Yesterday I put the finishing touches on the draft of an article I've been writing about the elections. I ponder at some length the strange death of French social democracy as it has evolved since World War II and its still stranger rebirth as Macronism.
Then I woke up and listened to a podcast of Le Grand Rendez-vous d'Europe 1, in which a series of economists defended the programs of the five leading candidates, and I realized how surreal the political debate has become and how bewildering it must seem to people who do not follow politics with any persistence.
The Grand Rendez-vous consisted essentially of confrontations between the interviewers, who picked out some aspect of each candidate's program--Hamon's basic income, Macron's expanded unemployment benefits, Le Pen's euro exit and franc devaluation, and the economists, who were challenged to explain how some supposedly related set of numbers added up. There was absolutely no coherence to the discussion, no attempt to situate the challenged figures in a more comprehensive vision of the economy, no effort to look beyond a time horizon a year or two out to ask what kind of world each candidate envisioned a generation down the road. In short, it was all noise.
And no doubt it is this pattern of noise-making that will continue as we move into the final sequence of the campaign. There is nothing more to say about Fillon's scandals, so the media will have to start examining the candidates' programs, but radio and TV are equipped to do so only in the Gatling gun style that is enforced by the assumption that the attention span of the audience is limited to ten minutes if not two. So question follows hard upon question, and candidates and their surrogates must squeeze twice the normal number of words into the time allotted. With no time to think, only pre-masticated answers can be regurgitated, and the audience is impressed more by the fluency of the answers than by their adequacy.
Yet as Thierry Mandon observed this morning on RTL, this is a year in which voter volatility is the most salient fact about the electorate. Something like 50% of the French have yet to settle firmly on one candidate or another. Hence the election is likely to be decided in the final few weeks, as the electorate finally tunes in and forms its hasty impression on the basis of the kinds of superficial judgments encouraged by the format described above. Both the Brexit and Trump votes seem to have solidified in the final weeks of the campaign, not before. The French election may well follow the same pattern.
In France, the most important question for the undecided is how to voter utile, and this of course depends not on what each voter thinks but rather on what each voter thinks other voters will think. For the moment the anti-Le Pen vote seems to be gravitating toward Macron, but if he falters in debate, where he is untested, there could be a panicked flight to an alternative. The polls could swing wildly in the weeks ahead, and what will emerge from the ensuing confusion is impossible to predict. I therefore don't believe that one can place much confidence in the polls. And since the polls are predicting that Le Pen will lose, this is a disturbing state of affairs. I already sense a certain complacency that the danger is past, and this is of course a sure sign that it isn't.