When French voters go to the polls Sunday — less than three days after yet another terrorist attack in Paris, which the Islamic State claimed — they will answer questions that have scarcely been posed in any of their lifetimes: the essence of the French nation, to whom it belongs and how it should be governed.
The fate of Europe may also lie in the balance: Two of the four candidates currently within striking distance of the vote’s final round — the far-right Marine Le Pen and the far-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon — see France’s future as better outside the European Union, once seen as an unshakable economic and diplomatic response to the perils of history.
In an age of rising political extremes, nothing is certain — least of all the status quo.
In 1958 — when de Gaulle established the Fifth Republic, the semi-presidential system that has governed this country ever since — what he promised his countrymen most of all was political stability. But in 2017, that stability seems to have all but vanished. Regardless of which candidate emerges triumphant from the two rounds of voting to come, significant structural change could soon arrive.
De Gaulle — part president, part monarch — typically sought to rule by transcending the fray of partisan mudslinging, a model most of his successors sought to emulate in the decades that followed. But this has changed in recent years, analysts say.
“Recent presidents have been too partisan, and too interventionist — especially Sarkozy and Hollande,” said Sudhir Hazareesingh, the author of a critically acclaimed book on de Gaulle and a professor of French politics at Oxford University. “De Gaulle believed a president should preside, and governance should be left to the government.”
This, for many voters, has shown the cracks in the darker side of the system that de Gaulle created and that has endured for more than 60 years: a powerful executive office with few checks on its authority. Nicolas Sarkozy’s 2011 foray into Libya and François Hollande’s controversial anti-terrorist measures both presented moments when French presidents imposed their wills against the legislature.
In the realm of domestic politics especially, that presidential authority can seem bizarrely unimpeachable, even when an administration is historically unpopular. “Hollande, for instance, has 5 to 10 percent approval ratings, and he’s still running the country,” said Patrick Weil, a leading expert on immigration and citizenship in France. “There is no real counter-power, and people don’t want that anymore.”
In direct opposition to de Gaulle and his legacy, Mélenchon has campaigned on what he has called a “Sixth Republic,” a new constitutional regime that would, in theory, rely less on a dominant executive and more on proportional representation. The details for its establishment remain vague.
As in the Britain of Brexit and the United States of President Trump, in France there is now a widespread rejection of the “system.”
Inevitably, the loudest chant at any Mélenchon rally is always “dé-ga-gez!”—“throw them out!” Yet many who would never dream of supporting a radical leftist keen to nationalize France’s biggest banks and withdraw from NATO ultimately agree with this call to action. Get rid of the country’s political establishment, many seem to believe, and get rid of them now.
Upheaval is well within the realm of possibility: For the first time in the history of de Gaulle’s Fifth Republic, the center-left and center-right parties that have traded the French presidency are unlikely even to qualify for the second and final round of the election.
François Fillon, the candidate for the Republicans, France’s traditional conservative party, has struggled to ward off allegations of corruption after a devastating public spending scandal. Meanwhile, Benoît Hamon, the soft-spoken Socialist candidate, is losing handily to Mélenchon.
The race, as it currently stands, is a contest among true political outsiders: Emmanuel Macron, an independent candidate who founded his own movement; Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right, anti-immigrant National Front; and Mélenchon, the head of what he calls "Unbowed France," an operation in alliance with France's Communist Party. Defying all preliminary predictions, the latest polls show these three candidates — along with Fillon — in a tight, four-way race in which any scenario remains possible.
But as much as the outsider candidates pitch themselves as the potential faces of a new and vastly different France, a striking phenomenon in recent days has been the frequency with which they have invoked the memory of de Gaulle in selling themselves to an increasingly anxious electorate.
Central to Mélenchon’s program, of course, is that he is the anti-de Gaulle. “I have no intention of launching a coup d’état,” he declared recently. “I am not General de Gaulle.”
Marine Le Pen — whose party coalesced in the mid-1970s mostly in fierce opposition to de Gaulle’s decision to negotiate Algerian independence — has started claiming that her protectionist economic policies are the same as de Gaulle’s, even though analysts have insisted that they are not.
Macron has gone even further. At his final campaign rally in Paris last week, the former investment banker and economy minister delivered a line that portrayed himself as the second coming of France’s beloved “Général.”
“I choose, like General de Gaulle, the best of the left, the best of the right and even the best of the center!” Macron said, to raucous applause.
In his memoirs, France’s founding father famously observed that he had always been animated by “a certain idea of France,” and that his country, regardless of its circumstances, must “aim high and stand straight.”
“France cannot be France without grandeur,” de Gaulle wrote.
But in a campaign defined mostly by the twin poles of bitter division within the political class and anger among ordinary voters, the vision of Charles de Gaulle — and the stability it promised — is facing its greatest threat since 1958. In the end, it may not survive.
“The graveyards are full of indispensable men,” de Gaulle once observed. His image of France may soon join him here in the quiet obscurity of Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises.