France is a paradise inhabited by people who think they live in hell

Petr Fischer

Šéfredaktor Přítomnosti

Jacques Rupnik

Politolog a historik

We spoke with Jacques Rupnik, a political scientist based in Paris at Sciences Po, about the French presidential elections. Already on Sunday, the second round will decide whether Macron or Marine Le Pen will be president. The interview was conducted by Petr Fischer.

Petr Fischer: Did the fear of war in Ukraine have any impact on the elections?

Jacques Rupnik: The stress was felt especially at the beginning, in the first two weeks. But in France it is not perceived as a direct threat, which is a big difference compared to the countries of Central Europe and the Baltic states.

So the war did not play a role in the elections, and it did not hurt Marine Le Pen, even though she had posters of Putin ready?

It was talked about at the beginning of the campaign and Macron’s preferences went up because he was the one who, as EU president, was supposed to coordinate the European response. But that could not last for two months. And I don’t know of a country where the fate of the election was decided by a foreign policy issue.

But war in Europe is not every minute…

It certainly isn’t, but there was a war in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, and that didn’t decide any elections either, although even in France at the time it triggered a huge debate among intellectuals and politicians. Of course, it didn’t have the dimension of Russia, but speaking of the parallel, one could say that Milosevic acted then in a similar way to Putin today. He, too, said that he would protect Serbs in other territories, and so he intervened in Croatia, then in Bosnia and Kosovo. It is a similar syndrome. Serbia was also a key country in the Yugoslav federation, like Russia was in the Soviet Union. Croatia played a similar role for Serbia as Ukraine did for Russia. A key partner in the federation. The Slovenes could leave, but when the Croats left, Yugoslavia ended.  The Croats even came up with the idea of Yugoslavia once. It was a Croatian idea implemented by Serbian means. And then there is Slovenia as a parallel to the Baltic countries: prosperous small countries that have integrated most easily into the Western countries. And then there is the Caucasus and Kosovo, another parallel. The parallel is almost perfect, with one difference: that Russia, then headed by President Yeltsin, has given it all up. Yeltsin went against Gorbachev and, as President of Russia, broke up the USSR. Milosevic used violence, Yeltsin did not. Now it’s back with full force in Russia. But even then, as I recall, the war in the Balkans was not an election issue.

So does this presidential election in France have a main theme?

It’s hard to say, but there have been several attempts to raise the issue. The far right has tried to bring migration, immigrants and Islam back into the picture. There was an attack on Macron as too liberal a politician, most notably from Zemour, as a candidate who was even further to the right than Le Pen. And that helped her in a way.

So Marine Le Pen was suddenly in the mainstream, so to speak?

Well, she’s trying to do that, but she’s not mainstream, just read her programme. Le Pen has said goodbye to what her father did, which was to build the National Front as a fascist far right with racist overtones. Her daughter took a different path, but it took her a while, she’s been working on herself for twenty years. She still has a migration theme, but it’s not overt racism. She’s leaning towards the Republican idea. There are two key words in France: republic and laicization. That is to say, mainly the separation of religion from the public space and institutions, which of course Le Pen has her own interpretation of, for example, she is against the wearing of headscarves in schools and so on, which is not included in the classical concept. She understands that she has two kinds of voters, and she is targeting them in different ways.

What two kinds do you mean?

Voters south of Marseille, all over the Riviera. There are immigrants from Africa, that is, the French from Algiers who were expelled after decolonisation, a million French were expelled from Algeria in the early 1960s. And suddenly those who were expelled started moving to France as guest workers. These French were the ideal voters for Le Pen and his daughter.

And then there is the second group of her voters, those in the north and northeast of France, in the former industrial regions where heavy industry has failed. Here there is a mass of what you might call ‘ex-workers’ who live in pretty miserable conditions. And that is where Le Pen has a social theme. She combines a xenophobic moment in the south and a social issue in the north.

So is the National Front still an anti-system party at all?

It is as anti-system as Trump, Bolsonaro or Orbán. And that includes Putin, this was sort of the “new bunch” of quasi-authoritarian politicians. It included Bibi Netanyahu, who had this line-up pictured on election billboards: Trump, Bolsonaro, Putin… And the headline was, “This is a different league.” Le Pen belongs to this party, she wanted to be in this league, these are her partners.

