In strange and confusing times, with disenchantment at successive governments aggravated by feelings of insecurity after terrorist attacks, looming elections threaten to produce a socially-divisive outcome France may come to regret.
One essential question faces French voters: should they embrace the extraordinary political turmoil that has swept the West and elect Marine Le Pen, leader of the anti-immigration Front National, a party many see as racist, as their next president.
Le Pen warmly welcomed both Brexit, Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, and the election of Donald Trump as United States president as clear signs of an anti-establishment mood that could, in turn, propel her into office this May.
Her party is also part of a loosely-linked cluster of far right groups poised to make serious electoral advances across Europe in countries that include the Netherlands and Germany.
“It is not the end of the world but the end of a world,” Le Pen declared after the Trump victory in November. “It makes possible what has previously been presented as impossible”.
Liberal opinion in Europe is aghast at the prospect of Le Pen adding to these electoral upsets.
But the stark truth is that almost whoever voters choose as head of state, France’s future is likely to be turbulent.
Unheard of in modern history, the nation is preparing to go to the polls with the socialist party – which currently holds both the presidency and a parliamentary majority – widely written-off as no-hopers.
Such is the Parti Socialiste’s disarray that the process of selecting a presidential candidate to replace François Hollande, seen as weak and deeply unpopular, appears to be an irrelevant sideshow.
Unless there is an unexpected late surge in support for the mainstream left, the contest will be between far-right and hard-right. Le Pen is opposed by François Fillon, from the Gaullist party, Les Républicains. But there is also an intriguing complication by the addition of maverick outsiders who are to run – notably the formerly socialist, newly centrist Emmanuel Macron, and the far-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon.
After a thoroughly bad year for opinion pollsters, wrong on both Brexit and the race for the White House, it is impossible to predict the result with confidence.
In the 2002 French presidential elections, Le Pen’s father Jean-Marie, a man whose politics are so extreme that his own daughter orchestrated his expulsion from the party he founded, reached the second round run-off against the Gaullist Jacques Chirac. Their own candidate eliminated, socialists turned out in force to stop Le Pen, handing Chirac a landslide victory.
After years of terrorist atrocities, and with Europe grappling unconvincingly with an immigration crisis, many observers believe Marine Le Pen will not only reach the second round but do a great deal better than her father.
Her relentless efforts to “de-demonise” the FN, making it appear respectable to vote for, have paid off. While there remain many in France who see Le Pen as an anti-Islam rabble-rouser whose presidency would inflame community tensions, increasing numbers have come to regard her as leading “a party like any other”, a phrase heard often on French lips.
And she has continued the process of rebranding and softening her image in time for the elections. On her website, the slogan is “Au nom du peuple” (In the name of the people) and the keynote message contains no reference to the FN. It’s as if she sees the stigma that is attached to the party is all that stands between her and power. This includes supporters with sinister neo-Nazi links, the xenophobia and antisemitism of a father who calls extermination camps a mere detail of the Second World War, and the thuggishness of stewards at rallies.
Le Pen talks of putting France right in five years. Yet, while she and her team indignantly resist stubborn accusations of racism and even the term “far-right”, there is a paradox: not all those supporting her are so squeamish, some freely stating that they are so fed up with two-party dominance that they will “give the extrême droite a chance”.
When the news magazine Le Point asked whether Le Pen could become president, almost 52 per cent of those polled from a large sample of 33,000 said “yes”. Her pledges to “restore territorial, monetary, economic and legislative independence” have raw appeal to a disgruntled electorate.
Although the credibility of opinion polls is in question, it is worth noting that most still put her finishing second at best, with Fillon the likeliest winner.
But his programme, with its emphasis on cutting as many as 500,000 public sector jobs to fund stimulus for private enterprise, sits uneasily with the preoccupations of ordinary working people and the jobless. They may not be as willing to “stop Le Pen” as were the voters of 2002.
Despite Fillon’s protests that he is “no medieval reactionary”, he is being urged by some traditional conservative voters to moderate a programme likened to UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s free market, anti-union strategy in 1980s Britain.
Mounia Benaili, a French-Moroccan left-wing activist who is contemptuous of the Parti Socialiste and will campaign for Mélenchon, has feared a Le Pen victory since even before the murderous ISIL attacks in Paris and Nice that played into the FN’s hands.
“I still think she will win, even though she presents herself more discreetly now,” says Benaili. “Le Pen will benefit from the abstention of the working class and I believe the vote of the right will go to the far-right.”
Benaili says Fillon’s hardline economic policies will cost him dearly. And she is suspicious of Macron, “the darling of the media with not a day passing without him being portrayed as the new saviour”, calculating that the non-Le Pen vote will divide evenly among Fillon, Macron and Mélenchon with the discredited socialists – who hold the first round of primaries tomorrow with the former prime minister Manuel Valls favourite – condemned to humiliating defeat.
Loyally, if somewhat optimistically, she suggests a run-off between Mélenchon and Le Pen, with the latter winning because the losers would not urge their supporters to switch allegiance to the far-left. “They would prefer to let Le Pen win; between [true] socialism and barbarism, they will choose barbarism.”
But another French woman with Maghrebin roots, the journalist and academic Nabila Ramdani is no less adamant that Le Pen will not prevail.
She believes there is less to distinguish father and daughter than many suppose. “Like many disingenuous opinion formers, the Le Pens want to portray modern France as a cauldron of anger,” she writes in Britain’s Independent online newspaper. “They blame immigrants and their descendants – and especially those from the former North African colonies – for most of society’s ills.”
Nevertheless, she says, France’s murky past of collaboration with the Nazis and ruthless efforts to crush the Algerian independence movement serves as an important obstacle. “Marine won’t do a Donald,” according to her analysis, but will “continue to rant and rave, bringing shame to a country whose historical involvement in murderous extremism lingers too close in the collective psyche [to elect an FN president]”.
Against this background, the permutations are mind-numbing. All that seems certain is that no contender can win an absolute majority in the first vote on April 23. But with so little between them, that could translate – assuming voters reject any shade of left – as a Fillon/Le Pen, Macron/Le Pen or Fillon/Macron decider.
The eyes of the world will be on France on May 7. If Le Pen wins, she will enter office under the resentful eyes of most members of Europe’s largest population of Muslims.
Her attacks on the so-called Islamicisation of France are hardly conducive to improved community relations. Nor are her claims that the issue is less with Islam than “its visibility” consistent with high-minded notions of mutual respect and tolerance. This visibility includes clothing worn by Muslim women and images of worshippers driven by inadequate provision of mosques to pray in the street.
France’s true choice may be between what kind of social unrest to inflict on itself: rising hostility between Muslims and non-Muslims if Le Pen wins, or strikes and angry demonstrations should Fillon become president and press ahead with contentious reforms.
The French could even end up with both. A month after the president is elected, the country returns to the ballot boxes for parliamentary elections.
In 2012, Le Pen’s party won just two seats, one going to her niece, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen. The Parti Socialiste had a comfortable majority, taking account of occasionally troublesome allies in the Greens and other left-leaning groups.
The FN will perform more strongly in June, but not strongly enough to rule. With the socialists appearing to have little hope of avoiding defeat, Les Républicains would expect to gain a majority.
If France has by then chosen Le Pen as president, the scene would then be set for uncomfortable “co-habitation”, bitter political rivals occupying the two central seats of power, the Élysée Palace and the Assemblée Nationale, a sure recipe for chaos in government and on the streets.
Colin Randall is a freelance journalist based in France and a former executive editor of The National.