Trump Redux in France?

Emmanuel Macron. | EN-MARCHE.FR

Can Emmanuel Macron keep France from going down the road the US has? | EN-MARCHE.FR

BY KELLY COGSWELL | In France, we’re gearing up for a presidential election where the likely victor, François Fillon, is as friendly with Putin as Trump is and has policies as disastrously conservative as Pence.

There will be no saviors from the floundering left. The incumbent Socialist president, François Hollande, is so unpopular he isn’t even going to run. The half-dozen men who want to take his place promise change without change. The impossible return of factory jobs. A retreat from a Europe demonized by the populists of the right and the left.

The left’s frontrunner: old globalization foe and Chávez admirer Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Mélenchon’s sudden fondness for the environment is getting him an unusual bump in the polls, but he has little chance of winning the presidency. More likely he’d play Ralph Nader, fatally splitting the left vote on the first round of the general elections (only the two top vote-getters will go on to the second and final round.)


Right now, the likely final round contenders are expected to be the extremely conservative Putin pal François Fillon and Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right, populist-nationalist National Front.

Fillon’s base is a surging hardline Catholic movement that was built opposing same-sex marriage. They despise queers, feminists, trans people, and anything that smacks of multiculturalism and gender equality. They want back French society pre-student revolution of 1968 if not earlier, and Fillon promises to give it to them –– along with a slash and burn of the state health care system, just like Donald Trump.

Worse than Fillon, but only in some ways, there’s the smiling Le Pen, another Putin admirer –– and lately, a vocal Trump fan –– who’s spent the last decade or so normalizing the National Front, the nearly neo-Nazi party founded by her charismatic father, Jean-Marie Le Pen. Softening the rough edges of overt racism and anti-Semitism and masking the hatred of immigrants, people of color, and queers, she’s successfully courted former Commie and anti-globalization voters, dug up gay apologists, and even found supporters in communities of color, who don’t want to find themselves vying for crappy jobs with new waves of refugees.

Le Pen’s base is the disenfranchised white working class in former industrial areas that used to vote for the Communist Party. Like Trump, she presents herself as their champion, but unlike him, or Fillon, she swears to protect Social Security, secularism, and abortion rights. She’d pull France out of the European Union, NATO and the Euro-zone immediately. People who used to scoff at her viability are having nightmares since Trump made everything seem possible.

Then there’s Emmanuel Macron, who was the minister of the economy for a while under the current Socialist president, Hollande, before he left to begin an independent grassroots movement, En Marche. He’s the only one who really stands a chance against Fillon, and might knock out Le Pen, but he still faces long odds with most lefty voters because he used to be a banker and wants to liberalize the economy. Like in the US, many on the left would rather cast their votes for a pure, but unelectable candidate than even give Macron’s platform a look.

I actually like him. He’s had the nerve to tell French voters that the world has changed, and they have to as well. Automation is a fact, like globalization. And they are never getting their old jobs back. I even agree with his solution, which is not to reject globalization but figure out how to make it equitable, harness it so that it can benefit modest people for a change.

As for women, queers, immigrants, and disenfranchised minorities, he’s far more progressive than most on the traditional left, even calling into question these labels of “left” and “right,” when the real chasm is between “conservatives” and “progressives” who can be found in either category. Recently, he actually had the audacity to tell a crowd deep in Le Pen’s white working class territory, “Never accept those who promote exclusion, hatred, or closing in on ourselves!”

The problem is that time is running out. The first round of the French presidential election is April 23, only three months away. And although Macron himself is getting big crowds all over the country and campaigning vigorously, he still has not hired a campaign manager. And his young, one-year old “participatory-democracy” movement, En Marche, is still a work in progress. It now has more than 3,000 neighborhood committees and an army of volunteers, but no public funding.

They’re also still processing last year’s findings when those grassroots volunteers went door-to-door asking citizens about their problems and concerns. Now, they’re crowdsourcing ways to address the problems –– creating a political program and policies, with help from sympathetic experts. Or, as they say, creating “a contract with France” which, if elected, Macron and En Marche promise to fulfill.

Which is exciting. But I wonder what all this networking and movement building will translate to if En Marche itself doesn’t concentrate more on getting out the vote. And Macron fades in the first round.

Kelly Cogswell is the author of “Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger,” from the University of Minnesota Press.