If France’s presidential election were a cable car, Wednesday’s brutal debate between Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron was the turn that upsets the passengers and terrifies the relatives watching from below.
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Nobody expected Le Pen, who’s lagging behind Macron in the polls by about 20 points, to be polite and well-behaved. But nothing like her uncompromising aggression had ever been seen before in a French political debate. It was the final episode of “Survivor” broadcast live, in which the young blue-eyed centrist remained standing even though the radical right’s candidate bit him until the blood ran for two and a half hours.
On Thursday, the French tried to digest Le Pen’s gleeful verbal violence. Literary critic Bernard Pivot termed it “an impossible debate in a circus tent” between a member of “the neighborhood café parliament” and “the political science professor.” Others, noting that polls showed Macron winning by a knockout (63 percent of respondents found him more persuasive), said Le Pen was simply practicing to be leader of the opposition.
It’s obviously premature to deem Le Pen the loser, even if the election is just two days away. In the debate, she adopted the radical right’s strategy of spewing lies wrapped in innuendo.
“I hope we don’t discover you have an account in the Bahamas,” she spat at Macron during the debate.
Coincidentally or not, a few hours earlier, a far-right American forum had published hacked “information” and even “documents” ostensibly showing that Macron had secret bank accounts and urged readers to spread the news on social media. When Macron said on Thursday, more than 12 hours after the debate, that he’d file a complaint against Le Pen for disseminating false information during a campaign – a criminal offense in France – it was already too late to the stop #MacronCacheCash from spreading on Twitter.
Le Pen’s debate tactic was essentially the same as her strategy for the past two weeks: smear, lie, fling mud. And one must admit she does it with great skill. She’s a loyal student of her father, who was a student of Pierre Poujade, the greatest populist in the history of post-World War II France.
Macron, after a sleepy first week of campaigning, now appears to have grasped the magnitude of his responsibility. A public figure who met him recently described him as “sober and aware of the greatness of the hour.”
Macron understands that his conflict isn’t just with Le Pen, but with a historical movement that France has contended with more than once in its history. In the battle between light and darkness, Macron is the man who chanced to be on the front line, in position to return France to its universalist role as a nation that believes it has a function beyond keeping its borders closed for fear of the Other.
During the second intifada, French author Jean d’Ormesson said that “If Israel disappears, we won’t have enough tears to mourn it.” That was his way of saying that Israel isn’t just another member of the family of nations, but a unique country to which every cultured person should feel a special emotional connection. That is also true of France at this fateful moment in her history, this presidential runoff.
If Marine Le Pen is elected, no cultured person will have enough tears to mourn France. It won’t be just another political victory, but the crowning as president of the heir to the ugliest, most dangerous strain in French history. Le Pen is the ideological heir of those who cheered the conviction of Alfred Dreyfus, who denied France’s responsibility for the murder of its Jews in the Holocaust, who supported the violent suppression of Algeria’s aspirations for independence; of the low, lying populism that was always part of France, but which the representatives of light have been able to defeat again and again.
This is the story of two Frances that are vying to elect one president. It’s a fateful, frontal clash of values, in which the candidate who came almost from nowhere carries much more than the future of the republic on his shoulders.
True, few people think that if Macron wins on Sunday, it will be “the best of times” for France; many view him as the lesser evil, and nothing more. But anyone with eyes in his head understands that if Le Pen pulls out a surprise win, it will usher in “the worst of times” for France, Europe and anyone who loves culture and freedom. Because despite everything, to quote Dickens again, his victory would bring “the spring of hope,” while hers would usher in “the winter of despair.”