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At the French embassy in Washington, wall-mounted televisions were tuned to the military parade in Paris when the ambassador took the stage to announce that there had been yet another massacre of civilians. During a Bastille Day celebration in Nice, an unknown attacker had driven a truck through a crowd of people. The ambassador’s tone was grave and the information sparse, and he quickly shifted to imploring the large audience of French voters not to succumb to the appeal of exclusion when they will be called, in less than a year, to elect a new president and parliament. All at once, he referred to the recent Brexit vote, the Donald Trump candidacy, and far-right French presidential hopeful Marine Le Pen.
If the first terrorist attack against Charlie Hebdo was an unfortunate failure on the part of French security, the second in the Bataclan was a sign of systemic impotence. At least at the embassy, after the third attack, ineptitude was no longer even surprising. The ambassador explained that Champagne and music would be withheld from the evening’s celebrations, and after a minute of silence for the victims, the national anthem called on citizens to march and drain “the impure blood of the fierce soldiers who kill ours sons and companions.” The crowd chanted in unison but then, without missing a beat, rushed the buffets overflowing with French delicacies. Alcohol flowed; conversations were social.
The evening reflected the divide between the blood-covered civilians on Nice’s famous Promenade des Anglais and the stultified president who was seen inspecting the squeaky clean weapon systems of his obsolete army on Paris’s Champs Elysées. This gap could be the nation’s biggest challenge. After another display of powerlessness in Paris, Le Pen, whose platform is anti-immigration, anti-EU, and xenophobic, is much closer to becoming the next French president.
Around the world, Western societies are fundamentally, deeply disillusioned with their traditional political elites. The malaise is general, but terrorism is a particular irritant. Governments spend billions each year to fight it—people are harassed daily by mindless security checks—yet civilians continue being killed openly in the streets. A single person— 31-year-old Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, a Tunisian national established in France—can kill more than 80 with a delivery truck.
For mainstream social democracy to survive in France, and with it the idea of a European Union, the Bastille Day Massacre should also claim the heads of unpopular political figures to open the way for political renewal. Otherwise, the type of rage peddled by Le Pen and her peers—venom against Muslims, immigrants, and refugees—will appeal all the more.
For now, Le Pen looks good as she runs against Nicolas Sarkozy, a reviled former president yet current leader of the mainstream right party, and against François Hollande, the Socialist president who will find it difficult to recover from this latest fiasco. Emmanuel Valls, Hollande’s younger dynamic prime minister, may also lose out because his portfolio includes security. This may benefit France’s finance minister, 38-year-old Emmanuel Macron, an ambiguously bipartisan rising star who had no role in the failure of Bastille Day and just recently hinted at presidential ambitions despite having little political experience. Macron brings the only new blood to a gallery where leaders compete for unpopularity and, however improbable, his presidency now seems the only alternative to Le Pen.
The Brexit vote and its aftermath highlighted the importance of political rejuvenation in Western democracies. The choice of British voters was simultaneously a rejection of former Prime Minister David Cameron (a Tory), and an affront to the Labour party, which is now imploding. The mayorships of Rome and Torino have been won by a populist party founded by a comedian at war with the parliamentary system. Spain could not form a government for months after new anti-systemic parties stole the elections out from under the traditional factions. In the wake of Brexit, Germany, still in the capable hands of Angela Merkel, needs French leadership for the reconstruction of Europe. The massacre in Nice could tip the votes in favor of Le Pen, and even if she does not lead France out of the EU, Europe will stall at a critical moment, and it may take decades to repair the damage. July 14—Bastille Day—marks the birth of the French Republic. Without a strong political response, the risk is that it could now mark the beginning of the death of the Republic’s greatest accomplishment, the European Union.