Every week, a selection of leading experts answer a new question from Judy Dempsey on the foreign and security policy challenges shaping Europe’s role in the world.
Marine Le Pen has astutely worked to remodel her far-right National Front party and deodorize some of its most rancid elements, including the anti-Semitism of her father, former leader Jean-Marie Le Pen. In a sense, she has replaced Jews with Muslims as the strangers in the midst of Holy France who supposedly do not share the values of Marianne, the embodiment of the French Republic, and who seek to overturn her way of life, abandoning the victories of modernity, like sexual equality, in the name of a rigid religion.
That resonates in the parts of France that have suffered the most from globalization, deindustrialization, and immigration. Marine Le Pen’s themes are simple: nation, identity, integration, immigration. Her success is due to the failures and vacuum of the center right, the weak conservatism of the Socialist Party, and the inability of the EU to respond to serious European challenges.
A lot will depend on the willingness of France’s other political parties to form a common front in key constituencies. But the regional elections on December 6 and 13 are one thing—and not the most important. The French political system will prevent Le Pen from gaining the presidency, even if she wins the most votes in the first round of the 2017 presidential election, and from securing a large showing in the National Assembly in the same year’s legislative election.
The short answer is: probably not—or at least, not easily. For quite a while, France’s far-right National Front has established something that could be called a Volkspartei—a large people’s party gathering between 30 and 40 percent of the vote in many areas, and more than 50 percent in some constituencies. Since 2012, the National Front has gained some 15 percentage points in its electoral performance. This increase has been due to the dramatic economic downturn France has experienced since European austerity policies were introduced, the delayed French reactions to these policies, and the failure of structural reforms to bring rural areas into the global value chain.
France’s biggest problem today is its urban-rural divide. Only the urban agglomerations survived massive deindustrialization. In 2013, some 60 percent of job losses were in industry; the newly unemployed could shift to the service sector. Devastated regions are cheap prey, not only for Le Pen, but even more for her young and beautiful niece, National Front member Marion Maréchal-Le Pen. Both women are portraying themselves as modern Joan of Arcs rescuing the French Republic—from Muslims as much as from the euro. Whether observers like it or not, this seems to work in a country with an ailing political system.
As for foreign policy, it is questionable whether France’s military alliance with Russia, which finances the National Front, and Saudi Arabia, which radicalizes members of the party in Parisian banlieues, is the right strategy to stop Le Pen.
What a difference a day of polling makes! Before France’s December 6 regional elections, I was still surprising foreign journalists by suggesting that far-right National Front Leader Marine Le Pen could, under certain circumstances, have a chance of winning the next presidential election in 2017. And now this question.
She is stoppable. If France’s conservative Républicains designate a presidential candidate with broad political appeal, such as former prime minister Alain Juppé, at their primaries in November 2016, Le Pen can be beaten in the second round of the presidential vote. She could fail even if the Républicains put forward a more divisive, but also ruthless, candidate such as former president Nicolas Sarkozy—provided the primaries are seen as clean and fair. Things become hairier if the runoff is between the current Socialist President François Hollande and Le Pen: it is famously difficult to convince French right-wing electors to vote for a left-wing candidate, even if the alternative is the National Front.
Le Pen has momentum on her side and is powerfully served by circumstances. A toxic brew has been formed by unemployment, especially youth unemployment (34 percent of eighteen-to-thirty-year-old voters plumped for the National Front on December 6); the sad lot of the disempowered exurban and rural poor; xenophobia; and the sense that Le Pen deserves a try after others have failed. Five years of zero-growth economic policy and political drift at both the EU and the national levels are now taking their toll.
Yes, if France’s governing parties are ready to reengage in politics.
Since her election as the head of the far-right National Front in 2011, Marine Le Pen has led a process to change the party’s image and reach a larger electorate. The international context, which prioritizes immigration and security issues, and France’s distressing economic situation also played a role in the December 6 regional election results. But more importantly, the National Front benefits from a general sentiment of stagnation in French political life, and voters have first and foremost expressed a vague but deeply rooted need for change.
This feeling stems from the traditional governing parties’ inability to propose credible political and ideological alternatives to what has already been attempted—and has failed. The other parties’ responses to the December 6 results have reinforced the perception of political inertia. The Socialist Party and the conservative Républicains need to rethink their programs before the 2017 presidential election to produce distinct visions for the future of France and avoid appearing as two sides of the same coin. The well-worn concept of a republican front against the National Front is particularly counterproductive.
France’s voting system will continue to constitute an obstacle to the National Front’s ambitions, and the normalization of the party may eventually hinder its pretentions to be a credible alternative to mainstream politics. But only the reappropriation of the ideological scene by the traditional governing parties can end Le Pen’s increasing influence in France’s political landscape.
Yes, and Donald Trump can be stopped too. But will they be before it is too late? Just a while ago, it would have been daring to predict that the leader of the French National Front and the U.S. Republican presidential candidate would dominate political conversations and be on the brink of historical victories. But there they are.
