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Fillon : a catastrophe unfolds

With the presidential campaign taken hostage by the right wing candidate, the Republic’s institutions are being strained to breaking point.

The philosopher Frédéric Lordon recently likened the Socialist Party to a dead star; a body visible in the night sky only by virtue of distance, the source of its light long dead and extinguished. An accurate metaphor in light of the ruinous effects of five years of hollandisme on the party, and one that doesn’t require any great deal of re-fitting in order to be applicable to the French Republic as a whole in its current state. Nonetheless, an outside observer might conclude that everything is basically functioning as before. There are political parties and candidates, which the media are doing their best to cover. The candidates move up and down pleasing-looking graphs of poll averages. Projects are presented, and there is some mud-slinging and heated exchange, but the fateful day of the elections will inevitably bring a new leader to the fore. Democratically validated at the ballot-boxes, he or she will begin a new quinquennat. Here ends the erroneous assessment of an outside observer.

In reality the Fifth Republic has never experienced anything of the like. Each week, the habitual forms of politics are warped to new grotesque extremes. We had Sarkozy cynically flirting with the far-right in the final weeks of his 2012 campaign, now it is François Fillon, a formerly austere statesman who held the second-highest office in the country, who has started down the dark path towards the kind of right-wing populism that is represented by Trump’s rise to power across the Atlantic.

We are the laughing stock of Europe and of the rest of the world […] I invite everyone to honour the basic principle of respect for the institutions — former PM Dominique De Villepin, 2/03/17 Le Figaro

The judicial investigation into the ‘PenelopeGate’ fake jobs scandal has progressed, and it has been announced that Fillon will be indicted on the 15th of March. Despite having previously stated that such an event would mean his withdrawal from the race, Fillon has refused to renounce his candidacy. As a result, he has lost dozens of key members of his campaign. The centrist UDI party has withdrawn from his coalition. His former rival in the right-wing primaries, Alain Juppé, has been pushed forward by some as a possible replacement, but the mayor of Bordeaux ruled himself out, at the same time attacking Fillon for his stubbornness and lamenting the terrible waste of an election which was all but won for Les Republicains.

In the face of the collapse of his centrist support, Fillon’s response has been to double down, radicalise, and play to the gallery. This has meant brazen attacks on the press and the judiciary in an attempt to surf the wave of discontent and disgust with “elites” that has been coming to the fore in this “post-truth” era. In doing so, he is dragging the presidential campaign and the nation as a whole into the gutter. Any honest, reasoned debate has become impossible in the face of such a sensationalisation of politics, with the discussion of the various political programmes rendered inaudible as the Fillon soap-opera plays out.

Le Pen reaps the rewards

The terrible consequence of Fillon’s actions is that they lend credibility to the paranoia-tinged declarations of the far-right. The Front National has always been especially resistant to the kind of scandals that would cripple any other political party. As Le canard enchaîné recently reminded its readers, the party remains the leader in terms of investigations for corruption. Of the 1600 frontiste councillors who came to power in the municipal elections in 2014, over a third have left the party in more or less ignoble circumstances. Le Pen herself is embroiled in a similar scandal to Fillon, as she is under investigation for misusing some 300 000 euros of public money in her position as an MEP.

Le Pen has refused to comply with an order to make herself available for an interview with the judges examining her case. Unlike Fillon, there is little evidence that her actions are having any serious consequences on her support — in fact it is quite the opposite, and is it any surprise? How can there be any call to ethical propriety on the part of Marine Le Pen when a “respectable” candidate such as Fillon speaks the same language? He has adopted her party’s denouncement of “biased institutions” and a “coup-d’état organised by the state”. The public are told that the judiciary are partial and that the media are incapable of reporting the truth. Amid the general cacophony of such an onslaught, voices of reason are drowned out, and confusion reigns. With six weeks to go until election day, 40 percent of electors remain undecided.

Macron still the media’s favourite

In the midst of this chaos, Macron’s support in the media sphere continues to persist. The word on the lips of long-standing commentators such as Daniel Cohn-Bendit is that he now represents the best chance of keeping Le Pen out of power, and the polls seem to confirm this. However, Macron is no exception to the trends represented by Fillon’s descent. His political platform is as much a product of the times as the right’s radicalisation.

In an event duly covered in full by the various 24 news channels, Macron finally launched his complete manifesto on Thursday. The 30-odd pages that make up the finished product read more like a marketing prospectus than a political programme. The candidate as a person is omnipresent; a third of the pages feature a glossy photo of Emmanuel Macron, smiling youthfully as he meets “the people”, or holding forth with passion at a rally. The public is being invited to vote for a personality. A young, dynamic, energetic man who has succeeded in life and who will be sure to bring the same success to the country as a whole.

How this will be done is trivial, what is important is the creation of an emotional connection to Emmanuel Macron as a person. In the context of the Fifth Republic, the approach is entirely logical. It favours above all the ‘hyperpersonalisation’ of politics through the institution of the presidency. As journalist Edwy Plenel argues, this has led to the destruction of political parties and politics as a whole.

Having destroyed political parties, corrupted Parliament and having undermined voting itself, the Fifth Republic is now reaching the climax of its democracy-destroying operation. — Edwy Plenel, 05/03/17 Mediapart

Macron is no solution to this problem, as bold as his rhetoric may appear — his book that detailed his political viewpoint was called ‘Revolution’ — he doesn’t even recognise that this problem exists. On the left, Hamon and Mélenchon support a democratic revival through the formation of a Sixth Republic that would bring an end to the “straitjacket” of the presidency. As it currently stands they are unlikely to be in a position come April to enact such a change. Although their programs are very similar, they have been unable to unite because of the central issue of the European Union. Considering the fragile state of French democracy, it is hard for certain parts of the left’s electorate to accept this deadlock, but it seems highly improbable that there will be a resolution.

In the meantime, there are serious questions around Macron’s real ability to counter the Front National. Mathieu Magnaudeix received the typical ‘Macronian’ response to his question on the subject at the manifesto launch: that even questioning the candidate’s support among the working classes that make up so much of the frontiste electorate is akin to doing the work of the far-right. Macron’s evident sensitivity to the issue belies the truth that so many seek to ignore; with opponents like Macron and Fillon, the possiblity of a Le Pen presidency has never looked so likely.

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