Thursday night’s terrorist attack on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées, just three days ahead of the first round of France’s presidential election, has sown fresh fear and confusion in an already tense country. That the shooting of a police officer occurred on Paris’s most famous street only added to the shock for a country that is still deeply shaken by the 2015 and 2016 terrorist attacks that killed more than 230 people. An already unpredictable presidential campaign just got a bit more so.
In the wake of the attack, national security instantly became the topic of the campaign’s closing day. Yet this presidential vote is not, and should not, be about terrorism, however serious a danger it unquestionably is. France is at a momentous crossroads: the choice voters will make has immense consequences not just for one country’s economy, institutions and social cohesion.
The result will resonate across Europe and the Atlantic. A victory for Marine Le Pen of the far-right Front National would set France against itself, perhaps spell the end for the European project, and shake geopolitics. For the UK, the Brexit negotiations could become chaotic, a cliff fall against the backdrop of a besieged euro. The impact of financial scandals, the fallout from decades of mass unemployment, and the continuing collapse of France’s traditional postwar parties have all contributed to the rise of radical candidates. Ms Le Pen’s party is now Europe’s largest far-right movement. Although her presidential contest ratings have waned, she remains likely to reach the 7 May run-off. Ms Le Pen has superficially detoxified her party to build support. Its bigotry and racism is usually hidden by slick marketing but has surfaced on the campaign trail – notably this month when Ms Le Pen blithely questioned whether the French state had collaborated with the Nazis over the Holocaust when there’s little doubt it did.
On the left, Jean-Luc Mélenchon has made gains after charismatic performances in TV debates and rallies. Both of these candidates – with some nuances of difference – have promised to upend, if not dismantle, the EU, which they consistently describe as a threat to France’s sovereign choices, if not its identity. This leaves only two decisively pro-European candidates with a chance of reaching the Élysée: François Fillon, the conservative Catholic who has promised Thatcher-style economic reforms; and the independent centrist Emmanuel Macron, who launched his upstart En Marche (“On the march”) movement a year ago, and now goes into polling day apparently neck to neck with Ms Le Pen. France does need change. Joblessness has remained at 10% or higher for almost the whole of the past five years. Youth unemployment is currently at 24% and has been above 20% for a decade. This has exacted a heavy toll. It partly explains why Ms Le Pen has become so popular among younger voters – a phenomenon that sets France apart from other western democracies where populism has thrived among older voters. Popular resentment runs high against a political class seen as having failed for decades on issues such as public services and the state of the cities.
Mr Mélenchon has tapped deeply into that mood too. His answers, though very different, offer a prescription of extensive nationalisation, a 100% top tax rate and massive state borrowing and spending. Mr Mélenchon has made these policies popular by casting them as a crusade for social justice. While higher public spending might help growth, it looks a hard sell in a country where government expenditure stands at 57% of GDP, even at the current low borrowing costs. Mr Macron’s position has its weaknesses. A political outsider with little experience, he would struggle to build a parliamentary majority in the elections due in June. As a former banker who graduated from France’s elite school of public administration, he is easily cast as part of a cosmocratic elite. But his optimistic vision of a fairer France and his readiness to address France’s colonial history is refreshing. France will not move forward with a polarising, ideologically rigid government. This is not a moment for a modern European nation to take a delusional step. Ms Le Pen’s protectionist and xenophobic campaign would mean a France that was repugnant to liberal and progressive values. Realistic, step-by-step change to improve the country’s economic prospects and restore France’s influence is the best path on offer. That hope lies with Mr Macron, a reformer who offers renewal and the restoration of confidence rather than playing on division and fears.