With Macron and Le Pen Leading Election Field, a Fractured France Decides

DIJON, France — At Le Carillon, a friendly place for a coq au vin as France prepares to vote in a critical election, the heated political debates that have always characterized past campaigns have died down, as if the country is anesthesia.

In other election seasons, the restaurant would buzz for months with arguments about candidates and issues. This time, said owner Martine Worner-Bablon, “No one is talking about politics. I don’t know, people’s heads are elsewhere. No trust in politicians. On the contrary, they talk about war.

In this strange atmosphere, darkened by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, centrist President Emmanuel Macron holds a slight lead over far-right nationalist Marine Le Pen, according to the latest polls. But his comfortable advantage of more than 10 percentage points has evaporated over the past month as his rejection of the debate and failure to engage has angered voters.

“What surprises me is that the President of the French Republic does not think first of the French,” said Ms. Le Pen last month, whose newfound sweetness masks a harsh anti-immigrant program. It was a remark that hit home as Mr Macron spent most of his time pondering how to end a European war.

With voting spread over two rounds from Sunday, many people still undecided and an expected abstention rate of up to 30%, the outcome of the election is deeply uncertain. During her last campaign, in 2017, Ms Le Pen chose to run in the Kremlin with President Vladimir V. Putin, who said with a smirk that he did not “want to influence events in any way” because she pledged to lift the sanctions. against Russia “rather quickly” if elected.

The possibility of France swinging into an anti-NATO, pro-Russian, xenophobic and nationalist stance if Le Pen wins is as big a potential shock as Britain’s 2016 vote for Brexit or the election the same year. of Donald J. Trump in the United States.

At what President Biden has repeatedly called an “inflection point” in the global showdown between autocracy and democracy, a France under Ms. Le Pen would push the needle in the very direction the United States oppose.

Everything seems quiet in Dijon, for the moment. Quiet and pristine, its center a succession of churches and palaces, the capital of the Burgundy region is a symbol like any of ‘la douce France’, the sweet land of gastronomic delights that finds its way into the heart of many people. But Dijon, a city of 155,000 inhabitants, has its turbulent undersides, like a country where beauty and belligerence and magnificence and malaise often go hand in hand.

Among the regulars of the Carillon, requests for information on the location of anti-nuclear shelters are increasing. Emmanuel Bichot, a centre-right municipal councilor, does not like the country’s mood. “There’s a lot of frustration, aggression, tension,” he said. “People get angry very quickly. This is not a program election. I don’t hear anyone discussing it.

He stopped to contemplate this puzzle. “It comes down to Macron’s Machiavellian manipulations against Le Pen’s resilience.” This is the third time that Ms. Le Pen, the leader of the National Rally, ex-National Front, is running for president. The two leaders of the first round of voting will qualify for a second round on April 24.

A fundamental development contributed to the fractured and inconsistent nature of the election. Mr. Macron’s agile occupation of the political center, destroying first the center-left Socialist Party and then the center-right Republicans, effectively shattered two pillars of post-war French democracy.

There remained the president against the extremes, whether on the right in the form of Mrs. Le Pen or on the left in the form of Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Between them, Ms. Le Pen, the far-right upstart Éric Zemmour and Mr. Mélenchon should collect around 50% of the vote, according to the latest poll by the Ifop-Fiducial group.

“It’s a country that no longer has the political structures that correspond to what a democracy is,” said Francois Hollande, Mr. Macron’s socialist predecessor to the presidency, in an interview last month in Paris. “And I believe, if you look across Europe, it’s only in France that political parties have collapsed to this extent.”

Considering his own allegiance to the centre-left, he said: “The left has completely exploded, split and the most responsible part has disappeared.

At the same time, Mr Macron’s own party, La Republique en Marche, has proven to be a largely empty vessel.

In this vacuum, the campaign has often turned into candidates shouting at each other, while a top leader feels his presidential stature should be enough to win.

This attitude, however, underestimates French agitation. Not for two decades has a French president won a second term. Regicides are a thing of the past, but political beheadings every five years are not.

At the same time, immigration, security and a steep rise in the cost of living have mixed into a nasty brew. Many French people feel left out of the economic growth Mr Macron has brought to the country and worry about the violence they see in their neighborhoods.

Referring to several Islamist terrorist attacks in France, Irène Fornal, retired director of the state pension fund based at the Café de l’Industrie in Dijon, said: “After Charlie Hebdo, after the Bataclan, after the murder of Samuel Paty, evil was personified by the foreign immigrant, and the country is divided.

