Argument

#PrayforParis, Vote for Moi

With just weeks until an election that could change the direction of the republic, France’s politicians have wasted no time turning tragedy into talking points.

epa05024948 French far-right party Front National (FN) president Marine Le Pen delivers a statement at a press conference at FN's headquarters in Nanterre, France, 14 November, 2015. Le Pen suspends her election campaign at the 13 November Paris attacks that left at least 120 people dead. Eight assailants were killed, seven when they detonated their explosive belts, and one when he was shot by officers, police said. The French government declared a state of emergency, tightened border controls and mobilized 1,500 soldiers in consequence to the 13 November Paris attacks  EPA/CHRISTOPHE PETIT TESSON FINLAND OUT
epa05024948 French far-right party Front National (FN) president Marine Le Pen delivers a statement at a press conference at FN's headquarters in Nanterre, France, 14 November, 2015. Le Pen suspends her election campaign at the 13 November Paris attacks that left at least 120 people dead. Eight assailants were killed, seven when they detonated their explosive belts, and one when he was shot by officers, police said. The French government declared a state of emergency, tightened border controls and mobilized 1,500 soldiers in consequence to the 13 November Paris attacks EPA/CHRISTOPHE PETIT TESSON FINLAND OUT

Ambulances were still careening across Paris Friday night when Nicolas Bay, secretary-general of France’s far-right National Front party, took off the gloves: “While Hollande and Valls were attacking the National Front, the bloody assassins were preparing their own attacks. Shame, shame, shame on both of them!” he said in a tweet. (Bay quickly deleted the tweet, but not before several Internet users had copied it.) That same night, National Front parliamentary representative Gilbert Collard lamented a nation “abandoned” by its government, while another high-ranking National Front official, Wallerand de Saint Just, pointed his finger at the political class as “the TRUE responsible party behind the authors of these massacres.”

Not to be outdone, Laurent Wauquiez, secretary-general of the conservative Les Républicains party, demanded that 4,000 individuals on the Interior Ministry’s watch list be immediately packed off to an “internment camp,” while Lionnel Luca, leader of La Droite Populaire, a group of hard-liners within Les Républicains, announced that France is now paying for the government’s policy of “communitarianism” — the conservative buzzword for multiculturalism and ethnic diversity.

Their street brawlers thus having done the dirty work, conservative leader Nicolas Sarkozy and National Front head Marine Le Pen were freed to take a relatively higher road: On Saturday, after separate briefings with President François Hollande at the Élysée Palace, the two leaders voiced support of the government — but only if certain conditions were met. Sarkozy, for his part, insisted on “drastic modifications” to the government’s internal security arrangements that included placing the 11,500 individuals on the Interior Ministry’s watch list either under electronic surveillance or preemptive house arrest. Le Pen demanded that France withdraw from the Schengen free-movement zone, establish control over its borders, insisted on “disarming the suburbs … where guns have proliferated even since Sarkozy’s presidency,” and called for increases in the country’s military and security budget. She finished on an ominous note, tying the terrorist attacks to the hobbyhorse she had been riding for months: the vast influx of Middle Eastern refugees in Europe.

A tradition of setting aside politics during times of national crisis in France was established in 1914 with the creation of the “union sacrée,” a pact between left-wing groups and the government over the course of World War I. While the January terrorist attacks at the offices of Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish grocery story led to a paler version of this effort at national unity, symbolized by the massive march in Paris on Jan. 11, this time around — with an election pending in just weeks that could change the nature of the republic — a political timeout for an attack that claimed nearly 130 lives proved too much to ask. Today, the pallor of the union is such as to render it nearly invisible.

Had he not been before, Hollande was made acutely aware during these meetings of how changed and charged political circumstances are from those in January. For better or worse, his own actions are bending in the direction represented by his political nemeses. Even without the specter of Le Pen hovering over the Élysée, Hollande might well have shut France’s borders after the attacks and ordered airstrikes yesterday on Raqqa. But in today’s circumstances, these actions cannot be disentangled from political considerations.

