Living in an area where there is some support for the Front National, expat Scheenagh Harrington has been following the presidential election soap opera closely
Tomorrow, Sunday, April 23, the French people will go to the polls in the first round of their presidential election, and the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen is widely expected to be one of the two candidates chosen. At 45, I’ve never been politically active (I was at the infamous Poll Tax riots, but asking for directions to Harrods rather than charging at policemen). But living in France as nationalist sentiment sweeps Europe, I couldn’t fail to be gripped.
If you don’t think too carefully about the consequences, the French election is better than EastEnders. The minority candidates, who are usually completely ignored by the mainstream media, have had their fair share of the spotlight over here – among them my favourite, Philippe Poutou, a factory mechanic who slagged off everyone during the TV debate.
We’ve also heard plenty from hobbitty hopeful Benoît Hamon, a former Minister for Education on the far left of French politics who wants to set up a universal wage and to legalise marijuana. Nice.
As for the front-runners, they are quite the mixed bag. Conservative Francois Fillon is the country’s version of Dirty Den – all smooth smiles and monstrous eyebrows – but he can’t quite escape the whiff of corruption clinging to those expensive suits (it’s alleged he used public money running into hundreds of thousands of euros to pay his British-born wife for a job she never did).
There’s Communist Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a wannabe Chairman Mao who delights in projecting holographs of himself so that he can entertain the crowds in Toulouse and Lyon AT THE SAME TIME.
We also have a centrist-of-sorts: doe-eyed Emmanuel Macron, who was François Hollande’s Minister of Economy, Industry and Digital Affairs before starting his own party (En Marche!) and chucking it over to run for the presidency.
Finally, poised like a spider in a web, is Marine Le Pen. There are plenty of interesting and engaging female politicians in France, but few command attention like Le Pen. I have to admit, she fascinates me. She’s like Marilyn Monroe: whenever she’s on screen, you can’t take your eyes off her, though the thought of her achieving power makes my heart sink.
In recent years she has crawled out of her father Jean-Marie Le Pen’s shadow, plastering a respectable sheen over the far-right Front National. In spirit the people flocking to her nationalist, anti-immigration rhetoric have much in common with those who, in the US, voted for Donald Trump. Le Pen’s message is one of hatred, fear and paranoia, speaking of the “forgotten” French people in communities where there are few opportunities and little investment. She believes that France should be for les Français, and it’s a message that will, no doubt, see her secure a win in the first round of the election.
While the media analysts and talking heads are all certain she would not beat the likes of Macron or even Fillon in the second round, given the winds of nationalist change blowing around Europe and the US, cracks are starting to appear in that rock-hard certainty. As the polls put the top four candidates (Le Pen, Macron, Fillon and Melenchon) within spitting distance of each other, all we can expect is the unexpected in this election.
Living in a Le Pen-friendly region, my family and I haven’t spoken to many French people about the election. Those we know are either disinterested in the whole process, or very cagey about how they stand politically.
Most of the English people we know, of course, can’t stand the Front National. If Le Pen is elected president, I doubt very much whether my family and I will stay in France long term. But my hope is still that the French people will show their true colours and show her the door.
Scheenagh Harrington is a freelance journalist based in Castres, France