Editor’s Note: David A. Andelman, editor emeritus of World Policy Journal and member of the board of contributors of USA Today, is the author of “A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today.” He previously was a Paris correspondent for CBS News. Follow him on Twitter @DavidAndelman.
Three weeks before voters head to the polls to choose the next president of France, all 11 first-round candidates lined up in a large semicircle for a nationally televised debate that quickly dissolved into a cacophony of insults and shouts that steamed rapidly out of control.
For an American viewer, it was a Gallic clone of our own Republican primary debates a year before.
A week after this televised contest, France’s leading daily newspaper, Le Monde, asked, “What would the first months of an Emmanuel Macron presidency look like?” – effectively baptizing one of the two leading candidates the winner even before the first ballot is cast.
It appeared to be a form of wishful thinking, not unlike the broad assumptions of most American newspapers in October that Hillary Clinton was the presumptive heir to the presidency of the United States – not Donald Trump.
Indeed, the two races have a whole host of truly frightening similarities – and high stakes – that are worth examining before voters from Normandy to the Pyrenees head to the polls.
Underwhelming and alarming front-runners
In France’s two-step balloting, French voters will be able to choose from 11 candidates from old-line communists on the far left to the far-right of the National Front and its standard-bearer, Marine Le Pen.
If no single candidate receives more than half the votes cast, then most commentators believe Le Pen and young centrist Macron are the most likely to find themselves in a second-round runoff.
Both candidates are alarming, in their own way.
Le Pen wants to remove France from the European Union, ditch the euro as its currency and pull back from NATO, all of which would send shivers of joy up the spine of her BFF, Vladimir Putin. She’s also keen on banning Muslim veils in public and chopping all immigration from Islamic nations.
Macron, by contrast, is a 39-year-old political neophyte. He has no party machine behind him to back him in any tough battle in the National Assembly. Any of this sounding familiar?
And there may still be time for two other questionable candidates to cause an upset.
François Fillon defeated both former President Nicolas Sarkozy and former Prime Minister Alain Juppe to receive the nomination of the leading center-right party, but he has since been accused of rampant corruption.
Meanwhile, Jean-Luc Melenchon, the far-left candidate, seems to have succeeded in marginalizing the official Socialist Party candidate, Benoit Hamon, who won the all-but-worthless endorsement of incumbent President François Hollande.
In no election in recent French history have the results been in greater doubt.
For weeks, most of the leading national polls had Le Pen and Macron in a virtual tie.
And lately, Fillon and Melenchon have been showing some real strength.
But CNN has refused to accept the validity of any of these polls, and for good reason.
Le Pen’s base barely talks to pollsters or journalists. Since most French polling is done online – and many of her most passionate supporters rarely spend much time online, though France is among the world’s most connected countries – her real strengths may remain to be realized.
The most motivated voters are …
As was the case in the United States, it certainly seems the most motivated voters right now are those likely to support the extremes.
Since January, Fillon has been saying, “The presidential election will be decided in the last two weeks of the campaign.”
That’s where France finds itself right now. As voters look ever more closely at all four leading candidates, none appears to have captured the imagination of France’s vast political middle that decides every contest.
But the hard-core base of each candidate remains. When the latest scandal erupted in Fillon’s universe several weeks ago, he called for a Trump-style rally on the outskirts of Paris, and suddenly it appeared he was back in the race.
Le Pen, meanwhile, seems largely immune to every scandal or misplaced idea that should torpedo a serious candidate in any Western democracy, rather like someone else who was declared out of the race more than once.
Corruption, gaffes and fake news
On Sunday, Marine, as she insists on being called, committed what some might consider to be the ultimate gaffe: She told a nationwide broadcast audience that “France was not responsible for the Vel d’Hiver,” the great roundup of 13,000 French Jews by the Vichy government in 1942.
The question that has again been raised since is not dissimilar to the one that dogged Trump: Will her base really care very much what she says or does, especially in these final two weeks of one of the most contentious campaigns in modern French history?
The problem is that each of the leading candidates has his, or her, cross to bear – even serious questions of corruption.
Fillon was once considered a shoe-in. But then it was revealed he had much of his family, including his wife and two of his children, on his legislative payroll for years to the tune of about $1 million.
The French police arrested his wife. But he’s still in the running. Fillion has denied any wrongdoing.
Macron is somewhat damaged by four years he spent as an investment banker with Rothschild. And his wife is 24 years older, which has led to all sorts of rumors about his private life.
Much of this French chatter has been attributed to the proliferation of fake news, which is what Macron and a host of other candidates have branded the repeated stories that emerge and somehow persist against all evidence to the contrary.
The Russia factor
Much of this fake news has been laid at the feet of the ultimate wild card – the Russian factor. More than two weeks ago, Le Pen suddenly appeared, unannounced and unheralded in the Kremlin at the side of a beaming Putin.
This visit followed, of course, weeks of speculation as to the role Russian hackers were playing in the European elections that are coming thick and fast this year – and each with a candidate favored by or anathema to the Kremlin.
In France, that candidate is Le Pen; in the Netherlands, the populist Geert Wilders, who came in a strong second; anyone but Angela Merkel in Germany.
In Britain, Brexit was welcomed by the Putin regime. Anything to break up, or at least drive a wedge into a united Europe.
Still, the French themselves seem to be perfectly capable of sowing their own confusion. After all, two months from now, there’ll be another two-stage vote to elect the new French Parliament.