Tension is already in the air less than a year before French presidential polls. Just this week, President Emmanuel Macron was slapped in the face on a visit to the south and far-left firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon aired conspiracy theories in an impromptu outburst, prompting analysts to warn that the 2022 election campaign may already be seeing an escalation of extremist ideas and fiery language.
On a visit to the small town of Tain-l’Hermitage in southeast France on Tuesday, French President Emmanuel Macron approached a metal barricade to greet the assembled crowd and was suddenly slapped in the face by a man shouting, “Montjoie Saint Denis!” – a royalist rallying cry going back centuries – as well as “À bas la Macronie” (Down with Macronism).
The centrist president, who was quickly spirited away by his security detail, later dismissed the incident as a one-off incident perpetrated by an “ultra-violent” person.
Speaking on a political talk programme, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of the extreme-left party La France Insoumise and a perennial presidential candidate, oddly predicted that, “in the last weeks of the presidential campaign, we’ll have a serious incident or a murder”, orchestrated specifically to manipulate the electorate.
Mélenchon went on to say the April 2022 French presidential elections have already been “written in advance”, suggesting that Macron is the creation of a nebulous elite cabal: “In every country of the world, they’ve invented someone like him, who comes from nowhere and who’s pushed by the oligarchy.”
This comes amid repeated rumours over recent months that anti-immigration ultraconservative commentator Éric Zemmour – whose 2014 declinist polemic Le Suicide Français sold 400,000 copies and whose appearance on 24-hour news station C-News has turbocharged its ratings – will run for the president.
Zemmour, for his part, reacted to news of the Macron slap by saying, “He got what he deserved.”
For many, the idea of someone as controversial as Zemmour – who is either adored or detested by great swaths of the French population – campaigning to take the Élysée Palace fuelled fears of a tense campaign ahead.
In late April, a group of ex-generals added to the testy atmosphere by writing an open letter, published in ultra-conservative magazine Valeurs Actuelles, saying that if the French state does not take action against “suburban hordes” – or residents of the mainly immigrant suburban areas – and other groups who “scorn 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 younger, serving members of the military, who were told to resign and will face sanctions before a military council.
“We definitely might see a bit of a wild campaign,” said Benjamin Morel, an expert on French politics at Paris II University.
‘Public discourse has coarsened’
But even before the 2022 presidential elections, France will hold two rounds of regional polls on June 20 and 27.
“The presence of the regional elections less than a year before the presidential ones effectively brings the presidential campaign forward – and so it magnifies the regional campaign, bringing forth all the tensions that go along with the presidential elections,” said Arnaud Benedetti, editor-in-chief of the 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 off the blocks, travelling across France to support her party’s regional candidates while seeking to burnish her own presidential image.
Mélenchon has also started campaigning, hosting the first rally of his presidential campaign in the former mining town of Aubin in the southern Occitanie region 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 the visit to the southeast on which he was slapped.
“Public discourse has coarsened over the past few weeks with these various incidents,” Benedetti said, adding that the Covid-19 crisis likely bears some responsibility for this.
“People were under lockdown for months last year, and there was already some sense of tension – and now that we are seeing the end of the nightmare there is a risk of people becoming more uninhibited in a way that could amplify any violence.”
However, this was not the first time French political leaders have been attacked or insulted: Conservative then-president Jacques Chirac was called a “connard” (“bastard”) while greeting a crowd on the French Riviera in 2001. Centre-left former prime minister Manuel Valls was slapped as he campaigned in the Socialist Party presidential primary in 2017. That same year, conservative parliamentary candidate and former Paris mayoral candidate Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet was violently shoved at a market in the French capital.
Nor were Mélenchon’s recent conspiracy musings the first time he has courted controversy. A 2017 video of an irate Mélenchon went viral when his home and party headquarters were raided as part of an anti-corruption inquiry into the alleged misuse of European Parliament funds to pay party employees, with an indignant Mélenchon shouting at police, “I am a parliamentarian!” and “I am the Republic!”
As sociologist Michel Wievorka told FRANCE 24: “We know that Mélenchon is capable of far worse.”
‘Escalation’ of far-right discourse?
Mélenchon’s latest tirade comes at a low ebb for him and for the French left in general. He won 19.6 percent of the vote in the first round of the 2017 presidential elections, coming fourth behind Macron, Le Pen and conservative Les Républicains candidate François Fillon. Today, Politico’s poll aggregate for the 2022 presidential race puts Mélenchon at just 11 percent. Le Pen is on top at 28 percent, Macron is in second place at 25 percent and Xavier Bertrand – head of the northern Hauts-de-France region, and seen as the most likely conservative standard-bearer – trails in third place at 14 percent. Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, the favourite to become the Socialist Party candidate, is at just seven percent.
Many have observed that although Macron campaigned as a centrist, with his newly formed La République en marche party, he has increasingly governed from the right. But polling data suggests that the centre itself has shifted rightward during his tenure for much of the French electorate, notably on issues like security and immigration.
In previous decades, such a state of affairs would naturally have benefitted France’s conservative parties, many of whom are descended from the post-war politics of Charles de Gaulle, leader of the Free French forces during World War II and the Fifth Republic’s founding president – and a staunch anti-fascist as well as a staunch conservative. The party revamped and renamed by Nicolas Sarkozy, Les Républicains, is now the mainstay of the French centre-right. But both Macron’s rapid mould-breaking ascent and Le Pen’s slow, steady rise have combined to push France’s traditional right- and left-wing parties to the periphery in 2017.
“The traditional parties have always had a calming effect on France’s political discourse,” Morel noted.
“The weakening of the traditional parties encourages the extremes, because in that void political candidates feel the need to be transgressive if they want to gain traction,” he said. This favours the far right, he said, as voters realise they have “more radical” views than the candidates for which they have cast their ballots.
At the same time, Morel said, “social media and 24-hour news channels (such as Zemmour’s platform C-News) have not helped, because their demand for audiences favours attention-grabbing and thus provocative content”.
In this context, it is unsurprising that reactionary provocateurs such as Zemmour have risen to the forefront of French public life.
The 2022 presidential campaign will likely see an “escalation” of extreme discourse 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.