Economic Community, which was the precursor to the Treaty of Maastricht, a.k.a. the Treaty on European Union, signed thirty-five years later. It is no exaggeration to say that the Treaty of Rome was an event of world-historical importance; one of the most momentous of the past seventy years. To mark the occasion, I want to strongly, enthusiastically recommend a terrific 1½ hour German documentary, Democracy, that I saw for the first time last October at the Festival du Cinéma Allemand in Paris, and with director David Bernet present (the film’s title in German carries the subtitle “Im Rausch der Daten”: inside the noise of data). The subject is the legislative process within the institutions of the European Union—and the European Parliament in particular—over the General Data Protection Regulation, a process that began in 2012 and lasted three years. ‘Democracy’ is, quite simply, the best behind-the-scenes documentary one will see on how the European Union actually works—of how EU legislation is crafted and adopted—and over an issue of great importance to the 500-odd million citizens of the Union’s member states—and who, thanks to the GDPR, will enjoy greater protection in regard to their personal information on the Internet than do Americans or others. Among other things, the documentary will also lay to rest any lingering notions of a “democratic deficit” in the institutions of the European Union (of a deficit greater than that in the institutions of any given member state, in any case). Here’s a synopsis from this website (and where a trailer with English subtitles may be seen)

Few things are more unwieldy and lacking in transparency than European politics. Who’s really running the show in Brussels? What’s the true role of the European Parliament or the Council of Ministers? And how do the new laws and regulations that apply to all 28 member states get made? For two years, Democracy followed several key figures behind the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation, a controversial issue among European policymakers. The film starts in 2014 with the European Parliament approving the new regulation, and then leaps two years back to the start of the negotiations. Rapporteur Jan Philipp Albrecht is the German Green Party [member of the European Parliament] tasked with steering and overseeing the entire process. We see him talking with lobbyists and civil rights activists, joining fringe gatherings and debates, participating in think tanks, talking with colleagues in the corridors of power, and reporting to EU Commissioner Viviane Reding [who held the Justice, Fundamental Rights, and Citizenship file]. Often patient but sometimes visibly frustrated, he counters opponents’ arguments about a new regulation that met particularly intense resistance from big businesses working with large amounts of personal data.

The documentary has protagonists and heroes, notably Jan Philipp Albrecht and the Luxembourgeoise Viviane Reding mentioned above, but also, among others, the citizens’ lobbyists Paolo Balboni of the European Privacy Association and Katarzyna Szymielewicz of the Warsaw-based Panoptykon Foundation. And, indirectly, Edward Snowden, who naturally makes an appearance. The stakes in the legislation were huge for big data-mining corporate interests—Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Microsoft, Apple, Amazon et al—but the only lobbyist interviewed on that side was from the Cary, North Carolina-based IT company SAS; I initially thought this was a shortcoming of the documentary, but, as one learns, the big data operators (Google et al), though omnipresent throughout, declined to be interviewed by director Bernet.

After seeing the film last October, I declared to all and sundry that every citizen of an EU member state should be obliged to see it—so as to see how the EU actually works—and that the film should also be screened in university courses on contemporary Europe. When I asked Bernet how one could obtain the DVD (and with English and French subtitles), he said to look on Amazon.de, so I had a copy ordered for a course I teach on European politics to American undergraduates on a semester abroad. As it happens, we watched it in class last week, with the students finding it most interesting—and one saying that she wanted to see it again—and a good discussion ensuing. The pedagogical value of the film was confirmed.

University of Cambridge technology law and policy specialist Julia Powles had a review essay on the film in The Guardian, “Democracy: the film that gets behind the scenes of the European privacy debate,” on its debut in Germany in November 2015. The lede: “As nationalism sweeps Europe, a subtle cinematic triumph about an unlikely subject animates the hopes of transnational democracy.”

Also see the review from June 2016 in ZDNet, by journalist Wendy M. Grossman, who specializes in IT and privacy issues, in which she writes that

Democracy is almost as extraordinary an achievement as the passage of the GDPR: Bernet manages to make data protection law and legislative compromise engrossing. Who knew that was even possible?

Film critic Jordan Mintzer has a review in The Hollywood Reporter, which begins

Watching a government at work can be akin to watching flies fornicate, so director David Bernet deserves credit for making the most out of a particularly tedious bureaucratic nightmare in Democracy, a rare and insightful glimpse into the inner workings of the European Parliament…

Two thoughts. First, Democracy is an excellent antidote to the half-baked, ill-informed Euroscepticism that presently pervades public opinion in the EU’s member states. Second, it makes Brexit that much more incomprehensible. Honestly, why would the Brits want to be left out of the legislative process one sees in the film, which will necessarily affect them whether they remain in the EU or leave? It makes no sense.

