French people are confusing. They drink wine at lunch and don’t think they are alcoholics. They each lots of fat cheese and stay slim. And their political life is full of mistresses and other surprises. One of the things foreign journalists do not seem to understand about French politics is that nobody can predict what is going to happen.
Remember the French presidential election in 2012. The absolute favourite was Dominique Strauss-Kahn. International newspapers were already imagining the head of the IMF winning the French presidency. But just before he announced his official candidacy he got caught red handed in a Hotel in the United States, accused of sexual assault and photographed with his hands cuffed for the whole world to see. Strauss-Kahn was out. And the very unlikely “normal” president Hollande won over Sarkozy. Surprise!
In the 2017 run for election, the circus is on again. And the surprises. Nobody predicted that Francois Fillon, catholic and quite severe-looking man beat Alain Juppé and Nicolas Sarkozy in the primary of The Republicans. He campaigned on his honesty and high ethics. And everyone believed him. Probably no rape cases like Strauss Kahn, no addiction to power like Sarkozy, no jail time for embezzlement like Alain Juppé. A clean catholic who could even steal some votes from Marine Le Pen with his strict anti-immigration programme and his heterosexual normative view of the family.
Many journalists, from New York to Oslo, had already made up their mind after that. It would be Fillon against Le Pen on the second round and Fillon would win. No point in discussing more on the subject. Yeah, except that this is French politics. Remember, anything can happen.
Meanwhile, in the Socialist party, another surprise. Benoit Hamon, a former Minister of Education who had left the Hollande government because it was leading “right wing” politics, was elected to represent the Socialist party at the Presidential election. He is for euthanasia, the vote of immigrants in local elections, the ban of certain pesticides, for the legalisation of cannabis, for homosexuals and single people to have children among others. He was a member of SOS Racisme before being a member of the Socialist party. Fundamentally against racism and fascism, he is a political activist who learned in the streets rather than in elite schools. He comes from Brittany, the region in France which has the least social and economic inequalities, and also grew up in Dakar in Sénégal.
Fillon will still win, say the international media. The French Socialist party is broken. I disagree. The left voters don’t believe in the Socialist party anymore because it has led right wing politics during 5 years under Hollande. But Hamon wants to create a large coalition with other left parties, among which the Green party and the extreme left. I believe he represents a new hope for left voters, and is a chance for the Socialists to be rebuild their party.
While we were looking that way, what happened? A French newspaper, Le Canard Enchaîné, publishes new scandals on Francois Fillon everyday. Or rather his wife. My mum says she has stopped watching Desperate Housewives and just listens to the radio to find out what is happening to Penelope Fillon. It turns out Francois Fillon has hired his wife as an assistant for a total salary of nearly 1 million Euros (over several years). It is not illegal to hire one’s family member, but it is illegal to use public funds to pay someone who is not actually working. Fillon is screaming like a pig about to be sliced up that this is an attack against him as a candidate. Sure, maybe it is. But why can’t they prove that she was working? No work contracts are to be found, nobody ever saw her working for him during all these years. We even learnt on Tuesday this week that she had been fired (from a job she was not doing) and earned 50.000 Euros in compensation for being fired.
All these are allegations, and need to be proven in court. But is there time for that? In a few weeks The Republicans need to present their candidate for the election. And Fillon campaigned on his honesty and ethics is…screwing us. Allegedly of course. He might just be paying his wife and student kids twice or four time the average French wage. If it is not to work it is illegal. If it is to work, but for that money, it is unethical. While politicians tell the French people to accept lower pay, cuts in disability pensions and health care because of lack of funding in the state finances. While they ask the poor to work harder and get less protection for less money, they pay their wife and kids 4 times our salary on our taxes. Will the French people elect such a man? Maybe. Remember, anything can happen.
So the international journalists look around, for someone else to bet on, and see Emmanuel Macron. He likes the European Union. He is young (39), speaks English and looks good. So foreign journalists like him already. As well as many French people. But there are more articles about the age difference with his wife, whom he met when he was a teenager and she was his teacher, than on his political programme. Guess why…he does not have one. While he was a Minister in Hollande’s government, he pushed for more liberalisation of the economy, less protection for workers. He is against limiting the salary of bosses to 100 times the minimum wage.
He previously worked for the high end Rothschild Bank and went to the elite school most French Presidents come from. He is a pure product of the system, and although he might be sexy because he does not want to demantle the European Union like Le Pen, he will make the rich richer and the poor poorer. I predict more demonstrations and more poverty than anyone has seen for a long time in France if he puts in place what his profile and his past actions seem to show. He and Le Pen have chosen each other as opponents, because she would have lots to say by being against him in the second round. Le Pen is feeding her ideas on the extra-liberalisation of the economy and increased poverty of lower classes. If Macron puts in place such laws it will be a perfect terrain for her to get even more voters by 2022. But again, let’s wait for his programme. And let’s wait to see if he is elected in 2017.
Marine Le Pen has a few problems of her own. The European Parliament is asking her to reimburse 300 000 Euros that it gave to Le Pen’s party as a salary to Le Pen’s former sister in law during 6 years as a Parliementary assistant. Except that she never occupied that job. She was just working for the party. And Marine Le Pen is refusing to give the money back. By the way, why would she have such a role and accept such money from an institution she despises? There is one thing that one never has surprises about in French politics: corruption, nepotism, conflict of interest and lack of transparency.
In my worst nightmares I see Marine Le Pen the elected leader of France. Then would follow Franxit. France banning the Euro, and getting Jeanne d’Arc imprinted on new Franc coins. The death of freedom of press. Journalists are already physically attacked in Le Pen meetings. First, second and third generation immigrants crying on trains. Putin, Le Pen and Trump holding hands and running free on the beach. More enemies of human rights sitting as permanent members of the UN Security Council than democrats.
I am worried for my country. And although Marine Le Pen is quiet these days, everyone has in mind the rise of populist parties and ideas in Western societies. I believe the middle classes who are so angry with the politicians and their impunity should look to the left instead of looking to the right. They might see hope instead of hate.
This article was published in VG on the 12th of February 2017 under the title “At Marine Le Pen blir valgt til Frankrikes president, er et av mine verste mareritt”.