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Opinion: “The French and their penchant for scandal”

Opinion: “The French and their penchant for scandal”

Photographer:Fotograaf: Lisa Dupuy (Lyon)

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She has a lot of electoral homework to do these days. On the back of the Dutch parliamentary elections, freelance journalist Lisa Dupuy, a graduate of University College Maastricht, is now looking south – to France. Thanks to her dual French nationality, she is eligible to vote in the upcoming elections on 23 April. Who are the candidates, which one will get her vote and why? And what’s the hardest part about the decision? 

Although I’m not living or working in France (not currently, anyway), I know the hexagone is more than the croissants and sunny camping sites it signifies for my Dutch compatriots. The realities of everyday life don’t affect me as directly as they do actual French residents. Still, I do vote. My two nationalities feel like something of a windfall for a politics wonk. On 23 April, I will happily travel to The Hague to cast my vote. French foreign nationals are urged to do so by official embassy letters and campaign emails. During the 2012 race one canvasser even visited my parents’ to enlist the three-person electorate (me, my brother and my father) registered there.
I reach my decision through voting-by-comparison. And this year – with three Western European countries up for grabs by the ‘wrong kind’ of populists – I was able to directly compare the elections in my two home countries. In early February I travelled to Lyon to see the main competitors present their election programmes. First, though, some notes about the candidates.
For starters, in France not all eleven candidates are created equal. Most eyes are fixed on Front National’s Marine Le Pen, who fashions herself as a modern Joan of Arc protecting French values against globalisation and immigration. Yet ten other presidential hopefuls will be on the ballot in a week’s time. Le Pen’s nemesis is Euro-golden boy Emmanuel Macron, a former banker-turned-march organiser who left the Socialist Party to start his own ‘movement’. They both reject the establishment. While Le Pen glorifies a France in which everything was better thanks to its sheer Frenchness, Macron envisions a country propelled forward by international collaboration and aided by technology.

Scandal
Le Pen and Macron, two opposing political entities, met with their constituents in Lyon. Witnessing two such different worldviews at once was confusing. As a left-leaning ‘intellectual’ who prefers nuance above all, I have a soft spot for Macron’s statements on immigration, secularism, equality and the EU. I have doubts when it comes to his past in investment banking and wonder if he won’t drift off too far to the right of the centre he has now independently claimed. But at least I’m consistent in risking potential disappointment by a youthful, environmentally minded, social-media-savvy candidate: in the Netherlands, I voted for Jesse Klaver’s party GroenLinks.
Other serious contenders are the conservative former prime minister François Fillon and socialist republican Jean-Luc Mélenchon (my 'other option', whose ratings are spiking right now). Benoît Hamon has taken over the candidacy for the Socialist Party from current president Hollande. The top five have been circling one another in the polls and talk shows, although a good deal of the election coverage has fixated on personal and financial dramas. ‘Ach’, the Dutch Calvinist in me would usually have mused, ‘the French and their penchant for scandal’.
But while the Dutch chuckle at the caricature of the laissez-faire attitude, the French now appear fed up. Take Fillon, whose ratings took a hit when news broke of his wife’s well-paid ‘fake job’ as a parliamentary assistant. During one televised debate anti-capitalist Philippe Poutou took the opportunity to scold the centre-right candidate. Poutou is one of the ‘lesser’ candidates whose chances of reaching the Élysée are virtually none, but their presence at least serves as a platform for increasing public indignation.
Over the past decades the establishment has failed to improve employment rates, and social cohesion has crumbled as a result. Now, the French can be parted along many default lines: old and young, rich and poor, rural and urban, French and immigrant.
Of course, France is not the only modern society dealing with these issues, and Trump and Brexit highlighted the inability of such different groups to even communicate beyond the walls of their respective social media silos. But while Dutch politics must inevitably accommodate a coalition, in France these divisions challenge the very notion of the Republic. The same fears surrounding identity, financial and political sovereignty (the issue of Europe) and security that flared up in the Dutch electoral race pose a bigger problem in France, threatening its egalitarian and united nature. And if these issues hit France hard, the outcome of the elections could be a blow to the European Union.

Social division
My Frenchness is fostered by my contact with friends who do experience this changed public atmosphere. We share the same general values, but their realities are complicated by job insecurity and student debt. They are still undecided, as are many voters. And according to a poll last month, a quarter of young people will vote Le Pen – students have even set up a Front National campaign office at Sciences Po, the renowned Paris university. The future of young people in France is moving past traditional left or right politics, and the ‘alternative’ candidate who promises the most security will have the most appeal. Seeing how social divisions play out in my two home countries drives me to the polls – and this time around I’ve been putting in more electoral homework than usual.

Lisa Dupuy

@lisadupuyreports on Instagram / @lisadupuy on Twitter

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