French Elections 2022: Populism Has Returned To French Politics

France has experienced everything from the wrath of exasperated commoners to Napoleon Bonaparte to Nazi occupation. The country that elected a socialist president just a decade ago has moved objectively towards the right. A wave of unprecedented & unforeseeable circumstances - most notably mass immigration, the pandemic, & skepticism towards Islam - have shaken up the country, making it easier than ever for politicians to capitalise on people's fear of a changing France. & of course, that's exactly what leaders have done & will continue doing for winning the game of polls.

Madeleine Lebeau immortalised herself as a face of the French Resistance when the camera zoomed in on her tear-stained face as she sang the French national anthem & yelled, "Vive la France! Vive la republique!", in the 1942 classic, Casablanca. France has experienced everything from the wrath of exasperated commoners to Napoleon Bonaparte to Nazi occupation. Today, the country that elected a socialist president just a decade ago has moved objectively towards the right. A wave of unprecedented & unforeseeable circumstances - most notably mass immigration, the pandemic, & skepticism towards Islam - have shaken up the country, making it easier than ever for politicians to capitalise on people's fear of a changing France. & of course, that's exactly what leaders have done & will continue doing for winning the game of polls.

The French may look down upon Americans (or the rest of the world, for that matter) but they're heading down the same eerie passage of unfiltered, unfettered, & unhinged nationalist populism. It's hard to establish a concrete definition of populism; at it's core, it is as a political approach that strives to appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups.

This isn't the first time populism has found success in France. In fact, La Republique owes its existence to the ideology. Populism was at the core of the (first) French Revolution. Around four centuries ago, the country was divided into three social classes: the First Estate comprised of the clergy, royalty & nobility belonged to the Second Estate, & the commoners were a part of the Third Estate. In the 18th Century, when a failed war with Britain left France's coffers virtually empty, blue bloods exploited the commoners with hundreds of pointless taxes, leading to social unrest & a mass questioning about the necessity of a monarch. All it took to make heads turn (& roll off of necks) were leaders who echoed & amplified the commoners' angst. Populism & guillotines brought down an almost 950-years-old dynasty.

History is repeating itself, & we are witnessing the same 'us versus them' sentiment rising in contemporary France. Today, however, "us" is native Frenchmen & women whilst "them" refers to immigrants, most notably Muslism immigrants from the Middle East & North Africa. I'd argue that the 2015 immigration crises changed the course of European politics. At first, when 1.3 million refugees from war-torn countries requested entry into Europe (the most in a single year since World War 2), they were greeted with open arms. After a series bombings in Western Europe, hospitality ended & fear commenced. Fear of a France where French isn't the de facto language. Fear of a France where the foreign religion of foreign people from foreign lands overthrows Catholicism. Fear of a France where French culture, history, & art are flushed down the Seine.

The French have always been rather defensive (or proud, at the very least) of their culture. They naturally deserve to be proud of a cuisine that's synonymous with luxury & good taste, artists & philosophers who have revolutionised how we perceive the world, & sublime couture houses whose history & clothes sparkles with glamour. What they don't deserve is media organisations & politicians frightening them with fears of their nation being invaded by a group that currently constitutes to nearly 7% of their population - Muslim immigrants - solely for political gains.

With the first round of elections just two weeks away, it's important to take a look at the frontrunners. Currently, President Emmanuel Macron rules the polls, with nearly 30% of the voting population rallying behind him. The pointless war that plagues the border of Europe has increased people's reluctance to overthrow the incumbent, but his bizzare adoption of Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky's fashion style may not be helping his public perception. This is where the semi-good news ends.

Imagine a man who claims that every one who wishes to live in France should adopt a French surname. Imagine a journalist who is of Jewish descent yet claims that the Vichy France protected French Jews. Imagine an orator who proclaims that he wants to restore France's long-lost glory while multiple cases of sexual & verbal assault loom over him. Turns out around 11% of France would like to put him in Élysée Palace. Introducing Eric Zemmour - the salt in Marine Le Pen's coffee & one of the most popular candidates. If you want an introduction to Le Pen & her party, check out my article about her influence on France's drift towards conservatism. Depending on the polling service, Zemmour is ranked as either the third or fourth more popular candidate, attracting around 10-13% of the sample sizes. It's hard to find many redeeming qualities in Zemmour. He's a journalist who distorts the truth to his liking & his rather racist attitude towards Arabs is constantly on display. He recently claimed that Ukrainian refugees should be welcomed while Middle Easterners should be given the cold shoulder. Yet people like him. Love him, even. Le Pen's father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, has stated that he'd rather vote for Zemmour than his own daughter, & her niece, Marion Maréchal, has defected to Zemmour's party, Reconquête. The reason is simple: Zemmour caresses the heart of his base, openly declaring the thoughts in the back of their minds & amplifying their sentiment.

Zemmour has successfully identified & established common enemies - muslims & immigrants - & his rallies serve as a medium to light sparks of rage in all attendants. His ability to orate & create convincing arguments is unquestionably remarkable - exactly what you'd expect from a journalist. & because he's a journalist instead of a traditional politician, he's allowed to venture into topics of discussion that traditional right wing parties have avoided (even Le Pen's far right National Rally) without inciting mass controversy. His courage is anothing part of him that attracts his voters. He often mentions sights that he believes to be signs of a deteriorating France: hijabs, worship on the streets, the threat of multiculturalism replacing French culture, etc. His followers agree. Passionately. He leads them to believe that they are the army chosen to fight against this supposed oppression & threat to their nation's history. His anti-feminist, misogynistic, & homophobic attitudes are often overlooked in favour of his opinions on identity & immigration (though if you want to read more about them, check out the book he has dedicated solely to how feminism & femininity is ruining France). Emotion is a powerful tool & appealing to it requires the right words, not facts. Rather unsurprisingly, he's received approval & encouragement from former President Trump (though he views himself as a French Boris Johnson). But do not compare Trump to Zemmour simply because they're conservative leaders; Zemmour's knowledge about culure, history, & literature is a myriad times deeper than that of Trump's.

