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Macron’s slap may herald a tense campaign ahead of French presidential elections

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The tension is already in the air less than a year before the French presidential elections. This same week, President Emmanuel Macron was slapped in the face on a visit to the south and far-left activist Jean-Luc Mélenchon relayed conspiracy theories in an impromptu outburst, prompting analysts to warn that the election campaign By 2022 it could already be experiencing an escalation. of extreme ideas and fiery language.

On a visit to the small town of Tain-l’Hermitage in southeastern France on Tuesday, French President Emmanuel Macron approached a metal barricade to greet the gathered crowd and was suddenly slapped in the face by a man. who screamed: “Montjoie Saint Denis!” – a realistic war cry dating back centuries – as well as “À bas la Macronie” (Down with macronism).

The centrist president, who was quickly put off by his security team, later dismissed the incident as a one-time incident perpetrated by an “ultraviolet” person.

In a political talk show, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of the far-left party La France Insoumise and a perennial presidential candidate, curiously predicted that, “in the final weeks of the presidential campaign, we will have a serious incident or murder,” specifically orchestrated to manipulate the electorate.

Mélenchon went on to say that the French presidential elections of April 2022 have already been “written in advance”, suggesting that Macron is the creation of a nebulous elite clique: “In every country in the world, they have invented someone like him, who it comes from nowhere and is pushed by the oligarchy. “

This comes amid repeated rumors In recent months, ultraconservative anti-immigration commentator Éric Zemmour, whose 2014 decline controversy Le Suicide Français sold 400,000 copies and whose appearance on the 24-hour news station C-News has accelerated his ratings – he will run for president.

Zemmour, for his part, reacted to the news of Macron’s slap by saying, “He got what he deserved.”

For many, the idea of ​​someone as controversial as Zemmour, who is adored or detested by large swaths of the French population, campaigning to take over the Elysee Palace. fed fears of a tense campaign ahead.

In late April, a group of former generals added to the irritable atmosphere by writing an open letter, published in an ultra-conservative magazine. Valeurs Actuelles, saying that if the French state does not take action against the “suburban hordes” – or the residents of mainly immigrant suburban areas – and other groups that “despise our country”, France will see a “civil war” leading to deaths “in the thousands ”.

A month later a similar letter was published in the same magazine involving young servicemen in the army, who were told to resign and face sanctions before a military council.

“We could definitely see a bit of a wild campaign,” said Benjamin Morel, an expert on French politics at Paris II University.

‘The public discourse has hardened

But even before the 2022 presidential elections, France will hold two rounds of regional elections on June 20 and 27.

“The presence of the regional elections less than a year before the presidential ones effectively advances the presidential campaign and, therefore, magnifies the regional campaign, provoking all the tensions that accompany the presidential elections,” said Arnaud Benedetti, editor. head of political publication Revue politique et parlementaire.

Party leaders have already launched their campaigns. Leader of the far right Rassemblement National (formerly the National Front) Marine Le Pen was the first to emerge from the blocs, traveling through France to support her party’s regional candidates as she sought to polish her own presidential image.

Mélenchon has also started campaigning, organizing the first rally of his presidential campaign in the former mining town of Aubin, in the southern region of Occitania, on May 16.

Hence Macron’s trips to a variety of French regions – a “secular pilgrimage,” as he called it, to “take the pulse” of a country shaken by nearly a year and a half of pandemic – including a visit to the southeast in the that he what he slapped.

“Public discourse has hardened in recent weeks with these various incidents,” Benedetti said, adding that the Covid-19 crisis probably bears some responsibility for this.

“People were locked up for months last year, and there was already a certain sense of tension, and now that we are seeing the end of the nightmare, there is a risk that people will become more uninhibited in a way that could amplify any violence.” .

However, this was not the first time that French political leaders have been attacked or insulted: then-Conservative President Jacques Chirac was called a “connard” (“bastard”) while greeting a crowd on the French Riviera in 2001. Exprimera center-left Minister Manuel Valls was slapped while campaigning in the Socialist Party’s presidential primaries in 2017. That same year, conservative parliamentary candidate and former Paris mayoral candidate Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet was violently pushed into a market in the French capital.

Nor were Mélenchon’s recent musings on the conspiracy the first time it has sparked controversy. A 2017 video of an irate Mélenchon went viral when his home and party headquarters were raided as part of an anti-corruption investigation into the alleged misuse of European Parliament funds to pay party employees, with an outraged Mélenchon yelling at the police: “I’m a parliamentarian!” and I in the The Republic! ”

As the sociologist Michel Wievorka told FRANCE 24: “We know that Mélenchon is capable of much worse.”

‘Escalation’ of the extreme right discourse?

Mélenchon’s latest tirade comes at a weak point for him and for the French left in general. He obtained 19.6 percent of the vote in the first round of the 2017 presidential elections, ranking fourth behind Macron, Le Pen and the Conservatives. Les Républicains candidate François Fillon. Today, Politico polls aggregate for the 2022 presidential race it places Mélenchon at just 11 percent. Le Pen is at the top with 28 percent, Macron is in second place with 25 percent and Xavier Bertrand, head of the northern Hauts-de-France region, and seen as the most likely conservative standard-bearer, remains in third place with 14 percent. . Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, the favorite to become a Socialist Party candidate, has just seven percent.

Many have observed that while Macron campaigned as a centrist, with his newly formed La République en marche party, he has increasingly ruled from the right. But polling data He suggests that the center itself has shifted to the right during his tenure for much of the French electorate, especially on issues such as security and immigration.

In earlier decades, such a state of affairs would have naturally benefited France’s conservative parties, many of whom are descended from the postwar politics of Charles de Gaulle, leader of the Free French forces during World War II and founding president of the Fifth Republic. and a staunch anti-fascist as well as a staunch conservative. The renewed party renamed by Nicolas Sarkozy, Les Républicains, is now the mainstay of the French center-right. But both the mold-breaking rapid rise of Macron and Le Pen’s slow and steady rise have combined to push France’s traditional left and right parties to the periphery in 2017.

“The traditional parties have always had a calming effect on the political discourse in France,” Morel noted.

“The weakening of traditional parties encourages extremes, because in that vacuum political candidates feel the need to be transgressors if they want to gain traction,” he said. This favors the far right, he said, as voters realize they have “more radical” views than the candidates they have voted for.

At the same time, Morel said, “social media and 24-hour news channels (such as Zemmour’s C-News platform) have not helped, because their audience demand favors attention-grabbing content and therefore , provoke “.

In this context, it is not surprising that reactionary provocateurs like Zemmour have risen to the forefront of French public life.

The 2022 presidential campaign will likely see an “escalation” of extreme speech on the far right if he decides to run, Morel said, predicting that even Le Pen will feel the need to “use more radical language.”

This article was translated from the original in French.

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