TOMORROW the French go to the polls to finish the job begun two weeks ago and choose their next elected monarch; if opinion polls can be trusted (with their manipulative influence on voting having become a major discussion point in France over the last few weeks) it looks as if Emmanuel Macron will be returned to the throne for another five years.
If Marine Le Pen, who has never been closer to power, falls at the final fence, she will not be blameless in her failure to take advantage of the seething resentment against the present incumbent. In the traditional head-to-head television debate four days before polls open, with the chance to voice the anger felt towards Macron by her potential supporters, she chose the route of trying to out-technocrat the technocrat. The result was that the smirking, supercilious bean-counter was invited to play on his home turf, within minutes deflecting the discussion away from his record in power to Le Pen’s record in opposition. The opportunity for a reckoning on Macron’s use of state forces against his own people, his enthusiastic embrace of digital IDs to coerce people into taking a novel medical intervention and his contempt for health workers who declined it, was squandered. At the end of the confrontation, he praised the fact that it had been much more ‘controlled’ than their previous meeting in 2017. It was clear to most who had been in control throughout.
Le Pen clearly also has only herself to blame for her political programme. Having once supported lockdowns and the huge accumulation of debt associated with them, she is largely joined at the hip with Macron in her plan to borrow and spend France’s way out of a problem caused by astronomical government borrowing and spending. Her flagship policy of reducing VAT on 100 ‘essential products’ is no match for Macron’s policy of continuing to send people cheques to bail them out, both a pitiful response to the enormous economic problems his decisions have created. Meanwhile, her desire to ban the wearing of the Muslim headscarf in public spaces as a puny symbol of the fight against Islamism essentially codifies the state’s right to decide what you are permitted to wear in public (indeed, Le Pen defended its enforceability in law by pointing out that Macron had found a way of policing his mask mandates).
Her own shortcomings aside, however, Le Pen is handicapped by the fact that, although she mobilised more than 8million people to vote for her, no one is allowed to say publicly that they support her without choosing the path of ostracism. In Britain by 2019 we had become painfully aware of the phenomenon of the ‘shy Brexiteer’, unable to ‘come out’ among friends and family without attracting a torrent of insults which often included the word ‘Nazi’. That’s been the norm in France for Le Pen voters for a long, long time.
However, something not widely reported happened ten days ago when a panellist on a major television show, former Miss France Delphine Wespiser, ‘came out’ in front of millions and said she understood why people might vote for Marine, suggesting she was like ‘France’s mum’. Did she realise what a pile-on would happen in saying that? She got a taste from her colleagues in the studio, but over the next few days found herself threatened on social media for daring to ‘contribute to the normalisation of the far Right’.
Removed from the show under byzantine French rules to do with ‘political balance’, she had to come back as an unpaid guest to report how her accidentally courageous opinion had seen her receive thousands of threats, as well as the call for her to be stripped of other sources of income, such as her featured role on the TV show Fort Boyard. Not being able to make a living for having expressed a view deemed unacceptable by the media (and not even an unpopular view) was, she said, ‘the price of my freedom’,
adding defiantly: ‘I’m the spokeswoman for all those unhappy about what has happened over the last five years.’
Wespiser’s small, principled stand for freedom of speech and conscience is a marker of a very positive development. Dissenters are beginning to abandon their natural reticence and defend the right to have a different ‘non-mainstream’ point of view in the public square. The form that seems to be taking at the moment is voting for Marine Le Pen. Whatever her political shortcomings, Le Pen represents the dissident point of view. Crudely expressed, she is the biggest middle finger French people can currently give to the system which has crushed and oppressed many of them over the last few years.
And if not Le Pen, who? Macron has not ruled out a return to mandatory masking, and vaccine passports remain in place for access to hospitals. Le Pen has said she will scrap the system, has called vaccinating children against Covid ‘a kind of child abuse’, and will reinstate the health-workers ‘kicked out like scum’ for refusing to take the vaccine. Macron set up an undemocratic ‘citizens’ convention’ on the environment (only to ignore it) while touring the country in what he called his ‘great debate’ during which he lectured an invited audience for several hours. He’s committed to continuing to bore on if re-elected. Le Pen, on the other hand, has proposed a ‘Citizen’s choice referendum’ which, while it may struggle to get passed into law, holds out the promise of a new avenue for political change.
Take her at face value or not, Le Pen has put the word ‘freedom’ front and centre of her campaign. She is making commitments that will, in however limited a way, expand the power of ordinary people to influence what happens in their country. This promise to extend and defend liberty and democracy would be hard to break in circumstances where (unlike Boris Johnson and his smug party-loyal 80-seat majority) she would have to work hard to maintain the trust of those who lent her their vote.
Moreover, the prospect of her coming to power has so spooked the European establishment that they have taken the unprecedented step of calling for the French not to vote for her in what used to be called ‘interference in national elections’ but is now, it seems, just seen as doing the morally correct thing.
With all this in mind, the French now need to consider how much of a defiant middle finger they are brave enough to give to the established order when even today’s poster-boy of ‘democracy’ Volodymyr Zelensky says he is rooting for Macron. Will they stand up to conventional opinion and take the kind of risk Delphine Wespiser, or a nation of Brexiteers, were willing to take? The door to more freedom is definitely ajar. Dare they step through it?