Lyon, declared the front page of its city paper Le Progrès, is now the “capital of [France’s] presidential election.” On the weekend of February 4-5, less than three months before a vote that may determine not just the future of France but the future of the European Union, the country’s third-largest city was host to the three political forces bent on destroying the political domination of France’s establishment parties.
Both of those two parties are currently mired in crisis and division. François Fillon of the center-right Republicans is struggling to recover from a potentially career-ending scandal: His wife and children received over 1 million euros—largely in public funds—for allegedly fictitious labor. Meanwhile, the center-left Socialist Party faces an internal civil war between a neoliberal party apparatus and its new presidential candidate, Benoît Hamon, who aims to revitalize left-wing social democracy.
The way is open for an upset candidacy; polls suggest that the final run-off will be between Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front and Emmanuel Macron, a former Socialist economics minister who has formed his own neoliberal party. The third candidate drawing large crowds in Lyon was Jean-Luc Mélenchon of Unsubmissive France (La France insoumise), another defector from the beleaguered Socialists, this time from the left.
The convergence of Macron, Le Pen, and Mélenchon showcased the three-way war-of-ideas dividing France, and the European Union as a whole. Electrified by Donald Trump’s arrival in the White House, an increasingly organized, chauvinistic nationalism finds itself close to power, promising the dissolution of the European project and a return to the “eternal” nation-state. An aloof and technocratic neoliberalism vows to forge ahead with untrammeled economic globalization—whatever the cost to those left behind in its wake. Finally, France’s new democratic left, led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon, argues that the continent will be saved from the abyss of fascism only by a fundamental renewal of its social and economic contract. He represents a growing rebellion on the French left against both the Socialist Party—now led by Benoît Hamon—and its traditional loyalty to European integration.
As the doors to the main convention hall at the Cité Internationale de Lyon open on Saturday morning, National Front insiders, groups of young activists, and devoted supporters mingle in anxious anticipation. Journalists flock around the highest-ranking party members. It’s a closed-door convention—only card-holding members have access to the speeches and social events, including Sunday’s “patriotic luncheon.” To dissuade potential protesters or overzealous hacks, burly men wander the rooms in jackets bearing a crest marked by a gold laurel wreath and the letters “DPS,” for Département Protection Sécurité—the National Front’s private paramilitary force, consisting of some 1,500 former police officers and military veterans.