Dijon, like many cities in France, has its projects, underprivileged neighborhoods of indefinable skyscrapers where immigrants, often Muslims from North Africa, and their descendants predominate, and where drug trafficking sows violence between rival gangs.

“Insecurity pollutes people’s lives,” said Francois Rebsamen, the city’s longtime mayor and lifelong socialist who joined Macron’s campaign, given the collapse of his own party. “In these areas, tranquility is elusive.”

Two years ago, in the Grésilles district of Dijon, street battles between Chechens and North Africans broke out for five days after a 16-year-old Chechen boy was assaulted by drug traffickers from the Maghreb. In another depressed area, called Fontaine d’Ouche, some shops are still closed after drive-by shootings late last year.

Mathieu Depoil – who runs a social center in Fontaine d’Ouche which tries to improve people’s lives through sports, carpentry, gardening and other activities – said the roughly 7,000 people in the area, mainly immigrants, formed a “zone of precariousness” with a 25 percent poverty rate, high unemployment rate and numerous single-parent families.

“People complain to me that if they say where they live, they’re told, ‘Oh, you live with savages,'” he added.

A mock election he hosted recently with a debate on the 12 official presidential candidates attracted only a handful of people. “I’m not sure people will go vote,” he said. “They are disillusioned, they feel alone and isolated after the Covid-19. They have lost all faith in collective solutions.

We went for a walk in the neighborhood, visited at the end of last month by Mr Macron when he was finally realizing the need to get out of Paris and hear the concerns of people who find it difficult to get along. to go out. The posters of him that were hastily pasted are now gone.

Instead, the bespectacled face of Mr. Mélenchon, the far-left candidate, adorns many walls with the slogan “Another world is possible”.

In this one, meanwhile, yellowish buildings, some 10 or 12 stories high, surround a dark plaza with a halal butcher. A Sudanese family, an Eritrean refugee and an unemployed Italian named Giovanni Oddone tell similar stories of odd jobs. They are far from helpless — the French state is generous — but they seem to be adrift.

“People don’t care about the election because they don’t feel understood,” Mr Oddone said.

A Moroccan woman named Hafida El-Bakkouri, wearing a headscarf, joined a group of women playing a version of dominoes. She says she buys a bag of flour for 50 cents to bake three baguettes for about the price of one at the bakery. “We’re getting by,” she said.

When asked what she thought of Ms Le Pen, who has sworn to ban the wearing of the headscarf in public and the beautiful women who wear them, Ms El-Bakkouri replied: country. I can vote for her. Why not?”

This is an opaque election full of potential surprises.

Back in the other world of the center of Dijon, the town hall is located in the Palace of the Dukes, accessible by the magnificent hemicycle from the Place de la Liberation. UNESCO has listed the city center as a World Heritage Site.

Mr Rebsamen, who has governed the city here for 21 years, is worried. “There was no real Macron campaign,” he said. “They plan a rally and think two tweets are enough to draw a crowd. I would put Le Pen’s odds at 15%, which means it’s possible she wins. Beware of high abstention.

He had joined Macron’s campaign, abandoning the Socialists, because “France needs someone who can represent the country with dignity, and because, as the philosopher Raymond Aron said, the choice in politics is ‘between the preferable and detestable.

On the issue of security, to make people feel like he really cares about their lives, the president has failed, said Mr Rebsamen, who once served as social affairs minister. The letter to the French which belatedly launched Mr Macron’s campaign with a warning that they should work harder was botched. His electoral slogan, “Avec Vous”, or “Avec Vous”, was contradicted by a staged impression of distancing.

“But now that he’s woken up, he needs that sense of urgency,” the mayor said. “I tell him he has to get out of his comfort zone!”

Mr Macron has begun to harshly attack Ms Le Pen for her attachment to Mr Putin – which she is trying to play down. He praises the “brotherhood” and reminds the electorate how he led the country through the loneliness and economic hardships of the pandemic.

“The crises have forged me and my energy is intact,” he told Le Figaro this week in an interview.

We do not know if the French will hear it in sufficient numbers. Mr. Macron, out of apparent distraction, or perhaps sheer boredom at the thought of another campaign, allowed Ms. Le Pen to slip into the zone of possible surprises that once seemed unthinkable.