French Election: A Nation Of Reason Sliding Into Political Extremism

Four candidates, including one from the extreme left and one for extreme right, are in a virtual dead heat ahead of Sunday's election. But the problem runs much goes deeper than tight polls.

Flying away
Flying away
Eric Le Boucher


PARIS — Four different candidates are polling around 20%: Jean-Luc Mélenchon of the extreme left, centrist Emmanuel Macron, center-right François Fillon and Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front party. The remaining votes will scatter among the other seven candidates. Yes, ahead of Sunday's first round of voting in France's presidential election, that's what we call a bona fide toss-up.

My former university professor of statistics, who was among the first to introduce opinion polls in France, had told us to mistrust these surveys. If there are two possible answers and the result is close to 50/50, then it's left "to chance, and the opinion poll is worthless," he said. You could get the same result flipping a coin.

It's true, in the science of mathematical statistics, variability is the prime weakness. But the uncertainty in this case runs deeper: The French election appears truly left to chance. It will hinge on the geographic distribution of the voter turnout rate, on weather-related disruptions, on the shadowy calculations concerning so-called "tactical" voting — which will be inevitably wrong, in this context characterized by ignorance — or on last-minute decisions made for God-knows-what reasons.

Am I going too far? Sadly, no. Each of the leading candidates has arguably gained a base of committed supporters. But with the four frontrunners now on equal footing, the election will actually depend on the tight and random distribution of the significant number of undecided voters. Not only is this roll of the dice unprecedented, it is also terrifying.

In Les Sables d'Olonne, western France — Photo: Bertrand Hauger via Instagram

How did the nation of Descartes arrive to this point? Those who instead study political science can provide dozens of reasons, but right now, two stand out: 1) France has plunged into deep mental disarray and 2) the electoral campaign has worsened that condition.

Such a negative state of mind is something we already know about. The French, after all, regularly wind up behind Zimbabwe in global surveys on national rates of happiness. Our country has lost all its traditional markers of the past, like the left/right division, which leaves us wandering in a misunderstanding of the world and look to the future with fear. A body of literature about identity scared the French populace even further — leading them to the nostalgia of political extremism.

Populism was only successful because public discourse was locked into an old framework.

A majority of people appear seduced by candidates with electoral programs that are as thoughtless as they are risky, projects impossible to implement. It is a growing attraction to the n'importe quoi ("it's all the same") mindset that is bordering on a clinical condition.

Anger, resentment, rage? Other countries demonstrate this kind of rejection. Middle class anxiety is affecting all developed nations. But while the United Kingdom has Nigel Farage and the United States has Donald Trump, France somehow manages to have two Trumps: one of the extreme left and the other of the far right, who sound the same on so many matters, except for what to do about immigration.

Populism was only successful because public discourse was locked into an old framework. The struggle between the people and the elites explains everything and the dégagisme ("kicking-out-ing") is the obvious solution. Realistic argumentation is unable to overturn this almost religious belief. Populism is unrealistic? It doesn't matter, the voters, lost in the wilderness, don't care. They're looking for consolation instead.

In Paris, looking for consolation — Photo: Bertrand Hauger via Instagram

This electoral campaign should have been focused on unemployment, education, and the country's deficit. It should have opened the windows onto the realities of the rest of the world. It should have deconstructed the spreading falsehoods and moved us toward political compromise. But nothing of the sort has come about. Moreover, the personal scandals of several candidates have further discredited the elite establishment and undermined serious discussion about how the European Union must evolve.

Reason is losing its footing and doesn't know how to respond. When the wrong questions are being asked, rage and fear are the only answers.

Will the instinct of undecided voters lead them to turn away, at the last minute, from the approach of "n'importe quoi" — which they know deep down is full of risks? Will they find their bearings again, that French rustic realism? That's what we hope for. So that the result doesn't depend on a twist of fate, and so that for the runoff in the second round, we're not left to choose between Trump and Trump.

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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