Populist Wave Hits France In Presidential Election

Apr 20, 2017
Originally published on April 20, 2017 5:20 pm
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First to France, where at least two police officers have been shot in the center of Paris. The French Ministry of the Interior says one of them was killed, as was one attacker. ISIS has claimed responsibility and named the attacker. The shooting took place on the Champs-Elysees, the famous boulevard that runs through downtown Paris. We'll bring you more details as we confirm them.

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The shooting came as all 11 candidates in the French presidential election were appearing on television. Sunday is the first round of voting, and the outcome could change the face of Europe. The political atmosphere may sound familiar to Americans. French voters say they are frustrated with the status quo and with mainstream politicians. And many say they are looking for someone to shake up the system. Well, now an already tight race among candidates from the right, the far right and the center has become even more unpredictable. As NPR's Frank Langfitt reports, there has been a late surge for another populist, the far-left candidate, Jean-Luc Melenchon.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Melenchon is locked in a tight four-way race in which he and another leading candidate represent extreme political parties. A third contender has never held office, and the only mainstream party hopeful is mired in a corruption scandal.

THOMAS VITIELLO: French people have a feeling that politician do not take care about their problems. I mean, every survey shows that.

LANGFITT: Thomas Vitiello teaches political science at Sciences Po, one of France's top universities. He says voters are splitting support between such a motley crew of frontrunners because they're so dissatisfied with traditional politics and the country's direction. For instance, people on the far right fear immigration. Many rural French are struggling with economic decline. And some socialists feel the outgoing socialist president, Francois Hollande, sold them out by backing a pro-business agenda.

VITIELLO: Every political group within society in France has some reason to feel like they're not being heard.

LANGFITT: That's left an opening for politicians like Marine Le Pen, whose National Front party wants to yank France out of the European Union. France is a keystone of the trading bloc that has helped bind Europe together for decades. On the heels of the United Kingdom's decision to leave, France's exit could kill the EU. Again, Thomas Vitiello...

VITIELLO: She tries to portray herself as a patriot, as somebody who's here to protect the country against the outside world, against globalization, against the European Union. And so in that sense, this is very similar to discourse that was developed, you know, during the Trump campaign or during the leave campaign in the U.K.

LANGFITT: Another reason voters are disillusioned is widespread corruption. Henri Rey says a steady drumbeat of scandals has devastated the standing of the political class. Rey, who's also a researcher at Sciences Po, opens up a chart on his computer showing French institutions in descending order of popularity.

HENRI REY: (Speaking French).

LANGFITT: Rey reads down the list. "You have hospitals, the army, small businesses," he says. He continues down and down - banks, unions. And at the bottom are political parties.

REY: (Speaking French).

LANGFITT: Strong trust, just 1 percent. Rey says the implications are deeply worrisome.

REY: (Through interpreter) So this result is catastrophic in the sense that people are not motivated to go to vote because we are in this paradox. There is this big interest in this election, and at the same time, there are obviously a lot of people who say they will not go to vote.

LANGFITT: So at a time when voting couldn't be more important, many are disillusioned, undecided or disengaged, making it nearly impossible to predict which of the four leading candidates will make it into next month's runoff and lead the country at a crucial time for France and the West. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.