Rank racism under the label of a ‘patriotic preference’ from the extreme right; a further raft of cuts and deregulation from the centre; or a left deeply divided over its attitude toward the five, unpopular years of President François Hollande…
The choices before the French people were set out in a weekend of rallies launching what is going to be a bruising and unpredictable campaign to choose the country’s next President in May. Over 40,000 people joined in different indoor rallies for the centre right media hero Emmanuel Macron (pictured), the far right Marine Le Pen, the Socialist Party’s Benoït Hamon or, with half the weekend’s attendance at his double meeting in Lyons in person and in Paris by hologram, the left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon.
Millions more watched the speeches, none under an hour long, on-line or on TV. The absent voice was that of the right wing Thatcherite candidate François Fillon, puzzling over how to explain to voters the one million euros his family has trousered from questionable parliamentary payments. He hopes to stay in the race by facing down the investigators, though newspapers talk of more revelations in the offing.
Hamon was formally declared the Socialist candidate at a Paris rally boycotted by key figures on the right of the party and attended by only one top ministers in the government of President François Hollande who, facing the wipe out of his vote in the party’s primaries, abandoned the contest in December.
Hamon aannounced he was going to stick with the radical programme that earned him a powerful majority in the primary vote. The Hollande presidency had generated an anger that he wanted to transform into an aspiration for a different future. But, he told Mélenchon and the Green candidate Yannick Jadot: Don’t ask me to make the heads of those responsible roll as the price for wider left unity.
The one big government name present, Education Minister Najat Valaud-Belkacem, went on the main morning radio programme on Monday defending the record of the Hollande government and, in particular, the labour law that provoked six months of strikes and protest rallies up to last summer. For his part, Hamon called for a European military force and praised the French military operations in Africa and the Middle East. Mélenchon told his supporters that they had enough experience of struggles and betrayals to understand what was being asked of them.
Meanwhile, “It’s our country” was the rhythmic chant of thousands of her followers as the racist far right National Front leader Marine Le Pen spelt out her programme of a “patriotic preference” in jobs, benefits, homes and schools. Her France of fear and closed borders would be one in which Islamist suspects are deported, immigrants kicked out, the state reinforced, and referendums held on leaving the EU and bringing back the guillotine.
She is selling her message by a combination of a tub-thumping Islamophobia and soft focus images of herself in print or film as the mother of France: “In the name of the people, Marine, President.”
In his turn, Macron kept to maximum rhetoric and minimal programme. Appealing to “that unique fervour, love of our country”, voters, he said, should not think Left or Right, but think of France.
Though Le Pen and Macron are portrayed by commentators as “anti-system”, both want to keep the existing structure in being, in particular the overwhelming power of the President. Hamon and Mélenchon alone say this system must be replaced. It will be the end of the month before we know whether the danger represented by a victory for Le Pen, Fillon or Macron is enough to bring them together.