The Strangest Campaign
This year’s legislative campaign, which will culminate on Sunday in the first of two electoral rounds, is perhaps the strangest I have witnessed in more than half a century of watching French elections. Both the winner of the presidential election, Emmanuel Macron, and the runner-up, Marine Le Pen, have remained remarkably aloof. All the excitement has centered on Jean-Luc Mélenchon and his new party, la NUPES, which in some polls is leading the national vote (though still not expected to win a majority of seats in the new National Assembly).
Macron and Le Pen seem to have concluded that the less they are talked about, the better. Macron knows that any policy position he takes will merely open him to attack: if he clarifies his intentions on pension reform, he will anger one group or another; if he gives the slightest substance to his call for environmental action, he risks bringing down the wrath of this or that group which does not wish to pay more for gas at the pump or face new regulations on home insulation or auto emissions or reduced highway speeds or urban traffic disruption. He delayed announcing his new government until the last possible moment, to reduce its attack surface, and signaled no new initiatives with his appointments, save perhaps that of Pap Ndiaye as education minister, the significance of which was diminished by the naming of a Blanquer ally as Ndiaye’s chief of staff.
Meanwhile, Le Pen has mostly kept out of sight, allowing her young aide Jordan Bardella to push her party’s message while indicating that she expects to be outnumbered in the AN by both Ensemble and La France Insoumise. It’s as if, having lost the presidency yet again, she has resigned herself to permanent outsider status–which is after all the only realistic aspiration for a party like Le Pen’s, which could not survive actual government responsibility. Indeed, the failure of the “de-demonization strategy” may lead to the conclusion that the future of the RN as the Le Pen family enterprise is best served by a strategy of re-demonization. The wayward daughter could yet find her way home in time for a deathbed reconciliation with dear old dad and his favorite granddaughter Marion.
Macron’s reticence and Le Pen’s silence contrast sharply with Mélenchon’s vociferousness. The NUPES leader’s success in conjuring up a party out of the rubble of the left has put the wind in his sails–or, rather, in his mouth. But while some of his rhetoric has been devoted to defending the highly detailed if loftily detached program to which all of the NUPES constituents have affixed their signatures–for example, there was a session of economists who tried to answer the question of how Prime Minister Mélenchon would pay for his ambitious reforms (surprise answer: tax the rich)–the skill at which JLM has proved particularly adroit is that of keeping himself in the news by making a loud fuss of whatever fait divers happens to be occupying the news cycle.
For instance, the police shot and killed a passenger in a car whose driver allegedly refused to comply with an order to stop for inspection, leading Mélenchon to stir the already boiling pot by declaring “La police tue!” An interview with Léa Salamé erupted into a spectacular display of Mélenchonian wrath–“Non, Mme Salamé! non, Mme Salamé!! non Mme Salamé!!!” the would-be prime minister repeated in a bravura crescendo. Somehow, the journalist had become Macron’s accomplice in instrumentalizing police violence in the service of neoliberalism–or something like that: it was not entirely clear what point Mélenchon was making about this unfortunate incident, except that the whole system is rotten and will remain so until Macron is forced to appoint him prime minister. It’s amazing what can be made of a routine traffic stop gone badly wrong.
Such has been the legislative campaign to date, and if Sunday’s abstention rate attains the expected record level, one can only share the electorate’s disappointment with the spectacle it has been presented.