France, a former colonial power, has been at the receiving end of some of the deadliest attacks on civilians in Europe.

Ahead of polls the French are voting in fear for peace
Voices Opinion Saturday, April 22, 2017 - 14:00

A shoot-out on one of the word’s most famous streets at the heart of Paris that has left a policeman and the attacker dead is a terrible start to an electoral weekend. To make matters worse, French police are saying they knew the attacker and ISIS has claimed responsibility. The Champs Elysées is partially closed and the streets around bear a deserted look ahead of Sunday, when a country of some 66 million people in Europe (equivalent to the population of Tamil Nadu) will vote to elect a new President. It is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) that gives it a ticket to the high table and it can weigh in on many geo-political decisions including terrorism. 

France, a former colonial power, has been at the receiving end of some of the deadliest attacks on civilians in Europe. 

The first round of elections will be held on April 23 and 11 people are in the fray though only four are emerging as real contenders. Should no candidate clinch a majority – as is likely to happen – there will be a runoff between the two top candidates on May 7. Polls are placing the centrist Emmanuel Macron narrowly in the lead, but in the past few weeks the far-left heavy weight Jean-Luc Mélanchon and Francois Fillon - the scandal plagued conservative and former prime minister - are closing in, suggesting that it may be a Sunday of surprise. The shoot-out is on everyone’s mind, though nobody seems to have any solutions and even fewer seem to know what kind of secularism France is walking into. 

But one thing is certain. The French are voting in fear for peace. Speaking to this everyday fear and uncertainty is Marine Le Pen of the far right National Front. A lawyer by profession, she is a dyed-in-the-wool xenophobe and bigot, much like her father Jean-Marie Le Pen and her politics is all about making France more French. “Just watch the interlopers from all over the world come and install themselves in our home…they want to transform France into a giant squat”, she said recently leaving no one in doubt who the interlopers were. “But it is up to the owner to decide who can come in…so our first act will be to restore France’s frontiers,” she added. 

She is pushing an aggressively nationalist agenda but just how eagerly France will follow her is a million Euro question.  She pounced on the Thursday shooting to say she is against globalisation of Islamist terror, but she has also been slipping in the polls earlier this week. Its not just Islam that Le Pen abhors – she also dislikes Jews raising the spectre of the Vichy regime in France which collaborated with Hitler and marched thousands of Jews to death camps. This part of French history has never been truly discussed and comes up every time in French elections when there’s talk of closing borders. Fear mongering of the kind that we have been hearing from the other side of the Atlantic may have ebbed as the Dutch elections showed – it did not return the populist Geert Wilders whose rhetoric matches that of Le Pen. But the issues raised by both are not about to disappear from Europe's electoral scene, even a few months down the line when the Germans go to the polls. 

In contrast, Le Pen's main challenger, the centrist Macron travelled to Algeria in February this year and spoke of decades of brutal French colonisation and called it “crimes against humanity.” He has never been elected to anything, is inevitably a graduate of the Ecole nationale d’administration (ENA) - the celebrated finishing school for the French elite and according to people who know him, he is terrifyingly clever. He made his millions as a Rothschild banker and formed his own party which he has called En Marche. Married to his schoolteacher, 26 years his senior, he has managed to breathe new life into moribund French politics which is in need of serious renewal. It needs to come to grips with issues like infrastructure, unemployment, terrorism and a general sense of where the country, once a European major, is headed in the first quarter of the new century. Macron has both admitted and denied being a socialist but will he be President? Some say his manifesto is superficial and his greatest strength is that he is not Marine Le Pen.  

And then there is the international narrative. While the Anglo Saxon media would like to see everything in terms of doom and gloom for Europe and many are asking if this is going to be France's Frexit - after Brexit - nothing of the sort is going to happen. That's a bit like Indians who ask if every election, sometimes even a municipal poll, is a verdict on Prime Minister Narendra Modi.  Europe has lived with thousands of years of war and peace and while this is a period of instability, it has the wherewithal to turn itself around. What news Monday brings is too early to tell, but the best the world can hope for now is that there are no more shoot-outs and deaths between now and the ballot. And why not for a very, very, long time.

(Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article are the personal opinions of the author.)

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