Imagine that a terrorist had shot dead four police officers, in two daylight attacks on the streets of Winchester and Southampton, a few months before the 2012 Olympics. After a few days at large he attacks the playground of a Jewish school in north London, killing a teacher and three children aged three, six and eight (the latter, a girl, is grabbed by the hair before being shot in the head).
A few days before Christmas 2014 vans run over shoppers in Bristol and Liverpool, injuring dozens but miraculously killing no-one. But just three weeks later, masked gunmen attack the London offices of Private Eye, killing a police officer, a receptionist and 11 journalists and cartoonists. In August 2015, a massacre on a Eurostar train speeding through Kent is only narrowly averted when an American tourist wrestles an automatic weapon from a terrorist’s hands. That November, gunmen and suicide bombers attack a music gig at the Brixton Academy and nearby restaurants and bars, killing 130 young Londoners and wounding dozens more.
Worse is to follow in 2016. After a couple of foiled attacks on police stations in Cardiff and Edinburgh in January, in June a police commander and his wife are stabbed to death by a so-called Islamic State terrorist at their home in Essex, in front of their three-year-old son. The following month a terrorist drives a lorry through a crowd of spectators at a midsummer firework display in Torquay, killing 84 and injuring hundreds more. Ten days later, a vicar has his throat cut while celebrating holy communion at a village church in Yorkshire.
I’ve Anglicised the locations but in all other respects this is precisely what France has suffered in the last five years. It’s difficult to overstate the collective trauma, the soul-searching, and the racial tension that such an onslaught has caused. Had Britain faced such a sequence of terrorist attacks, try to imagine the fear, anger and confusion. How would voters react? Would they turn to established political leaders to guide Britain through the turmoil, or look in a new direction?
In France voters have turned away from the political establishment and headed off in three directions – to extremists of the left and right, and to a fresh-faced new technocratic centrist. In the first round of the presidential election in April both the Parti Socialiste and Les Republicains – the centre-left and centre-right parties that, under varying names, have dominated French politics for decades – were defeated by Emmanuel Macron, a 39-year-old who started a new political party, En Marche, from scratch just 12 months ago. Neither of the two main parties came second, or even third: Macron is joined in the run-off this weakened by the Front National’s Marine Le Pen (who Macron only narrowly defeated by 24% to 21%), with the left-wing maverick Jean-Luc Melenchon in third place.
Rather like Cameron stepping down after the Brexit referendum, France’s socialist president François Hollande made the unprecedented decision not to seek a second term in 2017. But no stolid Theresa May figure has emerged in France to fill the power vacuum: Hollande has stayed in office as a lame-duck president, while the original front-runner to succeed him, the centre-right François Fillon, quickly sank into a mire of allegations that he had paid his wife a whopping €800,000 for a fake job in his parliamentary office. Benoît Hamon, the socialist candidate who had hoped to succeed Hollande in the Elysee palace, came fifth with a pathetic 6.3%.
It’s a bit like a British general election being won by a brand new centre-left party headed by David Miliband, closely followed by UKIP and then George Galloway’s Respect party, with the Tories and Labour in distant fourth and fifth place respectively.
France is living through strange times indeed, which make the Brexit vote in the UK look like a minor tremor in comparison. Of course Britain has faced some terrible terrorist attacks in the last 12 years – the 7/7 attacks which killed more than 50 people, the gruesome killing of Lee Rigby, the recent Westminster outrage. But the British death toll over the last 12 years is far, far less than the French death toll over the last five. And while British terrorists have mostly hit London, just about every French region has seen fatal attacks, over and over again. Despite a state of emergency and a massive security clampdown, the attacks haven’t stopped. And with an ailing economy – shockingly, youth unemployment is stuck at 20% – and the stark ghettoization of French cities, where an urban underclass faces widespread racism and distrust, it’s easy to understand how detached from French society many young French Arabs feel, and how susceptible to radicalisation some are. Reading Andrew Hussey’s recent account of life in the Parisian banlieues in the New Statesman makes you realise how much more divided most French cities are than their British equivalents.
Add to the mix an endless string of political scandals – France’s last president Nicolas Sarkozy is about to face trial over illegal campaign financing, and his predecessor Jacques Chirac has got a suspended prison sentence for corruption – and its hardly surprising that French voters have turned away from the two traditional parties of the centre-left and centre-right. For many, the ever-present threat of Islamic terrorism is the final straw. The surprise is not that Marine Le Pen got 21% of the vote in the first round, but that she didn’t get more.
I’ve visited France regularly in the last decade – my partner owns a property in the Languedoc and her father lives in Burgundy – and we drove across France and back a few weeks ago. Even though we stayed away from big cities the heavy security was visible everywhere. At Dover French police checked our boot twice. Driving through Burgundy on a small D road we were pulled over and asked to produce our papers. A heavily armed policeman, finger on the trigger, stood a few metres away, eyeing us suspiciously as another officer took a photo of our number plate on his iPhone.