Yet Le Pen seems to be accepted as mainstream already. The whole of mainstream French politics is collapsing in the elections, left and right, and the left is being taken over by Mélanchon and the right by Le Pen. This is no longer the fringe, but the mainstream. The electorate strongly supports it, the sum of them is almost fifty percent, with Zemour over fifty.

Yes, the party system has imploded, it is in ruins. It already started in the last election. For sixty years there was a tension between the socialists and the republicans, who took turns in power. And suddenly both parties have failed. And that’s a shame. Suddenly, there are three blocs: the centrist Macron, then the populists on the right and the populists on the left. Le Pen’s right-wing populism is no longer fascist; rather, she does not believe in liberal democracy, she would hold a referendum on every issue. She would want strong power, but she would turn to the people for everything. She does not believe in the mediating power of democracy and its institutions.

Mélanchon is a little different: on the contrary, he wants democracy, and he wants it to come from below, he doesn’t play the quasi-dictator and rule by a strong hand, vote for me, so that the people have power. It is a populism of an ultra-democratic nature, but it is still populism because it appeals to the people and not to political institutions and constraints. Mélanchon and Le Pen are noting each other’s dislike of constitutional and European constraints, the space for politics for them is the nation state, in this they are both on the Polish line, they are in favour of the French constitutional court having supremacy over European law. Macron, on the other hand, as a liberal, emphasises institutions and sees Europe and the world as the framework for politics.

The populist current with its emphasis on the people and the nation state seems to be resonating in France, and the number of votes it is winning is huge.

Yes, it is a strange country… Anyone who visits France sees a country of great prosperity. France spends the largest share of GDP on social spending and also the largest share of money on public spending ever. There’s a big taxing state, a big welfare state, yet people still complain that the state doesn’t do enough for them. There is a tradition in France that every generation has to live through its own little revolution, but there is something else behind it. To paraphrase a French writer, ‘France is a paradise inhabited by people who think they live in hell’.

What are the French dissatisfied with now?

I think it shows the weakness of the whole political system created by the 5th Republic and de Gaulle – a very strong president with great powers. It works when there is cohabitation, that is, a party other than the one represented by the president has a majority in parliament and therefore a prime minister, but when you have such a strongly vertical system, where power is concentrated in the Elysee Palace and yet the president has a majority in parliament, he can push through almost anything. And there’s a serious problem with how people perceive politics then. What I think should change, and I have seen that even Macron is in favour of this, is to move to proportional representation in parliamentary elections.

In presidential elections, people have become used to a two-round system. In the first, they vote for who they like, and in the second, they vote against who they do not like. It is clear and legible. But then it would be good to have a system that also allows parties that have a lot of votes, like Mélanchon and Le Pen now, but have a weak representation in Parliament. This is the reform that Macron will have to make if he wins the election

Do you think it would increase the legitimacy of the whole system?

I am convinced of that. If the system today effectively prevents political friction in parliament, it must inevitably spill over elsewhere. And we are already talking about yellow vests and other protest movements. There has to be a system that I think works well in Germany, and that is coalition building. You have to come to an agreement, and then the constellation has much more endurance. In France, these intermediate stages of democracy work badly.

Macron will probably win in the end, but can you say why it would be good for him to get another mandate?

Let me put it another way: a Le Pen victory would be a giant leap into the unknown. A big risk for France and for Europe. The whole European project is based on Franco-German cooperation after the war. Germany was on its knees and France helped it rehabilitate itself. It was always based on that connection. The enlarged Europe is already different and it is not enough, but without this link it cannot work either.

Why is it so important, remembering the past is not enough?

What is important is not only the past and the origins of the European project, but also the fact that it is a union of countries that are very different. One is a decentralised federation, the other is a centralised state. The political cultures are very different. Germany did not want to be involved in foreign policy anywhere and had that restraint in its constitution, whereas France did not. When these two so different agree, there is hope that their compromise will be acceptable in some version to others. I cannot imagine how the German Chancellor and his green Foreign Minister would negotiate with Le Pen, a nationalist who repeats: sovereignty, sovereignty, sovereignty. Perhaps it would have been possible in a period of relative calm, but now we have had a financial crisis, then a pandemic, now Putin, war, it is not known who will come after Biden, that is to say, whether Trump will return. And here Macron is very important everywhere because he understands French politics as necessarily and intrinsically linked to the European dimension, which means that he is aware that you cannot solve any of the problems I have named in a national framework.

Translated from the Czech original. 

published: 25. 4. 2022

Datum publikace:
25. 4. 2022
Autor článku:
Petr Fischer