7 Ways This Year’s French Presidential Election Is a Soap Opera

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Today is the French presidential election. Despite the cold and wet weather, I was happy to see this outside of the polling place across from our apartment:

French presidential election

Even if you aren’t living in France, you might have heard about this election for one simple reason: Marine Le Pen. Following Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, the rise of Le Pen — the anti-immigration, anti-globalisation leader of the far-right party — has people not only in France but around the world concerned about what’s to come from the populist movement. Living in Paris with a front and center seat, here a few of the wildest things I’ve heard or read:

A former candidate is under investigation for embezzling public funds. In France, there are two rounds to every election. In the first round (which happened on April 23), 10 to 20 candidates representing the many French parties run against each other. If no candidate has more than 50 percent of the vote, the two candidates with the top votes face off in a second round (happening today). At the end of 2016, everyone was talking about two candidates: Marine Le Pen and Francois Fillon. Fillon is the leader of the Republican party and former Prime Minister of France under President Nicolas Sarkozy (2007-2012). However, beginning this January, Fillon came under fire from a left-leaning newspaper for paying his wife, whom he had hired to work for him, 900,000 euros and his five kids nearly 100K euros. None of this was, per say, illegal — family members can work for politicians. What was illegal is that it appeared that no one was actually doing any work. (Hello, we’re in France — does anyone actually work? I kid…). As if that wasn’t enough, it was then revealed that he received 13,000 euros in fancy suits as “gifts” for political “favors” — a big no-no in France. Fillon denied the charges about his wife’s “fake” “job” (and still does), but he resigned after the French government decided to file a formal investigation. The investigation is still under way. What really got to people: Fillon had always sold himself on being the “honest” candidate. Maybe “honest” and “politician” really is an oxymoron.

The new candidate is married to his high school teacher. With Fillon out of the picture, a new candidate took up the reigns against Marine Le Pen. Enter: Emmanuel Macron. The 39-year-old is a former investment banker who entered politics in 2006 as a member of the Socialist party. Macron served as a senior staffer to current French president François Hollande, and has been Minister of the Economy and Finance since 2014. Some French friends were scandalized earlier this year when accusations arose that Macron was gay. Um, and…? I asked. What about the cold hard fact that Macron IS married to his former high school teacher, Brigitte, 64, whom he met when he was just 15 and she was 40? YES MARRIED TO HIS HIGH SCHOOL TEACHER. Oh yeah, and at 39, he has no kids of his own but seven grandchildren. Did any of my French friends not find this scandalous? No. No, not at all. Gulp. I am still so not French.

He’s also considered the “French Obama.” For almost every presidential election to-date, the Socialists — the party of President Hollande — make it to the second round. But they have been hammered because Hollande has a 4 percent approval rating. So in August 2015, to distance himself from his former party, Macron said he was no longer a Socialist but an Independent. Then, in April 2016, he founded a new centrist party, “En Marche!” (Smart move, since the Socialist presidential candidate came in sixth this year with a dismal 6 percent of the vote.) Macron’s youth, plus his message of “change,” have earned him comparisons to Obama. Frankly, those comparisons are overblown — Macron isn’t in the same league. Nevertheless, Macron did get the endorsement of Obama three days ago — a big deal since the French LOVE Obama (there was even a petition for Obama to run for president of France):

The other candidate is the French Donald Trump. While there are similarities, they are not one in the same. Le Pen does represent a similar sort of populism as Trump; she is favored among the same blue-collar working class voters who are fed up with globalism. She is virulently against immigration and, instead of making racist comments about Mexicans, she is European equivalent: essentially anti-Muslim. However unlike Trump, she has been in politics since birth. Her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, is the founder of her party, the National Front. He has denied the holocaust (she has since distanced herself from him, but does the apple fall that far from the tree?). But like Trump, Le Pen has also gotten quite cozy with Russia and said that the Russians are “an important power upon which the U.S. imposed the Cold War.” The plot thickens.

The Russians are involved in this election, too. This Friday, just hours before a state-enforced silence on talking about the election in the media, it’s revealed that Macron’s emails have been hacked and released to the media by Russians. Putin would love nothing more than for Trump to be president of the U.S., and Le Pen to be president of France…

This election could decide the fate of the E.U. Marine Le Pen that she wants France out of the euro and, at times, out of the E.U. (a claim she has backed off of in recent weeks). So if Le Pen is elected president, it would be catastrophic for the E.U. That means, as The New York Times has reported, the election could decide the fate of the E.U. An E.U. without France…well, it just doesn’t work.

Yet some French are making the same mistake as Americans. Despite all of this insanity, and the lessons we thought we learned from Brexit and Trump, many voters in France have said that they may vote “blanc” — leave their ballots blank — or abstain from voting. Just this Friday, as I was walking the dog and listening to French radio, a former staffer for Fillon’s party was discussing this election, railing on Macron for not being hard enough on immigration during the final presidential debate against Le Pen. At first, she said she had “absolutely no doubt” that Macron would win the French election. Then, 10 minutes later, when the journalist asked how she planned to vote, she said “blanc.” How little we do learn. While many voters aren’t thrilled with the candidates, nearly all politicians from all parties have vocally backed Macron, just because he’s not Le Pen. Yet others still aren’t sure they’re going to vote at all.

Here’s to hoping that the French do turn out at more than 80 percent as they usually do — and give France, and Europe, a fighting chance today.

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