Opinion: Are French Politics Becoming Too Dirty?

The French political landscape has become soiled over the past few months as insults, lies and low blows flood the presidential and legislative campaigns.

The most striking example may be the recent confrontation between Jean Luc Melenchon and Marine Le Pen. While Melenchon deemed Marine Le Pen to be a “semi-demented” person on national television, the far right candidate reciprocated the gesture during the legislative election in Henin-Beaumont by distributing illegal and anonymous flyers representing Melenchon as either Hitler in front of a concentration camp or as the official representative of the French Muslims.

However, the two “extreme” parties, Front de Gauche and the Front National, are used to these kind of actions. What is new is that they are not the only actors engaged in a political discourse that left behind a conventional, timid and official tone, using more rhetoric than ideas. In fact, part of the anti-Sarkozy vote can be explained by the stance the former president took on this type of discourse: after the first round that left him resolutely behind his opponent and with a far right that gathered almost 20% of the voters, Nicolas Sarkozy decided to recycle Marine Le Pen’s arguments and themes to drag far right votes to himself. His defense minister, Gerard Longuet, even sent clear messages to the 20%, saying “we, at the national front” on national radio. The May Day rally the former presidential majority organized, based on a “real work” theme in opposition to the traditional working unions’ march, was considered an insult to a certain class of workers associated with the left.

Even Eva Joly, the former anti-corruption magistrate who was also Europe-Ecologie’s candidate for the presidential election, let a “je l’emmerde” (screw her) slip through her lips when she was accused by Corinne Lepage, a former minister of the environment, of abandoning her environmental claims during the campaign. Such words were totally out of character for a candidate who was seen as a kind grandmother rather than as a presidential opponent, a clear sign that something was wrong in this election.

The political atmosphere became so tepid that, after his election, François Hollande took the lead in the reconciliation of the French people, as if France were a state on the brink of a civil war. Truth be told, the political debate got so violent that standing in between the two sides of the French political spectrum (meaning going along with Modem candidate, François Bayrou) became associated with a non-choice; the French voting population only had two sides. Although that gap is not new to French politics, it was probably the first time it was so wide.

Can it be said that French politics became ‘dirty’ though? Probably not. The context of the presidential and legislative elections is a bit unusual: France has doubts. Its economy, the fifth most important of the world, is stagnating and the country is stalling as it observes newly emerging powers overtaking it without even glancing behind. Its social model, presumably one of the best in the world, is falling apart as austerity is becoming the new trend in Europe; Sarkozy’s mandate has been seen by critics as a succession of manoeuvres to pit parts of the population against one another, a policy embodied in the “national identity debate”.

Both former candidates and their parties seem to be suffering with their image regarding the current economic situation. Naturally, Sarkozy’s results made the UMP lose its legitimacy as the most responsible choice against the crisis, economic orthodoxy was neither what the market nor the nation wanted anymore while François Hollande was called a “dangerous man” by The Economist. French politicians made their distance from economic matters to push for more populist issues such as security, immigration, and social assistance, resulting in more heated debates between the two main parties. The smaller parties had to follow the lead or otherwise renounce being heard, a fate which befell François Bayrou, who kept his attachment to economic matters.

In the end, the “normal president” won the presidential race against hyper aggressive opponents and his party may well win the legislative elections against a fragmented UMP. François Hollande chose to build his campaign against the new discourse that emerged in France and it served him well. Even while one of the harshest economic crises of the history is hitting France, turning extreme doesn’t pay. Nicolas Sarkozy took a dangerous nationalist stance that did not quite buy him votes against François Hollande’s strategy of European internal reform at a time when it seems France can exist in the world only with its European partners.

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  1. […] with aggressive sentences and personal attacks, François Hollande remained relatively calm, reluctant to be as dirty as other candidates or public figures  and it likely played in his favor. His strategy was most […]

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