The common wisdom in France is that Marine Le Pen, the leader of the country’s far-right National Front, is too divisive a character to triumph in the presidential election that begins on Sunday. In the French run-off voting system, the winner must eventually earn an outright majority and many hope that Le Pen’s outrageous xenophobia and her antipathy to the European project preclude her from doing so.
Yet, as the last year has demonstrated, amid the populist revolt taking place across Europe and beyond, the common wisdom isn’t necessarily worth much. In case you forgot, Donald Trump is the president of the United States and Britain is leaving Europe. The impossible is possible, the improbable likely.
The same economic insecurity and rising inequality, the same disillusionment with the promises of globalization and the technocrats who touted them, the same democratic disengagement and disaffection that propelled Trump and the Brexiteers to victory — all of these exist in France, too.
In France, as elsewhere, these factors have given rise to a combination of xenophobia and isolationism, a new nativism that Le Pen, like her demagogic counterparts in the U.S. and Britain, both feeds and feeds off of. According to the latest polls, she is locked in a tight four-way race.
The risks for France of a National Front victory are great. Le Pen wants to impose a total immigration ban while she works out a highly restrictive new intake system, turning her back on the worst global refugee crisis since the Second World War. Like Trump, she wants to deport all undocumented immigrants, whatever their circumstances. She wants to close “extremist” mosques and give priority to French nationals in social housing. Her scapegoating recklessly stokes long-smouldering ethnic tensions without offering any real solutions to the economic and social anxieties that underlie them.
But the consequences of this election will also reach well beyond France’s borders. Le Pen is a proponent of Frexit, France’s departure from the European Union. With Britain on the way out, Greece in ruins and other countries on the brink, not to mention the flood of migrants from the south, the mounting challenge from Russia, and the destabilizing effects of populist insurgencies across the continent, Europe is in profound turmoil. The European project, based on the notion that unity across borders is the best protection against war and dictatorship, might not survive France’s exit.
Le Pen’s opponents offer a wide range of options, all far preferable to the National Front. Narrowly leading in the polls is Emmanuel Macron, a 39-year-old former investment banker with no political experience. A handsome, well-dressed centrist, Macron offers esthetic change, but ideological continuity.
If Macron is broadly akin to Hillary Clinton, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the rumpled stalwart of the radical left, is France’s Bernie Sanders. Like Sanders, Mélenchon appeals to those who believe it is the powerful, not the vulnerable, who are responsible for France’s woes. Also like Sanders, he is beset by critics who say his promises are unrealistic or that the change he proposes is too risky.
Finally, there is François Fillon, who was favoured to win until a corruption scandal sent his campaign into a tailspin. As a representative of the centre-right Republican party, Fillon is the only candidate among the front-runners to appear on the ticket of one the country’s two long-dominant parties. In normal times, he would be the natural opposition. But change is almost certainly coming. The question is: what kind?
The high-stakes test for Le Pen’s competitors is precisely the one the opponents of Trump and Brexit failed: that is, whether they can offer a positive vision for their country that rivals the emotional appeal of the demagogue’s dark promises. They must learn the lessons of the last year; that, in particular, it’s no safe bet that voters are more frightened of extreme alternatives than they are of the perpetuation of the status quo.
It will not be enough, for instance, simply to defend Europe as it is. Europeanists must instead embrace a vision of a more richly democratic, inclusive continental polity.
Nor will it do to offer the steady hand, to run on competence and continuity, as if everything were fine. Le Pen’s opponents will have to demonstrate a real commitment to addressing the sources of the current anger — inequality and economic insecurity chief among them — while avoiding the political temptation to scapegoat or the feed baseless fear of outsiders.
No country is immune from the democratic malaise and mistrust on which far-right populists throughout the West are thriving. Le Pen and her ilk offer authoritarianism as the cure to these social ills. But while theirs is the wrong solution, the problems they pretend to address must not be ignored.
In the U.S. and Britain, the feeling was that if liberals stood back and did nothing, right-wing populism would defeat itself. Ask Hillary Clinton or David Cameron how that worked out. In France and beyond, defenders of liberal democracy repeat that mistake at our peril.
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