Conventional leaders—Left, center, and Right—keep fighting old wars like hapless Prussian generals facing Napoleon, while the world has changed tack. The toxic brew of middle-class and blue-collar woes after the 2008 financial crisis and the impacts of globalization and new technologies on the job market, mixed with immigration, social violence, and terrorism, have produced a nasty reaction. Such challenges could have been faced by a rational, brave, sound leadership able to show energy, decency, values, and new ideas. But Europe as a whole kept choosing low-profile leaders, to avoid any robust debate. These placebos now face an acute disease, and they fail to offer any results.
After World War II, Europe and France whitewashed their worst stories. The Vichy regime, anti-Semitism, and torture in Algeria were photoshopped by a narrative glorifying la République, social values, harmony, and culture. Europe organized this show at its peril. Polite exchanges went on, but no reporter or think tanker ventured into the living rooms where Le Pen—first father, then daughter—was booming out from the TV set.
Marine Le Pen will not goose-step onto the streets. But Europeans are still fighting the ghosts defeated by their fathers, and they are losing the war their children will keep on fighting.
Populism is gaining ground almost everywhere in Europe. What populists have in common is that they first paint a dramatic, even apocalyptic, picture of the political landscape and then come up with simplistic answers. The more radical the supposed challenge, the more radical the answer must be.
Populism in Europe and the United States (witness Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump) appeals to people who feel threatened by change, people who are afraid to lose their status in a globalized world. Populists blame minorities, today mainly Muslims, and political establishments for all kind of things that actually or supposedly go wrong. They want to reverse globalization on a political and cultural level but keep its economic advantages.
To push back against populism, the liberal center must move out of its comfort zone and get into a battle of ideas with populists. Just dismissing populists as dangerous is not going to work. Imitating them only makes things worse. The center must prove that its ideas and visions are much better at coping with challenges. Centrist parties must go to the political marketplace.
That’s not an easy task for a generation of leaders who haven’t seen a serious challenge in their lifetimes. It requires guts, knowledge of the ideas and principles of liberal order, and a readiness to engage in a serious public debate. If the center takes on this challenge of a battle of ideas, the West will emerge strengthened and rejuvenated.
Marine Le Pen can be stopped. Yes she can. But only if Nicolas Sarkozy of the conservative Républicains, Prime Minister Manuel Valls, and President François Hollande want and are able to stop her. It is a big ask. Their predecessors managed a similar feat once before, holding their noses, getting together, and stopping Marine’s dad, Jean-Marie, from taking the Elysée Palace in the second-round runoff of the 2002 presidential election. The Socialists kept then president Jacques Chirac in power with a landslide 82 percent of the vote.
The big difference between now and then is that Jean-Marie Le Pen never wanted to be president. He just wanted to be a nuisance, a grumpy, bigoted contrarian thriving on outrage. Marine is quite different—much smarter, much more ambitious, much more reasonable, much better organized, much more formidable.
She does not represent a passing phase. She is here to stay. She wants the top job. Her father was an aging nostalgic. Marine’s National Front took more of the vote among under-twenty-four-year-olds in last Sunday’s first round of regional elections than any other party.
Tactical voting on the Right and the Left can stop her, or at least clip her wings, in next Sunday’s second round. Sarkozy promptly ruled that out, but on verra. Voters could ignore the leaders in any case and vote cleverly.
The question is how many times electors will repeat the trick. They may need to reiterate the practice in the second round of the 2017 presidential poll. They may need to establish a pattern, develop an enduring habit of voting tactically. How long can that last?
For the time being—namely, for the French regional elections on December 6 and 13—Marine Le Pen doesn’t look stoppable.
The far-right National Front is the political party of all those who have suffered from the failures of previous and current French governments on employment, security, economic modernization, national identity, and European reform. Faced with the exasperation of a growing proportion of the population, the elites have never found the right answers.
Hence the deep gap between the political and intellectual establishment and an increasing number of French people who vote for the National Front today: blue-collar workers, young people who cannot find a job, middle-class citizens afraid of losing their social status. Fearful of their own future and the futures of France and Europe, these voters look with growing despair on changes they don’t understand and the inability of successive governments to promote real progress.
There is little doubt that in the second round of regional elections on December 13, National Front candidates will win between one and three regional councils. Can this wave be stopped before the French presidential election in 2017? Regional elections are different from the presidential competition: they traditionally offer voters an opportunity to express frustration at the government. Yet the current resentment is deeper; it stems from nearly twenty years of a lack of genuine reforms and near deadlock in French society.
To overcome the profound distrust of so many voters toward the political system, political leaders need to show they at last understand the depth of the fears and anxieties of so many citizens and start taking action. As this will not be done in a day and the new National Front regional chairs will in the meantime gain some credibility in their new offices, one can expect a very close presidential contest in 2017.
In the end, a fear of breaking the glass ceiling that has so far prevented Le Pen from winning the presidential election may be the only reason that a majority of French voters will reject her success. But will French elites have learned their lesson?
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