PARIS – The “hunger games” aspect of this French election cycle began on the left. President François Hollande was brought down by his own Socialist Party. Hollande’s prime minister, Manuel Valls, became the second course at the cannibals’ banquet.
By then, the corpse of one of France’s two major parties, no longer merely supine, had reached an advanced state of decomposition. Now, at the very moment when one might expect a presidential candidate to tell the nation what he thinks of Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, and Islamic radicals, the Socialist candidate, the wan Benoît Hamon, finds nothing better to talk about than legal marijuana, red sludge, and endocrine disruptors.
On the right, the disaster is just now cresting. Early on, former president Nicolas Sarkozy was eliminated. Former Prime Minister Alain Juppé, after being crowned virtual president for much of last year, was toppled by those who had adored him. And, in the wake of the scandal surrounding François Fillon, the Republican nominee and the man who defeated him, Juppé lost his nerve and on March 6 definitively quit the race.
Fillon, once the clear frontrunner, the choice of four million primary voters, has now brought forth the spectacle of a party of mutineers trying to nudge him out of the race. Schemes, evasions, calculations, and bargains multiply, all based on polls interpreted by the modern equivalents of Roman haruspices. Another corpse.
Enter the investigating magistrates, who obviously are playing their rightful role in hearing evidence about a fake jobs scandal involving Fillon’s wife and children. Their integrity, however, will not be impugned by a gentle reminder that they, too, are human beings, susceptible to human passions and resentments; that the considerable power they wield tends, as all power does, to reach as far as it can; and that, as a consequence, they have become fully enmeshed in a campaign from which, invoking Montesquieu, they should strive scrupulously to hold themselves at a distance.
But we, citizens and voters – each and every one of us – are the worst part of this entire picture. Our new and strange relationship to politics, as evidenced by the current circumstances, can be summed up in three terms.
Cancan. Or, more accurately, can’t-can’t: the griping we do upon the Wednesday appearance of the new Le Canard Enchaîné, the satirical weekly whose insurrectionary humor, once fodder for the loose cannons of the left and right, is becoming the everyday language of politics. There was a time when reading the newspaper was, according to Hegel, the philosopher’s morning prayer. Now reading that particular newspaper feeds the electorate’s insatiable appetite for ridicule.
With what sardonic anticipation French readers await the latest on the base doings of our elected officials and their rivals! With what greedy delectation do we devour our weekly dose of corruption, rot, and scandal! And what bleak disappointment we feel, what sudden loss of interest in life, when, by chance, there is nothing new to report. Ought we not bear in mind, with the poet Stéphane Mallarmé, that when we amuse ourselves thus and become so inebriated with scandal, we “yawn gloomily toward a dark demise.”
Spectacle. In lieu of judgment, we get ceaseless and frivolous commentary on the thousand and one twists and turns of the electoral contest. Once, the news media covered sports as if it were politics. Now political commentary resembles sports coverage.
“Game analysis” has become the paradigm of political narrative. And, in the venerable country said by Marx to be the political nation par excellence, politics is becoming a subspecies of soccer, with its teams, fans, referees, and high scorers. Is it any surprise that at the height of the Fillon affair, the right-wing bosses and their phantom coaches turned (doctrinal and stylistic differences be damned!) to their benchwarmers, who were supposed to be waiting to enter the game? Likewise, one wonders whether Fillon’s loyalists see in him anything more than his stamina, his ability to take a beating, or the figure he cut when, after being knocked flat on his back, he got up as if returning to an unfinished fight.
Equality. Eagerness for it was, once, the noblest of passions; there was, in that passion, the dream of cultivating the body politic and, in so doing, dignifying politics. And I agree with the philosopher Jean-Claude Milner who, in his recent book, Relire la Révolution, takes on the Anatole France of The Gods Are Athirst. Far from simply offering the people their daily ration of blood, Robespierre also tried, in his way, to check the descent of the masses into a vengeful mob and to save what could be saved of the balances inherent in republican hierarchy.
There is none of that in today’s brand of egalitarianism – nothing but a mob inching ever closer to its moment of ultimate power while promoting an equality not of common interest but of complaints, indignities, grudges, and corruption. And, among the fragmented, distraught children of the Enlightenment, among the zombie heirs of Rousseau fibrillating between aggressiveness, blindness, and despair, equality is no longer a task but a taint, a sort of dark shroud, a halo of resentment and hatred to which our common tongue is tied as to a buoy in a tide.
Another disaster. Another delusion. From redemptive egalitarianism to equal-opportunity grousing and score-settling, we have hiked the path that leads a society from life to death.
Frightening as it sounds, that is where France finds itself: not in a mere crisis, but in the last stages of what the great anti-Nazi historian Marc Bloch called, in 1940, his nation’s “strange defeat.” We confront not a lone tree of iniquity, but rather a vast forest of murky words, dangerous and lunatic in their debasement.
And, lying in wait, guided by the Eumenides (the Greek deities of vengeance whose name is synonymous with fury as well as justice), a figure is taking shape as if, in classical terms, in fulfillment of a dreadful fate: Marine Le Pen.