IT DOESN’T matter that the coffee is merely average, the people-watching opportunities are beyond compare at the local café in Ivry in south Paris.
A man on early-morning business sweeps in and looks at the newspaper on the zinc countertop. It says French presidential conservative candidate Francois Fillon is in big trouble; he’s facing a formal investigation into reports that he paid his wife more than €800,000, over several years, for work she did not do. Mr Fillon claims the fake-job scandal is fake news, but his campaign is unravelling.
“Ah,” says the man, in slightly accented French (not that I’m one to talk), “it’ll be Marine [le Pen] all the way. Up Marine.”
“Be careful,” says the barman. “She’ll send you back to your own country.”
The Marine supporter has already gone before there’s time to establish if he is one of the estimated 5.3m foreign-born immigrants in the country, or not. That group makes up 8.92% of the population, a slight increase from 8.13% over the last 10 years, according to the national statistics institute, Insee.
Though, to listen to far-right candidate Le Pen, you wouldn’t think that over 88% of the people living in France were born there.
If elected, she has promised to get tough on immigration and hold a referendum on EU membership.
Her ‘France first’ message promises to allocate public services to French citizens ahead of foreigners. The measure may well prove to be unconstitutional, but it plays well in some quarters, where people are worried about unemployment, security, and immigration.
Polls — if we can put any faith in them after the political earthquakes of Brexit and Donald Trump’s election in the US — show that Le Pe has increased her lead in the first-round presidential vote on April 23, though few believe she will make it through the run-off on May 7 to become the next French president.
Then again, it would be reckless to completely write off this woman, who has shown a remarkable ability to shake off any accusations levelled at her.
Like Fillon, she is under investigation for fraud, but she vehemently denies charges that she illegally dipped into European parliament funds to pay her French party workers.
Last week, she was at the centre of another storm after tweeting offensive and uncensored pictures of Islamic State killings, including of American journalist James Foley, in an online spat with a journalist who compared her party to Islamist terrorists.
Her posts caused outrage across the political spectrum and prompted MEPs to vote to lift her parliamentary immunity. That leaves her open to a hefty fine or even a three-year prison sentence, but the presidential election will be long over before any action is taken. With all the campaigning, it might have passed under the radar that Marine’s father Jean-Marie le Pen was in the spotlight again this week, too.
The founder of the FN party was ordered to pay a fine of €5,000 for describing the Roma people as “foul-smelling” and “nasty”.
The same man has been fined several times for dismissing the Nazi gas chambers as a mere “detail” of history. After his most recent outburst in 2015, Marine moved to expel him from the party and set about “detoxifying” the party of its anti-Semitic image.
She’s cleverly dropped the family name from election literature, which simply says “Marine Presidente”.
You’ll also be hard-pressed to find any mention of her party, the Front National, in her carefully produced posters. She no longer speaks to her father, who handed over leadership of the party to her in 2011. Yet, Jean-Marie le Pen, Holocaust denier and racist, is still the Front National’s honorary president. He might not be a card-carrying party member, but he has not gone away.
Meanwhile, surname-less Marine has had a measure of success repackaging the old xenophobic Front National into a shiny new version with policies designed to appeal to voters on the right and left.
She was perhaps trying to appeal to women voters, too, when she flatly refused to wear a headscarf before meeting the grand Sunni mufti during a visit to Lebanon last month.
Party vice-president Florian Philippot tweeted: ‘In Lebanon, Marine refuses to wear the veil. A beautiful message of freedom and emancipation went to women in France and the world!”
Now that really is fake news. Marine reportedly knew in advance that she would have to wear a veil. Her very public refusal to cover up had the hollow sound of a publicity stunt.
More than that, however, it shows that Marine le Pen does not practice what she preaches. She has been an outspoken critic of the Islamic headscarf in France and backs the ban on all religious symbols in public places. When in secular France, her argument goes, people must do as the secular French do. It’s funny, then, that she’s not prepared to do as the Lebanese do when in Lebanon.
Of course strong words and stunts are the hallmarks of any election campaign. Her opponent, the centrist Emmanuel Macron, caused ripples when he said France’s colonial past was a “crime against humanity”, though the media coup of the campaign so far must go to former Socialist minister Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who managed to be in two places at once: While addressing a rally in Lyon, his live-feed hologram spoke to crowds outside Paris.
Nonetheless, electioneering has taken an increasingly sinister turn. The factoids, half-truths, and outrageous statements that came out of the Brexit and US presidential campaigns are evident in the French campaign too.
When a candidate hoping to be the next president of France thinks it’s appropriate to tweet gruesome images of Islamic State killings, it’s time to admit we have entered an era where words and images have lost their meaning.
That same candidate also recently tweeted that people no longer have confidence in the media and were turning to the internet to inform themselves. Sound familiar?
Isn’t one tweeting Teflon president in the Western world more than enough?