This was particularly the case with his speech on Monday to a joint session of parliament held at the Palace of Versailles. Beginning with his opening words — “La France est en guerre” — Hollande not only bent toward France’s authoritarian right, but he largely stole its script. In fact, in both the speech’s atmospherics, which were somber and martial, and its ambition, Hollande stole a page from Charles de Gaulle. He called for a revision of the country’s constitution — specifically, Article 16, which grants “exceptional powers” to the executive branch when a “grave and immediate danger” threatens the nation, and Article 36, which organizes a “state of siege.” The irony behind Hollande’s proposal is that de Gaulle founded the Fifth Republic and formed its constitution, which provided the government with those powers, in response to an earlier and equally grave crisis: the war in Algeria. Now, Hollande believes that even these are not enough.

Hollande’s speech could prove a game-changer — or it may already be too late. In the polls leading up to last week’s bloody events, Le Pen and the National Front were already leading the ruling Socialists and conservative Républicains. While the actual powers of the regional councils are limited, this year’s election looks to serve as a sort of bellwether. Winning just one region would have been a first for the National Front; polls showed the party had been poised to win as many as three.

The crunching of France’s ideological plates began long before last Friday. Le Pen has been assurgent ever since 2011, when she assumed control of the party founded by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, purged it of anti-Semites and Vichy sentimentalists, and set it on the path toward what now looks like respectability, at least in some quarters. After completing the purge with the exile of her own father, Le Pen has enjoyed a seemingly irresistible rise in public opinion. Polls measuring voter intentions in the 2017 presidential race have consistently placed her in the lead.

As with all French elections, the presidential race will take place in two rounds; the first stage will determine the top two candidates, who will then face off in the second stage. The signs are telling. In most every possible permutation, Hollande will finish a distant third in the first round, leaving the field to the right and extreme right. Regardless of the conservative candidate — either Sarkozy or former Prime Ministers Alain Juppé and François Fillon — Le Pen finishes first, registering between 28 percent and 30 percent. Come the second round, however, conventional wisdom dictates that Socialist voters will rally to the so-called “republican front” and vote for the conservative candidate, even if it turns out to be their nemesis, Sarkozy.

But the results of next month’s regional elections will reveal whether conventional wisdom has been overtaken by events.

Until last week’s appalling events, followed by Hollande’s speech, results for the Socialists did not look pretty. Polls have mirrored polling on the presidential race: A Le Figaro poll released last month shows barely 21 percent of voters planned to vote for the Socialists, a sharp rebuke to a party that had swept to power four years ago. Le Pen’s party led with 28 percent, with Républicains garnering 27 percent. If the National Front maintains this lead, it will be able to claim the title of France’s leading political party.

But that was last month — an eternity in politics, especially given events over the last few days. Hollande’s speech on Monday received a mixed response from prominent members of Les Républicains, with several muttering, “Better late than never,” while others insisted that Hollande’s proposals were “too little, too late.” Similarly, Marine Le Pen’s response was “Oui, mais…” (“Yes, but….”) While she applauded several “welcome changes” in Hollande’s speech, she also insisted these proposals were weakened by enormous gaps, most notably Hollande’s refusal to address the question of France’s borders and announce that France was now engaged in a war “against Islamism.”

In the great confusion of events, there are few certainties. One is that, as Hollande announced on Monday, regional elections will take place as scheduled. Another is that political history in France will henceforth be divided between avant and après Nov. 13. Once the results of the regional elections are tallied, we will all have a better idea of what après means. Maybe Hollande will rally in the wake of a tragedy; perhaps Le Pen will repeat “Vive la République, vive la France!” all the way to victory. But regardless of who is ultimately at its helm, the republic looks poised for a rightward shift, a race that could get ugly, and a sacred union that has been profaned indeed.

Photo credit: EPA/CHRISTOPHE PETIT TESSON

Corrections, Nov. 18, 2015: Article 16 of the French Constitution grants the executive branch “exceptional powers” in times of emergency; Article 36 organizes a “state of siege.” A previous version of this article mistakenly switched the two. Also, the name of the La Droite Populaire leader is Lionnel Luca. A previous version of this article misspelled his first name. Also, the Le Figaro poll was released three weeks ago, on Oct. 29, rather than two weeks ago as a previous version of this post stated. 

Robert Zaretsky is a professor of history at the University of Houston’s Honors College and the author of a forthcoming book on Simone Weil.

 

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