The French people are at the polls today in what is probably the most unpredictable French election anywhere. We will know the shape of the results when the first exit polls are published this evening.
During a visit to Paris this week, I came across the images shown above of the four leading candidates.All the images had been defaced. Speaking to various people, the overwhelming emotion was one of disappointment, if not despair. “It doesn’t matter who we vote for. They’re all thieves. They only care about themselves. Nobody cares about France or the people.”
These were the overwhelming views expressed in discussion. When people feel like this, it represents nothing less than a crisis of democracy. Contrary to what many write, it is not the populists who are causing our political crises. They merely represent the obvious response to the perceived failure of our democratic institutions. It is the people who have been in charge over the last decades that have let the current state of affairs develop. Widespread political corruption, persistence with the globalized, finance driven economy where trickle down was supposed to work but clearly hasn’t, a political class that is venal and embedded in hypocrisy, a business world that sees its role as primarily one of enriching its already rich shareholders, international institutions that remain stuck in a post-war view of the world. It is these that are destroying people’s faith in democracy and allowing the rise of a powerful populist politics.
In France, everyone I spoke to hankered after a new de Gaulle. “He cared about France. He made us proud.” Maybe surprisingly, they also looked across the channel and hankered after a Margaret Thatcher or a Tony Blair. Merkel didn’t register as a source of inspiration.
In such a leadership vacuum, it remains uncertain which way the French people will vote. Or how many of them will even bother to vote.