General de Gaulle used to say that he had “a certain idea of France”. And in this presidential election that’s what the candidates are once again trying to explain. A contest without candidates from the parties on left and right that have dominated politics in France for half a century leads to comparisons with the Brexit-Trump upheavals. But don’t imagine that this is a copycat election. It is profoundly and determinedly a French affair.


Listening to Marine Le Pen talking about an “insurrection” to restore the grandeur of the nation, or Emmanuel Macron berating the political class that he used to serve, is to savour a disillusionment that began to take hold long before the financial crash of 2008. The best comparison is with Britain in the 1970s, when a feeling of decline was palpable and infected all of politics. France is now in the grip of a similar malady.

And what is the cure? An old friend, who has spent a lifetime in government and diplomacy, said in despair the other day: “What insoluble problems! And what mediocrities we have in politics!” You can imagine the sight of that big Gallic shrug. It’s a common view.

Taxes are high, investment is sluggish, and a high immigrant population disproportionately poor and unemployed has become a touchstone for discontent. The consequence is the continuing rise of the National Front, polling strongly across the old industrial north where socialist and communist candidates used to cruise to victory. And, to oppose them, a party that didn’t exist a year ago. Macron’s En Marche promises new ideas, but no one is yet sure what they are.

So French voters are living through a campaign different from our own. There is much less detailed argument across the parties about health, or national insurance, or government spending. Where we have Brexit, the French are focusing on their favourite subject – themselves.

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They have had candidate debates, but to be honest they produced tame argument. All the talk instead has been about the very nature of the Republic: its principles, worries about its future, and what it means to be French in this century.

So when Le Pen expresses what we’d call Euro-scepticism, and Macron – a former banker – talks about the advantages of the EU and globalisation, they place their arguments in the context of something more profound, reaching back into history to make the case and talking of their responsibility to future generations. But if you think that makes it a high-minded campaign, you’re wrong.

This is rough. Le Pen’s language has been sharpening, to the point where François Fillon – the defeated centre-right candidate – accused her of leading a violent party. And there is no sign that she will soften. She will continue to preach a radical message because that is her heritage. And Macron will say that a victory for her would produce violence and division. They are both driven now to make their differences clearer.

She was once the outsider tainted by her father’s overt extremism and anti-semitism, and Macron was an economist with no interest in elected office. Their fight for the presidency is therefore, for both of them, a struggle for credibility in the great swathes of the country that we call “la France profonde”.

On paper, Macron is the heavy favourite because for many voters the National Front still flexes too much far-right muscle. But so febrile is the political atmosphere, so deep is the disillusion with the government of François Hollande and a generation of leaders from the same Paris-bred elite, that Le Pen’s belief that she can emulate Donald Trump – whom she much admires – shouldn’t be dismissed easily.

The last days, however, won’t be about political upheaval elsewhere, but introspection for the French. The Fifth Republic is nearly 60 years old and they’re troubled about its future. Is there an answer? The word that still haunts this campaign is doubt.


French Election Results, a BBC Radio 4 special, will be broadcast on Sunday 7 May at 7.15pm