UPDATE: Project Syndicate has a pertinent piece (August 18th) by Christopher Smart of Chatham House, “The clash of the data titans,” that mentions the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation. The lede: “Most economic activity today depends on data, much of it gathered and analyzed across borders. And yet the European and American policymakers now deciding the rules on how data should be exchanged and stored are focusing more on privacy considerations and national-security concerns than on efficiency and innovation.”

Benoît Hamon at Bercy

[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below]

Saturday was Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s big Paris rally, yesterday was Benoît Hamon’s. The venue was the Palais Omnisports de Paris-Bercy in the 12th arrondissement along the Seine, formally called the AccorHotels Arena since last year, as the corporate branding of sports stadiums and arenas—and Anglicizing their names—has now come to France (how I hate that; yet another American import to be lamented). It was said last week that this was a make-or-break event for the Hamon campaign, that he absolutely had to fill the arena and have the event be seen as a success, or else. The big turnout at Mélenchon’s rally at the République only raised the stakes, as the two men are in a neck-and-neck contest to finish ahead of the other—and, for Hamon, to obtain a respectable 1st round score (in the mid to high teens). As the Bercy arena has a maximum capacity—of some 20,000, plus a few thousand outside watching on the big screen—at least there wouldn’t be a numbers game or dispute over that.

The rally, in short, was a spectacular success. First, the arena was packed and with several thousand outside. Second, the ambiance was survolté (enthusiastic, excited), in good part thanks to the large contingent of young people—mainly from the MJS—in the arena’s pit (where I was). Third, Hamon gave a great speech. He spoke for almost an hour-and-a-half and was very good throughout (to watch it, go here). Unlike Mélenchon the day before, he targeted his opponents on numerous occasions—Marine Le Pen, François Fillon, and (particularly) Emmanuel Macron, rarely Mélenchon—though without mentioning any by name (except Marine LP once). I suppose that’s normal for a candidate in his position—and particularly aiming at Macron, as a sizable number of center-left voters are undecided between the two. There was nothing mean or below-the-belt. On a host of issues—notably immigration—he hit the right buttons and had a number of great lines. E.g.

Je sais que l’histoire de France est un bloc, comme la Révolution. Mais je ne confonds pas la Révolution et la Restauration, les communards et les Versaillais, Barrès et Zola, les dreyfusards et les anti-dreyfusards, je ne confonds pas l’histoire de Fernand Braudel et celle de Charles Maurras…


And this

Comment aurions-nous construit la France sans les Polonais, les Italiens, les Portugais, les Marocains, les Sénégalais, etc?… Angela Merkel a parlé d’une voix d’or quand elle a dit ce qu’il fallait dire au nom même du projet européen pour les réfugiés…Vous pouvez être le prochain Thomas Pesquet, le prochain Omar Sy, la prochaine Najat Vallaud-Belkacem…

Najat V-B was indeed present in the V.I.P. area and took the mike during the warm-up, as did Christiane Taubira and others. But one noted the PS heavyweights who were not present, and whose names were not uttered once: Manuel Valls, Ségolène Royal, Stéphane Le Foll, Julien Dray… Hamon did take care at one point to positively mention François Hollande, Bernard Cazeneuve, and Jean-Yves Le Drian, which provoked applause.

There is so much that was good in Hamon’s speech. E.g. March 19th is the anniversary of two tragic events. One is the 2012 murder of the Jewish schoolchildren in Toulouse by Mohammed Merah. Hamon marked the occasion by evoking their names and asking for a minute of silence in their memory, plus all the other victims of terrorism (soldiers in Montauban, Charlie Hebdo-Hyper Cacher, November 13th). C’était fort. The other event is the formal end, in 1962, of the seven-and-a-half year Algerian war of independence, in which so many lives were lost, shattered, or upended. Hamon’s used that one to call for a new era of fraternity between the French and Algerian peoples. C’est bien.

Hamon is also the only candidate—probably excepting Macron—who will trash Trump and Putin in the same sentence—and with the audience (me included) booing at the mention of both names.

To see my photos with commentary, go to the album here (for the comments, click on the photo, then the info icon on the top right, and scroll with the arrow).

Two more things. During Hamon’s speech, my wife—who was watching it live on BFM—sent me a text message saying how impressed she was with what Hamon was saying, plus marveling that he was doing so without notes. I replied that he had a teleprompter. It was indeed the first time I’ve personally seen a teleprompter at a French political rally. Another American import. I doubt anyone noticed it or even knew what it was. No harm in that. It’s hard for even skilled orators to flawlessly pull off the 90-minute speech of their lives without something written in front of them. Most French politicos in such situations read written texts, which makes for boring, plodding speeches (e.g. Sarkozy, at his big April 2007 rally at Bercy—which I watched on the big screen outside—looked down at his text the entire time, almost never making eye contact with the audience; what a dud). Marine Le Pen, who delivers a good speech, was constantly looking at down at the lectern at her 2012 rally at the Zénith. On Saturday, Mélenchon, who’s a natural orator, had sheets of paper, which he glanced at occasionally while walking the stage and looking directly at the audience. The only French politicos I’ve seen who can speak for literally hours with no notes—who pace the stage with mike in hand—are Jean-Marie Le Pen and Philippe de Villiers. But they’re showmen, so thus a minority.

