PARIS -- On Sunday, France will head to the polls to vote in the first of two rounds of its presidential election. Barring the unlikely event of any candidate winning more than 50 percent of the vote, a runoff on May 7 will determine the winner. One of the most remarkable aspects of this race is the stunning implosion of the French Socialist Party.
You might be tempted to ask: Does this mean French socialism is in its final throes? Well, not exactly.
Based on current polls, Socialist Party candidate Benoit Hamon is struggling to crack the single digits, currently sitting at around 8 percent, according to Opinionway's PresiTrack poll. All this really means is that current Socialist President Francois Hollande destroyed the brand.
Hollande's favorability rating is about 19 percent, according to a YouGov poll taken at the end of February. A pragmatist, Hollande might have scored better had he not been surrounded by actual Socialists for the past five years.
French citizens, however, seem tempted by the idea of electing another pragmatist from the Hollande camp, but one who isn't obligated to surround himself with Socialists.
According to an Opinionway survey from earlier this month, 50 percent of Hollande's voters now support independent presidential front-runner Emmanuel Macron, a former Hollande minister who was with the Socialist party for three years. But Macron is a former investment banker whose program includes an entire section dedicated to making the lives of entrepreneurs easier. Rather than ideology, he's focused on renewal and the desire to bring outsiders into public life.
So this means that socialism is dead in France, right? Not so fast. French leftists have gravitated to Jean-Luc Melenchon, an independent candidate who wants a "fiscal revolution" that involves taxing at 100 percent any earnings over the "maximum revenue" of 400,000 euros annually. He's also expressed interest in involving France's overseas territories in ALBA (formally the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America), founded by former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who ran a country that represents the epitome of socialist end times. A recent Opinionway poll showed Melenchon sitting at 18 percent, behind Macron and the National Front's Marine Le Pen, both tied at 22 percent, and center-right candidate Francois Fillon at 21 percent.
Socialism as a French brand is tanking in name only. Almost all of the presidential candidates have integrated socialist policies into their platform. The least socialist option in this race is Fillon, who has a double disadvantage: He's the establishment candidate at a time when global electoral momentum is trending against the establishment, and he's facing accusations of the kind of nepotism widely practiced among the French establishment.
"Violent" is a term I've often heard used by Fillon's critics to describe the conservative aspects of his program. National Front Vice President Florian Philippot, who walks and talks like a socialist all over French media on behalf of Le Pen, called Fillon's attempt at a non-socialist program one "of unprecedented violence."
Reducing the number of civil servants? Violent. Wanting to give people the option of private health insurance instead of paying a fortune for a crumbling system with poor reimbursements? Violent. Cutting government spending through austerity? Well, if you're going to do that, then you might as well just go around punching voters in the face.
One way that socialism has been able to justify its continued presence in this race is by using former French President and General Charles de Gaulle, who consistently ranks as the country's favorite historical figure, as its shield. To those running for high office in France, de Gaulle has become what Ronald Reagan is to American candidates: an anachronistic specter evoked in a lazy attempt to justify questionable policies to the unconvinced. "You don't like my position? You're an idiot! It's Gaullist!"
I've only heard Gaullism used to defend socialist policies, however -- which is funny, because de Gaulle was hardly a socialist. In fact, the Socialist Standard (the monthly magazine of the Socialist Party of Great Britain) wrote of de Gaulle in its July 1958 issue: "Socialists are opposed to what de Gaulle stands for on principle, because he stands for French capitalism, and Socialists do not support any capitalist faction anywhere or at any time."
Much has also been made in this race of the role of supranational European Union governance, a socialist straitjacket imposed on the French economy. Nearly all of the candidates agree that it's a problem, whether they want to leave the EU or just reform it. What's rarely mentioned is that even if European governance disappeared tomorrow, France would still be stuck contending with its own socialist economic infrastructure.
Sunday's first round of voting will largely determine the extent to which the French electorate can see through the persistent socialist lie that has long worked against their interests.