Just before Easter I spent a day in Beziers – a small French city with a down-at-heel reputation but a surprisingly charming old town – and saw a group of six soldiers, all with machine guns and earpieces, walk past the cathedral (I chose not to snap them lest their reaction was not friendly). We’re used to seeing armed police at British airports and in central London, but seeing armed soldiers patrol the Cathedral close of Hereford or Salisbury is unthinkable. Not so in France.
Beziers’ mayor is Robert Menard – a right-wing maverick, nominally independent but backed by the Front National – who started his career as the left-wing founder of Reporters sans Frontières. Like many southern cities Beziers is very mixed, full of north African immigrants as well as elderly Pieds Noirs – French Algerians who fought to defend the colony, and their descendants.
But rather than ease tensions between the two groups Menard has poured fuel on the fire. In 2014 he renamed Beziers’ Rue du 19 Mars 1962 (the date of the ceasefire in Algeria) after Hélie Denoix de Saint-Marc, a French general who fought in Algeria and played a key role in the failed coup against De Gaulle in 1961. Five days later Menard ordered municipal flags to fly at half mast to mark the 53rd anniversary of the agreements of Evian which ended the seven-year war in Algeria. It’s difficult to overstate the significance of these decisions (imagine a British mayor renaming a street after Lord Haw-Haw, and flying the flag at half mast on the anniversary of the Good Friday agreement, and you’re close).
Under Menard, Beziers’ Mairie issues a fortnightly propaganda sheet, Le Journal de Beziers. I found piles of them, full of invective against his political opponents, in the entrance to the municipal art gallery. One edition carried a photo essay of historic buildings that Menard claims his predecessors allowed to fall into ruin, headlined Ils ont assassiné notre patrimoine (they have assassinated our heritage), a photo of a white man vomiting into a toilet under the headline Ces politiciens qui nous font vomir (Those politicians that make us vomit); another a fawning two-page interview with Menard, announcing that he will stand for a second term in 2018.
Opposition parties are allowed a column each on one of the back pages, but in all other respects it’s far more provocative and partisan than any Town Hall Pravda ever seen in Britain. Shockingly, apart from hostile depictions of queues of migrants, all the magazine’s images of Bitterois (as Beziers people are know) are lily-white. It reminded me most of all of Nazi propaganda of the 30s, stopping just short of hook-nosed caricatures of international Jewry and rose-tinted tableaux of Aryans in lederhosen.
It’s easy to see why many on the left feel that despite Marine Le Pen’s superficial sanitisation of the Front National, France is only a short step from fascism. Incredibly, Le Pen recently claimed that the French state bore no blame for the Vel’ d’Hiv roundup of 1942, in which 13,000 French Jews (including more than 4,000 children) were held at the Vélodrome d’Hiver without water, food and sanitation and then taken in rail cattle cars to Auschwitz.
Over breakfast in a small hotel near Orleans I got talking to a well-dressed elderly couple, and asked them if they agreed that even if Le Pen got through to the run-off, Macron was bound to defeat her with the support of the left and the mainstream centre-right. “We’re making no predictions,” they answered warily. “After Trump and Brexit in 2016 anything’s possible here in 2017”.
Macron’s promises to revive the economy, reform France’s creaking bureaucracy and heal social divisions may sound plausible, but so did Francois Hollande when he made similar promises in 2012. In 2002 Jean Marie Le Pen made it through to the run-off only to be crushed by the conservative Chirac, who was backed, albeit reluctantly, by most left-wing voters. But in 2002 the economy was buoyant, there was little terrorism, and Chirac was already a political veteran (he’d been appointed Prime Minister by Giscard d’Estaing as long ago as 1974, spent 18 years as mayor of Paris, and been president since 1995), not a 39-year-old ingénu.
Macron has all the pitfalls of centrism: Le Pen portrays him as a wishy-washy acolyte of Hollande, but he’s seen as a liberal globaliser by the hard left. He’s too inexperienced, but the experience he does have makes him a pillar of the establishment, not its wrecking ball. While Macron’s party may be brand new, Macron himself is the ultimate insider: a former Rothschild banker educated at the elite École nationale d’administration, he was one of Hollande’s close advisers in 2012-14 and France’s finance minister in 2014-16. But as the former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis has argued, Macron was one of his few opposite numbers to argue against the austerity that was doled out to Greece by the ECB at the height of the Eurozone crisis. Varoufakis says that for all his faults Macron must be supported: as the only alternative is a fascist with a clear chance of victory, abstention is not an option.
Like most observers I hope and pray that Macron wins the second round this weekend. But I also hoped and prayed that Hilary Clinton would win last November, and that Britons would reject the Brexiteers’ lies and xenophobia last June. France is an even more tortured country than either Britain or the US. The media often forgets that no other western country has experienced such a horrific wave of terrorist attacks as France has. If Macron does win big it will say a lot about French voters’ calmness, ability to compromise, and resistance to bigotry. I can’t be sure that British voters would do the same in the circumstances.