-OpEd-

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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