Most of us agree that America got off to a rocky start this year — all that niggling about health care, Russians, and nukes — but sometimes it helps to step back and survey the landscape. After all, couldn’t things be worse? Yes, in fact, they could: We might all be living in France.
No matter how much you hate our own electoral process, some guilty comfort comes from watching the misery of others. In the spirit of “le masochisme,” the French double down on suffering, subjecting themselves to not one but two presidential elections every five years. The event will soon be upon us. The first round, on April 23, serves to winnow down a field of 11 candidates in preparation for a runoff election two weeks later.
There are four contenders with a reasonable crack at surviving the first round. One of them, Marine Le Pen, on the far right, makes Donald Trump seem like a boy scout. A spouter of racist and anti-Semitic quips, Madame Le Pen has endorsed the radical notion that France should be reserved for “the French,” although she’s vague about just who that includes. Under her presidency, the country would Frexit from the European Union; refugees would be stopped at the border, and francs would make a comeback. She’s currently under investigation for embezzlement.
Still, Le Pen is a dabbler when it comes to wrongdoing. The center-right candidate, François Fillon, is a hatchet-faced man who seems to have diverted a million government euros to his wife for work she never did. (A self-described housewife, poor Penelope must have laundered all those bank notes along with her husband’s socks and briefs.) Fillon has protested his innocence, claiming he’d only step down if they had the gall to indict him — a promise he tweaked shortly after the indictment, which he calls the “witch hunt.”
At the other extreme is the leftist Jean-Luc Mélenchon — a kind of irascible teddy bear, one who makes Bernie Sanders sound like a tightfisted Grinch. Mélenchon demands a 32-hour workweek, retirement at 60, and free health care for all. To pay for it, his income tax tops out at — wait for it — 100 percent. He scored with younger voters by holding rallies in many cities simultaneously, thanks to — wait for it again — holographic technology. And if you somehow missed his phantom-like omnipresence, you can still download his Mario-style video game (“Fiscal Kombat”), where you can shake down the other candidates on your iPhone. What’s not to love?
All of this means that the front-runner is a newbie named Emmanuel Macron — a man who has never been elected to anything, and who is scandal-free. Mostly. He and his wife are what you might call high school sweethearts — a polite way of saying that she was a teacher in his lycée when they met, and nearly three times his age. (May-December romances are frowned upon even in France, especially when the December part is in a position of authority.) In any case, Macron’s main qualifications for the job of president of the Republic are that he is neither certifiably insane nor currently under prosecution. The bar has been set rather low this year.
It’s hard to imagine a political circus that could compete with our side of the Atlantic, but the French are giving it the old college try. Supposedly nothing puts a spring in your step better than smugness, so for the next couple of weeks, we should feel pretty good.
Then, like Netflix queues and other good things, it will all come to an end, and we’ll return to our regular programming. Until then, amusez-vous!
Scott Dominic Carpenter is a professor of French and director of Global Engagement at Carleton College in Northfield.