He's probably not going to win the presidency, but his campaign would make an interesting case study for learning about what happens when you simply use the right words at the right time.

Echoing a softer version of Zemmour's sentiments are Valeérie Pécresse of Les Reépublicains, a right wing party, & Marine Le Pen of National Rally, a far right party. Despite their stances, it's nice to see two women in the top five candidates for the presidency of a major Western power. Le Pen hasn't been secretive about the pain of her father & niece's defiance, but she isn't doing that bad for herself. Though Zemmour's abrupt entry sky-rocketed his popularity, the excitement has died down & Le Pen is currently back to number two in the polls, garnering the support of nearly 16% of the sample sizes. The second round of the elections is likely going to be between her & Macron. Though Pécresse is right behind Zemmour in the polls, she has given Macron a tough fight for his money, competing with the president for center-right wing voters. She complains about the ardousness of being a female politician but she staunchly denies being a feminist, hiring an all-male team for her campaign. Credit where credit is due, she has had a wonderful career. She has worked closely with former presidents Chirac & Sarskozy. She was also a teacher at Science Po Paris, one of the world's top five most prestigious institutes for politics & a school that was attended by both Zemmour & Macron. She's notorious for clinging onto her pro-EU, anti-immigration, & pro-France beliefs, & her followers love her for it.

The last candidate worth discussing is Jean-Luc Mélenchon of La France Insoumise, a left wing socialist party. Think of him as a French Bernie Sanders/Jeremy Corbyn albeit he's been in the mainstream for far longer than either. In a France where the left has been losing their grasp on the country for years, his case is unquestionably interesting. He's one of the only politicians from the French left that managed to garner the 500 signatures required to have one's name on the ballot, atracting the supporters of politicians who couldn't accomplish this feat. Russia's war on Ukraine has proved to be a boon for Mélenchon. While figures on the hard right - Le Pen & Zemmour - are facing wide criticism for their ties with Russia & praise of Putin, Mélenchon has received a boost in popularity. But there's one thing that could hamper with his success: his anti-NATO stance. Though he & Zemmour are polar opposites on the political spectrum, they have a mutual love for soverignist & populist rhetoric. While the right fixates on ethnicity, Mélenchon's weapon of choice is socioeconomic status. He entirely rejects the notion of right & left wings, rallying behind the idea of unity in order to dissipate partisanship. His strategy is populism in its purest form: rallying the people against the corrupt elite. It seems to be working form him. In a France where all one can talk about is the loss of identity due to mass immigration, Mélenchon has managed to secure the attention of more than 11% of sample sizes. & in a competition where other politicians can't seem to shut up about the lost glory of France, he's the only one orator who has a myriad of historical & literary references at his disposal. However, he's naturally not free from criticism & his policies are far from perfect. Some even claim that his anti-establishment ideology goes a little too far sometimes. He's disruptive & the Ukraine-Russia conflict is going to have an interesting effect on the French elections. We'll have to wait for two weeks to see how well it works out for him.

I'm sorry if I've destroyed your notion of France as a progressive paradise where the streets smell like Chanel & love floats in the air. The far right currently comprises of around 30% of the country's voting population. Let's not forget that many people wouldn't publicly declare their support for the hard right, especially in Europe. If that doesn't terrify you, I don't know what will. Populism is successful in France because unlike the US, France doesn't see itself as a particularly pluralist or multiculturalist society. This is what Emily In Paris highlights in a very, very, very bad way. Here's the funny part: the French hate the Americans' approach to identity & vice versa. According to the 1958 constitution, France is supposed to be "an indivisible, secular, democratic and social republic. It shall ensure the equality of all citizens before the law, without distinction of origin, race or religion. It shall respect all beliefs". Their approach towards minimising racism is removing boxes for indicating something as trivial as skin colour on forms & living by the quote "à Rome, fait comme les romains" (in Rome, act like Romans). Citizens are viewed primarily as French instead of African-French, Asian-French, etc. This doesn't prevent people from identifying obvious acts of racism, but universalism does it make it harder for people to prove that an act of discrimination was racist. This also explains why populists' messages is resonating with the public: immigrants who intend to live in the country for the long term are expected to learn the language & attain a grasp over its culture, history, etc. Quite a few have failed to live up to these standards.

"The French will elect the person who tells them the story they want to hear at a particular moment, provided they look legitimate," said former President Francois Henri Mitterand. Today, nationalist populists have found a point in history where France feels as if her destiny is slipping away from her & her identity faces a threat. The act of assuring people that France isn't finished, France has a prosperous future ahead of it, & the French are in control of its destiny (especially on the topic of immigration) is an artform that leads to guaranteed success. Populism & Europe have had a tumultuous history, & the end result has never been pretty. But it seems as if France doesn't remember. Tomorrow we'll see how well it works out for the figures whose rallies have been temples of otherism. Vive la France, vive le republique.

-Rayansh Singh