The second thing. I’ve announced to all and sundry over the past couple of months that I’ve decided to vote strategically for Emmanuel Macron in the 1st round, as there are two overriding imperatives in this election: (a) to avoid, if at all possible, a 2nd round face-off between Le Pen and Fillon, and (b) to avoid at all costs a Le Pen victory. As it is, objectively speaking, most unlikely that any Socialist candidate could make it to the 2nd round—and whose chances of victory, in that event, would be worryingly uncertain against Marine LP—that leaves Macron as the only candidate who can save France from both a discredited, increasingly reactionary Fillon and the nightmarish catastrophe of Marine LP in the Élysée. And I’m fine with Macron, who’s an interesting, worthy candidate. But after yesterday’s rally I’m rethinking my position. I don’t care about the Parti Socialiste or—with the exception of Najat V-B and maybe a couple of others—those in its V.I.P. section yesterday (see my photos), but, to repeat, I was very impressed with Benoît Hamon, and on form and substance equally. But of equal importance was the crowd, and particularly the younger generation—and which included my 23-year-old daughter and several of her friends. In France, these are my people. There are the usual disagreements on this or that issue but I relate to and identify with them. In America, they’re liberal/progressive Democratic Party voters. And Hamon is the best possible candidate the moderate French left could have fielded in this election. So if, on April 23rd, it looks fairly certain that Macron will proceed to the 2nd round to face Marine LP, I will cast my ballot for Hamon.

UPDATE: Arthur Goldhammer, in an article in The American Prospect dated March 20th, assesses the visions of the five leading presidential candidates, beginning with a critique of Hamon’s economic program.

2nd UPDATE: Art Goldhammer, writing on his blog, has an assessment of Monday night’s debate, with which I very largely agree.

3rd UPDATE: France Inter political editorialist Thomas Legrand offered an insightful analysis of Monday’s debate, “Premier débat, avec des alliances et des oppositions à géométrie variable!”

Jean-Luc Mélenchon had his Paris rally today, exactly five years to the day after his big one of the 2012 campaign, which I attended and took pics of. Both serendipitously happened not only on a weekend but also on the anniversary of the birth of the 1871 Paris Commune, the French left’s most hallowed moment of history. The 2012 march set off from the Place de la Nation and ended at the Place de la Bastille, where JLM gave his speech. Today’s began at the Bastille and proceeded to the Place de la République, which is considerably larger than the Bastille, so can thus pack in more people. The turnout was impressive: larger than the 2012 march and considerably more so than François Fillon’s Trocadéro rally two weeks ago. The organizers announced 130,000; perhaps it was two-thirds of that, maybe more. It was certainly the biggest gathering of the ‘left of the left’ in a while: of JLM’s new movement La France Insoumise and the constituent parties of the Front de Gauche—the Communists and Ensemble the most important, along with JLM’s Parti de Gauche (now indistinguishable from FI)—which still seems to exist (JLM has pronounced the FDG defunct but the PCF says no, that it’s still alive and well). In American terms, these are Bernie Sanders supporters—on his left flank—though JLM is not the French Bernie; that distinction goes to Benoît Hamon; JLM is to Bernie’s left.

A few remarks on JLM’s speech, which went a full hour (if one wants to watch it, go here). First—and something we already know—he’s quite an orator, one of the best in the French political class, his speech replete with historical and literary references that one would never hear from a politician outre-Atlantique (and certainly not one who writes his/her own speeches, which, it goes without saying, JLM does). Second, a salutary detail of organization: JLM was not preceded by a series of politicos no one came to see and who could drone on and waste everyone’s time. There were short prerecorded videos projected on the big screens of FDG and other personalities speaking in favor of JLM—Pierre Laurent, Clémentine Autain, Danielle Simonnet, Eric Coquerel, Liêm Hoang-Ngoc—each thankfully lasting two or three minutes. The warm-up speakers were musicians and writers—none known to me—who sang leftist folk songs and read poetry. Nice. Third, JLM made not a single reference to any of his political opponents. There was an indirect one to Marine Le Pen and a couple of mentions of the Loi Macron (loud boos) but otherwise no personal attacks on anyone, which was admirable, though JLM clearly disdains everyone not in his political corner and does not envisage collaboration with the PS or anyone else outside the FI/FDG. The principal focus was on his populist vision for a direct democratic “6th Republic,” which is so half-baked and utterly unlikely to ever happen that, IMO, it’s not even worth debating. The constitution of the 5th Republic has some serious flaws but which could be fixed by amending a half dozen articles, not replacing the whole thing. I’ll elaborate on that matter at the opportune moment.

As usual  I took photos of the event and with commentary—click on the pics (there are 92) and scroll with the arrow—which I put into an album here.

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