Analysis: What will be France’s image after a tumultuous presidential campaign?

Ten of the eleven candidates before the debate -- autoworker Philippe Poutou refused to take part in the family photo
Lionel BONAVENTURE (POOL/AFP)
Never before has a presidential ballot been so up in the air so soon before the vote.

While France's election campaign ends on Friday, it seems to have never really kicked off and, two days before the first round, a retrospective of recent months is due.

The scandals and ideological sleights of hand, which have long been fixtures of election campaigns, have this time been perhaps too much, to the point of leaving the French people deeply perplexed and lost.

Never before has a presidential ballot been so up in the air two days before the vote, never has France so degraded itself before the eyes of the world, to the point of becoming a lurid and ridiculous reality TV show, a laughing-stock for the media around the world.

It all began with the legal saga around François Fillon, which the entire world followed with great curiosity, wondering about the candidate continuing his campaign under circumstances which in many other countries would have left him no choice but to call it a day.

The right did not escape unharmed, and after a number of defections among those in his ranks and the denunciation of his continuing in the race, those closest to him returned the center-right conservative “Les Républicains” contributing to a lack of confidence in the party’s politicians. Accusations of “political conspiracy”, “manipulation of justice” and the denunciation of an allegedly “black cabinet” have also fueled this distrust.

Patrick KOVARIK (AFP)

And on the left came a political explosion, and the emergence of the “irreconcilable lefts,” a term coined by former Prime Minister Manuel Valls. Following the victory of Benoît Hamon during the Socialist Party (PS) primaries, the candidate was shunned by an entire section of his camp, which deserted him and migrated instead towards Emmanuel Macron or Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who now sit comfortably ahead of Hamon in the polls.

Such soap operas of “political betrayal” came to pollute the political debate and the left’s campaign has struggled to recover. Never before have substantive subjects been cast aside in favor of these political “chicayas,” to use the term of the candidates themselves.

Never before has the French press been so attacked and scorned by presidential candidates, or denounced by the voters, as was the case during the presidential election in the United States.

So how does one explain such a noxious electoral climate as this?

First of all, by examining the state of France today.

CHRISTOPHE SIMON (AFP)

A large number of citizens now find themselves in precarious economic situations, and the past inability of politicians to improve their daily lives has contributed to the distortion, or even breakage, of the already fragile links between French citizens and elected officials.

Hence the sudden popularity of Emmanuel Macron, a new face on France’s political scene. It also explains the rise of the far-right, which embodies these frustrations: after all, both the right and the left have done nothing, so why not turn to those who have never exercised power? This is the mantra of far-right National Front (FN) candidate Marine Le Pen, and now of the far-left’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon, both of whom are breaking through in the polls denouncing the inaction of the right and left.

JEAN-FRANCOIS MONIER (AFP/File)

But also, by examining the the global political environment. In one election after another, one error after the other, we have witnessed profound upheavals from which France has seemingly not escaped. First Brexit, the the election of Donald Trump, whose style and strategy broke brutally with eight years of the Obama era.

France is thus a mere continuation of those events whose common denominator is a break with the established order -- a rupture with the EU on one hand, a break with multilateralism and openness on the other.

The threat of radical Islamism and a string of terrorist attacks around the world, and particularly in France, have also contributed significantly to this downward spiral and exacerbated fears of voters searching for a leader strong on security, an issue which Le Pen’s National Front has made its trademark.

THOMAS SAMSON (AFP)

Finally, the ubiquity of social networks throughout the campaign has upset traditional practices. Supporters of each party have mobilized en masse to defend their respective candidates (especially in the case of Fillon) or attack their rivals. Surges of tweets have sought to launch rumors or even distribute “fake news” likely to harm or benefit one camp or another.

This is campaigning 2.0, both politically and digitally, and is undoubtedly a form of rupture with previous campaigns under the Fifth Republic. It remains to be seen how this apparent desire for radical change will materialize at voting booths across the nation.

Marion Bernard is a journalist and chief editor of the i24NEWS French website.

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