Much like in the United States last November, voters in France’s elections are driven largely by anti-establishment sentiments and public anger over corruption, cronyism, and immigration policies that some believe threaten French native culture and national security.
Those views are prevalent in France’s Rust Belt, a stronghold of anti-immigration candidate Marine Le Pen, but also in Paris. Unlike the Rust Belt, many Parisians do not appear ready to fully support Le Pen, opting instead for centrist candidates who will continue the path toward the globalism that is sustaining a new, prosperous way of life for young professionals in the city’s wealthy urban districts.
For months, analysts have predicted that a series of highly publicized Islamist extremist attacks in Paris, Nice and Normandy would cause French voters to swing toward the right and to candidates promising curbs on Muslim immigration, as well as a possible departure of France from the EU.
In the French capital’s eclectic 11th arrondissement, in the shadows of the Bataclan theater — scene of the worst of the November 2015 terrorist attacks — residents dismiss any suggestion that concerns about terrorism and Islamism will sway them to vote for anyone other than centrists.
“You have the tourist industry and you have the attraction of Paris for foreign companies and foreign businesses,” said Jean-Yves Camus, a district resident and political commentator who has written extensively on French rightists and published in Charlie Hebdo, the satirical weekly whose offices were the scene of a mass shooting by Islamist terrorists in 2015. “If you choose to vote for the National Front, you vote against your own interests, against the interests of this multicultural city.
“We are still very much aware that the extremist threat is there and in an everyday basis, we are still living in a state of emergency, but we do not scapegoat the Muslims,” Camus said.
Marine Le Pen and her National Front have made Muslim immigration a central theme of her campaign.
‘Spirit of the French’
Candidates of the center-right have largely stayed away from the issue. So has the mainstream media, and many Parisians. Many prefer to talk about the economy, corruption and cronyism, and why they would not support the National Front.
“Because it is not in the spirit of the French, the extreme right,” said Michel Molinas, a fashion stylist. “Because those who are with the extreme right are fascists. For the French, it is not their thing. That is true. That is how I see it and I would never vote for them. Never, never, never.”
Like many voters interviewed on the streets of Paris this month, Molinas said he will make his pick among centrist candidates Emmanuel Macron, a former Socialist economy minister and investment banker, and Francois Fillon, a former prime minister who is center-right.
Both candidates face misconduct accusations. Macron, with strong ties to deeply unpopular Socialist President Francois Hollande, has been accused of having an extramarital affair with a man, while Fillon is under investigation for allegedly using public funds to create fake jobs for relatives.
“Mr. Macron, Mr. Fillon, things are said of them sometimes, but they remain viable candidates so I’m going to make my choice between one of them,” Molinas said.
“The political establishment is like it has always been. After 30, 40 years, there are problems, but the main thing is the TGV [high-speed trains] continues to run, the airports remain working, and the highways are rolling, so the goal is that. Right now, there is business everywhere,” said another voter, Vincent Terpant, a wine dealer. “The main thing is that our children have a bit of a better future.”
Not all, however, are comfortable with how things are.
Shaking the system
Analysts predict some will vote for Le Pen quietly, as a protest, in a bid to shake the system.
“They despise the elite of this country,” said Thomas Guenole, a political scientist. “Over three quarters of our politicians think our politicians are disgusting as human beings, and the same thing with mainstream media. In this context, some — it’s a minority — but some, just want to put a grenade in the ballot. That’s all.”
While some want a clean break from the past, others see no reason for a revolt against globalism.
In Paris’ La Defense business district, Jeremy Teixeira, son of Portuguese immigrants, interns at a multinational company that will pay for his graduate studies. For him, globalism has delivered.
“As a young person, I’m for the globalization. It is something that’s imposed on is. We cannot go against it. We must go with it. For business, for individuals, it is very good thing,” he said.
In an elite city that has set a world standard for cosmopolitanism and diversity, the notion of a nationalist, new France and a future that looks inward and to the past seems, for many voters, alien.
The question in this election is how big the protest against the status quo will be.
And there is no guarantee, even in Paris, that centrists will win.
Just a few days before the April 23 first-round vote, polls showed the far-left’s Jean-Luc Melenchon, who has described bankers as “parasites,” is surging.
Melenchon’s surprising rise to front-runner status in the last moments of the race underscored the unpredictability of the election, but reaffirmed how large the French electorate’s appetite for change may be.
Analyst Guenole says the power of middle- and upper-class French urbanites — on the left and right — who will quietly vote to shake the system should not be underestimated.
“You have more and more self-determination of voters and less and less socioeconomic determinism, which is excellent news for democracy,” said Guenole, “but it’s very bad news for sociologists and opinion polls.”