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The French Political Circus

Paris aerial

Recently someone asked me if France still had a king, and I had to squint at the questioner. Was I looking into the eyes of utter ignorance, or did those eyebrows slant like ironic quotes? It was hard to tell.

“Sort of,” I replied. And I stand by my answer.

Let me explain.

We’ve been so busy gawking at the sorry slapstick of American politics that it’s easy to forget the other circus acts going on around the Atlantic rim. For instance, on that little island next door to France, the Keystone Cops charge about with ladders and pails, splashing each other in the face while the fire of Brexit burns. In France it’s just as goofy. Right now they’re trying to show how many clowns can fit inside the teeny cars of political primaries, and just when you think the vehicle is full to the brim, voila! — another sad-faced bozo tricycles over and squeezes in. It’s hard to believe that one of these Pierrots will eventually take command of the stage and start miming the actions of a president.

I say “president,” but really I mean “king.” France tried to do away with royalty back in 1789, but cutting the head off the Louis XVI was about as effective as mowing the top off crabgrass: the stuff just keeps coming back. Throughout the nineteenth century they alternated between kings and presidents, which continued until 1958 when they basically decided to join the two into some kind of king-ident or presi-prince. It’s the best of both worlds: you get an all-powerful ruler whose head you try to remove every five years.

It may be the shadow on the back of his neck that has François Hollande moping about so much at the Élysée Palace. The Socialists have been bumping into each other on everything from budgets to burkinis. Meanwhile, the economy flags and social tensions run high. For the first time ever, a sitting president has had to agree to a primary, giving members of his own party the chance to oust him. Currently nine clowns have declared their desire to climb into this particular car, and several more are likely—including Hollande himself (he’ll announce his attentions in December), and possibly even the current prime minister—that scowling jester, Manuel Valls.

The French do everything on a rushed schedule, so even though the first round of the presidential election falls on April 23 of next year (second round on May 7), the Socialists won’t hold their primary until January 22 (the 29th for the second round).

The Center-Right is also playing the primary game. On November 20 citizens will choose from among a slew of candidates. Some of them look familiar. One of the front runners is a certain Nicolas Sarkozy: in the cast of clowns, he most closely resembles the Joker from Batman.

“Wait,” you might say. “Didn’t he already get to be king-for-a-day?” It’s true that “Sarko” (as he is known) already served a term as buffoon-in-chief (2007-12), and he escaped without losing his head. Partly that’s because he didn’t model himself after Louis XVI, but rather after Napoleon. Like the Emperor, Sarko is short; like Him, he is a product of recent immigration (Corsican for the first, Hungarian for the second); and like Napoleon, Sarko hopes to lead a return to power after his first exile from office. (Napoleon’s return only lasted a hundred days before he found himself cornered at Waterloo; presumably Sarko hopes the comparison ends before it comes to that.)

However, the leader in the polls for the Center-Right primary is Alain-Juppé: former prime minister (under Chirac), current mayor of Bordeaux—and rather like one of those bald-headed clowns with tufts of hair on the sides. He’s considered the most moderate candidate in his particular clan, and many left-wing voters are planning to vote for him in the right-wing primary.

You might think I mixed that last bit up—about Socialists crossing the lines to vote for Juppé. But no, they’re going to do it, but it’s not out of love. It’s a strategy borne of desperation, or depression. Socialist voters have mostly thrown in the towel, assuming their candidate won’t make it past the first round of the elections. They’re just trying to manage their own defeat in the face of the looming danger. One of the parties not running a primary is the far-right National Front. They don’t need one, as they selected their clown a long time ago: Marine Le Pen.

If you’re a bookmaker, you’re laying heavy odds that the second round will be between the Far Right and the Center-Right. Which makes the current antics of the Socialists all the more quizzical.

This is the circus that will lead to the next enthroning of a Sun-King—a kind of political cirque du soleil.

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