The most extraordinary thing regarding the affair swirling around conservative French presidential candidate François Fillon—he, his wife, Penelope, and his children have been variously accused of nepotism and corruption involving payments for jobs that may not have existed—is the non-affair surrounding Marine Le Pen, the candidate of the National Front, a party that combines equal measures of ultra-nationalism, protectionism, and anti-immigrant sentiment. If you want a phony jobs scam affecting not one but 24 legislators, you should take a look at the investigationlaunched by the European Anti-Fraud Office around 20 legislative assistants who were allegedly working for Le Pen’s party while on the payroll of the European Parliament. If you want actual indictments for alleged fraud, receipt of proceeds from fraud, misuse of corporate property, money-laundering, and illegal campaign-financing, you will find no better examples than those involving the far-right micro-faction known as Jeanne, together with Riwal, its communications contractor—both satellites of Le Pen’s National Front.
And if you are looking for a corrupt party, rife with nepotism, recipient of criminal sanctions for race-baiting, misappropriation of funds, and so on—well, again, the National Front has done it all. Yet the curious fact is that, in France as in the United States, these damning circumstances have not echoed nearly as loudly as the suspicions weighing on Fillon, the candidate of the Republican right and one of Le Pen’s main opponents—if the damning circumstances are mentioned at all.
When French outlets such as the online investigative site Médiapart and the satirical weekly Le Canard Enchaînéremind the public of the multiple investigations that have ended in serious sanctions—when brave journalists try to draw attention to the foul odors rising from the headquarters of the National Front—the same mainstream newspapers and television programs that spare us no detail of the life and times of Madame Penelope Fillon take no more than passing notice.
In this early phase of the French presidential campaign—the first round of voting will be held on April 23, and if no candidate achieves a majority, a runoff between the top two candidates will be held on May 7— it seems that nothing said about the daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen appears to stick. Pile high as you will the scandals, suspicions, and proofs of foul play; rehash every bit of the conclusive evidence that her party has been financed by Russian banks—none of it seems to leave a mark on our collective conscience. It is as if Le Pen enjoyed a sort of impunity, the most powerful kind of all: the impunity that public opinion grants to its darlings.
That is, alas, the situation in which the French find themselves. What we are witnessing with respect to Le Pen is far worse than mere indulgence, however: It is a refusal to see or hear things that should properly have disqualified her long ago: the all-too cozy stance toward Vladimir Putin and Russian banks; the number of disreputable people closely associated with her; and her own employment scandal involving an allegedly fake European Union job for her bodyguard. One detects in all this a strange determination to ignore anything that contradicts the new hypothesis being bandied about by commentators, party leaders, and the public—the hypothesis of Le Pen drawing close to power, and possibly obtaining it. For the moment, she is running ahead of François Fillon, and leftist Benoit Hamon, and narrowly behind centrist Emmanuel Macron.
One thinks back to the United Kingdom of the Brexit vote—and especially to the United States of last year’s presidential election, where the application of a double standard kept the airwaves full of allegations about the “corruption” of Hillary Clinton while the proved turpitude of Donald Trump lay right under our eyes. And now we see France enjoying its self-destructive quest to delegitimize Fillon, the winner of the primary of the Democratic right, and to indulge its obscure desire to see, or at least to imagine, his far-right adversary at the helm. One thinks of the writer Stefan Zweig and his poignant “world of yesterday.” Austria-Hungary in the last days of empire, widely lauded as one of the summits of civilization, owed its excellence not to power in the manner of Caesar’s Rome but to tolerance and gentility—yet it had a furious death wish and dimly chased its own execution before tumbling into the abyss.
One also thinks of the characters that Austrian writer Hermann Broch sketched years later in The Seducer. With their cries of “democracy is dead,” “down with the elites,”and “death to Weimar and its decadence”—with their droned rejection of political give and take, in the manner of Joseph Roth’s aristocrats in The Emperor’s Tomb (1938), who waltzed breathlessly while chirping, like broken cuckoo clocks, “I hate the Hapsburgs . . . I hate the Hapsburgs”—Broch’s characters surrendered themselves to a demonic demagogue. And while we’re at it, one might think back to that moment described by the ancient Greeks, and notably by Plato, when the Republic, fat with spiritual and material wealth and smug from easy access to abundance, becomes feverish, feels grace slipping from its grasp, watches the gods let go of the rudder, and slides into that caricature of democracy that the philosophers called “ochlocracy,” the tyranny of the mob.
We are not there yet. Fortunately, the second-rate authoritarians of the National Front cannot be compared to the staggering monsters of Zweig’s era, Broch, and Robert Musil—no more than Fillon can be compared to the tragic figures of Weimar, such as foreign minister Walther Rathenau and French Popular Front interior minister Roger Salengro.
But when you take into account the many French voters who are saying, “We’ve tried everything else; why not this?”—voters who, consciously or not, would appear to prefer a tempest to boredom and who advocate “stirring things up” so that “finally something will happen”; when you consider the volatile combination of our national anxieties and the ambient nihilism; when you behold the seemingly irresistible temptation to rouse a sluggish patient even by drastic means; when you ponder the demonstrated failings of our leaders and the nonstop revelations and accusations; when you think about the remnants of the radical urge and the risky quest for complete transparency and purity; when you hear the rumblings of grievances that have been left to fester too long and now may be approaching the bursting point—well, all of that may indeed make up an explosive cocktail. And it does indeed seem to suggest a series of imperceptible shifts that add up to this: for the first time, the irresponsible, xenophobic, and crypto-fascist Marine Le Pen has the wind behind her and could, in fact, become France’s next president.