Marine Le Pen's Perfect Storm

2012 Front National rally. Flickr/Creative Commons/Blandine Le Cain

Polls missed the last two nationalist tremors; they may miss a third.

Think of François Fillon as a more polished and experienced Ted Cruz. He might have been president of France until everything came crashing down.

Fillon is a former French prime minister and admirer of Margaret Thatcher whose libertarian-influenced agenda includes a pledge to ax half a million civil service jobs. He was initially dismissed as an also-ran in the center-right Les Républicains presidential primary, up against the seasoned Nicolas Sarkozy and the moderate Alain Juppé. Instead, Fillon thrashed them both, and polls showed him an early favorite for the French presidency, backed by energized conservatives and the Catholic Right. Eschewing first-past-the-post, France holds a runoff election between its top two finishing presidential candidates if neither secures a majority, and forecasts last year showed the finalists would be Fillon and the National Front’s Marine Le Pen. It was to be a rumble on the right, and Fillon was predicted to win in a rout as French leftists and centrists clothespinned their noses and voted to block the radioactive Le Pen.

Or at least, that’s what was supposed to happen. Instead, Fillon was quickly submerged in controversy as it came out that he’d funneled 900,000 euros in public money to his family, a scandal that became known as “Penelopegate” after his implicated wife. An investigation was launched and Fillon’s poll numbers sagged into third place, drawing an intervention from the omnipresent Sarkozy and whispers that Juppé might take over as nominee. But Juppé ultimately declined to run, cognizant of being a moderate beached in a year of fury, and Fillon remained defiant. He would only step down, an aide said, if a planned rally last Sunday turned out to be a dud. Lo and behold, tens of thousands of conservative faithful turned out, and he limped onwards.

France’s political dichotomy has thus been plunged into the unknown. The major parties are sidelined for now, with Fillon a boulder on the back of the center-Right Républicains and the center-Left Parti Socialiste floundering under the stewardship of detested current president François Hollande who is not standing for reelection. Amidst all this, the polling service Oxoda now finds Le Pen running neck-in-neck with another candidate, Emmanuel Macron, an independent whose En Marche! movement is serving as an outlet for the forlorn political center. Macron is a novelty in French politics: an investment banker who was appointed economic minister at the age of thirty seven and who’s still never been elected to public office in his life. He has a youthful charisma that this cliché-deploring writer only reluctantly describes as “Kennedyesque” and his rallies have grown exponentially in size since he entered the race.

The 2016 presidential election in the United States embodied the old versus the new, with Hillary Clinton the conventional and choreographed handmaiden of our hoary political consensus and Donald Trump the populist stick of TNT primed to blow underneath. Assuming present trends hold, the French election this April will be one step advanced, leapfrogging over the mainstream parties entirely and pitting against each other the two flavors of reform that are most likely to dominate Western politics in the years to come. Neither Macron nor Le Pen believes France can continue on its current track and both are proposing ambitious overhauls to the French social contract. After a year that’s seen economic stagnation and rowdy strikes, protests targeting abusive cops and demonstrations against immigration, terrorist attacks, soccer riots, and the southward seeping shock of Brexit, the only thing certain in France is that much has to change.