Lettre ouverte à mes amis français. This is No Joke.

To illustrate just how concerned some people are by the mood of revolt driving this French Presidential election, I wanted to share an email exchange between my two French kids (30s), who go to vote tomorrow…

My daughter wrote:

“I’m worried about our elections. So many people I talk to claim such a hatred of Macron that they say they won’t vote in the second round. And many people around me see Mélenchon as the answer.

At a dinner last night, I talked to three people my age I’d never met before. Two out the three told me they would not vote in the second round in the event of a duel between Le Pen and Macron. They said they didn’t want to “feel forced” to vote for Macron again. “Screw the voting system,” they said. “It needs to change.” They said that if Le Pen is elected, they’ll just get down onto the streets.

For me Putin has won. He’s managed to install the idea that all arguments are equally valid. He has succeeded in spreading moral chaos.

The threat [of Le Pen winning] is real.

Macron screwed up by not participating in the TV debate before the first round. He should have defended his mandate. Even if it’s not in the presidential tradition to do so, he should have broken with tradition in order to quash his Olympian image [of aloofness and disdain].”

My son replied:

“I agree. Culturally, Putin is winning in France. There’s an unbearable form of stupid relativism and a disturbing insensitivity to what’s happening in Ukraine. Pure ideological cynicism. I also recently left a party because of this. To vote for Le Pen or Mélenchon is to banalise Putin’s atrocities.”

Jean-Luc Mélenchon in Red Square, 2018

I too have spoken to a lot of people who feel aggrieved by the idea that because of the 2-round system, the election result is a foregone conclusion (Macron defeating Le Pen) and who want to take steps to confound the predictions, out of a spirit of pure rebellion. This argument strikes me as both infantile and dangerous.

As a Brit, I often find myself reminding my French friends how lucky they are. How lavish their welfare state is compared to that of my own country. The inevitable disenchantment of French voters, followed by the ceaseless moaning that always kicks in about six months after they’ve elected a new president, always irritates me. Strikes me as spoilt and again, immature. What did you expect? I want to ask. An angel? A god?

Back in 2014, during François Hollande‘s presidency, I remember talking to writer and historian, Alexandre Adler – a self-professed Anglophile, ex-Marxist and Russia specialist – about what had seemed, at the time, to be a growing distaste for globalisation in France. A distaste that would only increase and explains to a large extent, particularly among older voters, the success of It-was-Better-Before politicians like Marine Le Pen, Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Eric Zemmour.

Back then Adler argued strongly that globalisation didn’t have to mean the death of French cultural identity. “There’s still life in the French project,” he told me. “In 1910 there was a brief moment when France was at peace with itself. There was a consensus surrounding a society based on fairness, with fair wealth redistribution and a strong emphasis on education. If we return to that path we will recover. Suppose there’s a consolidation of the center in French politics, suppose there’s a period of growth and young French entrepreneurs return from Shanghai, London and Montreal to find a climate in which they can do business. If we create a virtuous circle like this, why should we not recover?”

Adler’s prediction actually played out. Three years later there was a radical consolidation of the centre, in the form of Emmanuel Macron. His La République En Marche ! (LREM), as well as defending a generous welfare state, embraced globalisation and helped reverse the brain-drain that had seen the nation’s youth leaving in droves to seek their fortunes elsewhere. Thanks to Macron’s support for the sector, French tech has gone from strength to strength; France having already reached the goal, set by Macron in 2019, of having 25 “unicorns* by 2025. During the pandemic, the Macron government covered 84% of people’s gross wage and covered up to 100% of those who were on the minimum wage and it led the world in guaranteeing new loans to businesses damaged by the shutdowns.

To those of my French friends who are disgusted by capitalism, I point out French state munificence and tell them, Don’t spit in the soup.**

How, if Mélenchon or Le Pen come to power, will France be able to generate enough revenue to fund that munificence?

Yes, Macron is a bit of a plonker. Yes, he’s vain and smug and a bit overweening. So what? Mitterrand was manipulative and secretive; Chirac was a monument to non-commitment; Sarkozy was…Well, we know what he was. (The pattern here is that when Macron’s dead, everyone will think he was great.) And so what if he worked in a bank? It taught him to be good with money. Don’t use the ballot to play out your belated adolescent rebellion. It’s way too dangerous.

*a privately held startup company valued at over US$1 billion.

**Cracher dans la soupe = to bite the hand that feeds you.

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