News of further disturbances in the French banlieues over the weekend, the deprived suburbs that surround the capital Paris and other large French cities, in the wake of what seems to have been an episode of police brutality directed against a young black man has left many in France more concerned than ever at the direction the country may be taking.
This is at a time when there has been growing disarray in the country’s politics. Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy has been ordered to stand trial on allegations of illegally financing his unsuccessful 2012 presidential election campaign, and François Fillon, until recently the leading candidate in the upcoming French presidential elections, seems to have been fatally wounded by a scandal involving jobs for his wife and children.
Behind the disturbances lies the story of Theo, a 22-year-old resident of Aulnay-sous-Bois outside Paris, who was apparently assaulted by French police during a search on 2 February, necessitating a stay in hospital.
Protests against his treatment at the hands of the security forces have now spread across the Paris banlieues, bringing back memories of 2005 when two French teenagers of Sub-Saharan African and North African background, Zyed Benna and Bouna Traore, were electrocuted while attempting to escape from police. In the riots that followed, cars and public buildings were burned in weeks of disturbances across the country.
As far as the present disarray in French politics is concerned, unkind commentators have been drawing parallels to the bizarre events of 2011 and leading up to the 2012 elections when Dominique Strauss-Kahn, seen by some as a possible Socialist Party frontrunner and at the time managing director of the IMF and a former French finance minister, was arrested on suspicion of sexual assault in New York.
This forced his withdrawal from running in elections that were subsequently won by current French President François Hollande.
Today, Fillon, previously seen as the mainstream’s right’s best hope and campaigning on a programme of what has been described in France as “Thatcherite” economic reforms and general government probity, is fighting an increasingly desperate rear-guard action against allegations of nepotism and the abuse of public funds.
It cannot be long before he is forced to withdraw from the contest, many say, since even if he has done nothing wrong, as he has been insisting, his campaign has lost momentum and he has allowed himself to be distracted by revelations about his conduct while in office as a French MP and former prime minister.
Where, many are asking, is the country heading? Not, they hope, to the election of an extreme-right president in the upcoming elections, the first round of which takes place on 23 April and the second on 7 May. For many, the thought of Marine Le Pen, leader of the Front National, as president of France would be a political earthquake.
In many French minds, it would dwarf even the election of right-wing populist Donald Trump first as Republican Party candidate in the US presidential elections and then as US president last November.
Many say that Le Pen as president of France would be worse than Trump’s election in the US, since while Trump had not held political office and had not pursued anything like a conventional political career, he had at least achieved the endorsement of one of the two main US political parties and stood on a recognisable Republican Party platform.
Le Pen, on the other hand, leads a party that has never held significant public office in France and has positioned itself on the extreme-right fringes of French politics. It promotes policies that go against not only the present mainstream, but also the direction the country has been taking at least since the 1970s.
The Front National, officially committed to taking France out of the EU and exiting the euro, the European common currency, has also adopted characteristically extreme-right policies on immigration and other social issues.
But while Marine Le Pen has been treated with a new respect by the French and particularly the foreign media as opinion polls have consistently shown her outrunning the candidates fielded by the mainstream parties, she has no chance of being elected France’s president, most commentators say.
Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine Le Pen’s father and the founder of the party, made it through the first round of the presidential elections in 2002, they remember, in a shock result that saw the early elimination of the then Socialist Party candidate. However, on the second-round run-off that sees the two winning candidates from the first round compete against each other, the French electorate turned out in massive numbers to prevent his election.
As a result, the mainstream right candidate Jacques Chirac won the presidency for the second time with an overwhelming 82 per cent of the vote, a majority usually only seen in countries having somewhat different political cultures.
Something similar is likely to happen this time round, most commentators say, with Le Pen losing massively to the mainstream candidate in the crucial second round of the elections even if she is able to surmount the hurdle of the first. The question is who that mainstream candidate will be.
Until recently, it seemed that it would be Fillon, whose campaign has been cultivating the image of a “traditionalist” who would nevertheless not shy away from taking the tough decisions thought necessary to reinvigorate France’s fading economy and therefore appealing to both the law-and-order and neo-liberal sections of the French right.
With Fillon now struggling in the polls and even previously loyal supporters apparently deserting him, attention is turning to the possibility that against almost all the odds a left-wing candidate could now have a real hope of becoming the next French president, or if not then some kind of difficult-to-identify maverick.
With Hollande achieving record levels of unpopularity in the opinion polls, another Socialist Party president had seemed at best an outside chance, and Hollande himself had appeared to agree by announcing his decision, unprecedented for an incumbent president under the French Fifth Republic, not to seek re-election last December.
This left the field open to others in the Socialist Party’s primary elections, with, against the predictions of many pollsters, Hollande’s former prime minister Manuel Valls being knocked out of the race and the nomination going instead to an outsider of hard left views Benoit Hamon.
Hamon is widely seen in France as representing the unelectable left in much the same way as Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn in the neighbouring UK. His emergence as the official candidate of the mainstream left in the Socialist Party’s primary elections had many on the right in France rubbing their hands, since Hamon, they thought, scarcely presented a credible challenge to Fillon.
However, Fillon’s present troubles have upset such calculations, reshuffling the cards and suggesting a range of new scenarios.
Perhaps Fillon will be able to bounce back from his present troubles, some say, though this may be unlikely. Perhaps the losers in last year’s mainstream right primary elections, Alain Juppé and Nicolas Sarkozy, will now re-emerge to take up his mantle.
But Sarkozy, now formally charged with illegal financing, is out of the running, and Juppé, at 71 perhaps rather antique in years, has been on the French political scene for generations and will have a hard time convincing voters that he has new ideas.
This leaves a third man in the running in the shape of Emmanuel Macron, a former Socialist Party finance minister who has been trying to persuade French voters that he has new ideas to offer them. If he manages to do so, this will be unusual for France since the country has traditionally been suspicious both of outsiders as well as of conspicuous wealth among politicians.
Macron’s profile as a millionaire former banker with a high net worth for a French politician seems unlikely to appeal to mainstream voters, and his background in finance casts doubt on his supposed position as an “outsider”.
Quizzing a cross-section of Paris residents this week, Al-Ahram Weekly discovered that while there was disappointment at the revelations surrounding Fillon, there was little sense that his embarrassment could benefit his opponents. “I was going to vote for Fillon,” one woman explained. “But now I am not going to bother voting.”
“Hamon is exactly the kind of socialist politician who has been ruining this country for decades, and he is completely out of touch with the real world,” another man explained. “He would be a disaster for France. Fortunately, he has zero hope of being elected.”
Another woman asked whether it would be possible, recognising her interlocutor’s Anglo-Saxon accent, to “move to England” should Le Pen be elected France’s next president. “Fillon would be bad enough,” she said. “But the extreme right in the Elysée Palace? This would mean having to leave the country.”
In an opinion poll published last week, Le Pen came out top among voting intentions with 25 per cent of those questioned saying they would vote for her in the presidential elections, followed by Macron at 20.5 per cent and Fillon at 18.5 per cent.
However, asked about a second-round scenario in which Macron and Le Pen faced each other for the presidency, 63 per cent said they would vote for Macron, leading some to place early bets on Macron becoming the next French president.
According to UK newspapers this week, bookmakers in London are now quoting odds of 5/1 for Fillon becoming the next French president in May, with Macron at 6/5 favourite, Le Pen at 5/2 and Hamon at 16/1.