Will Marine Le Pen's National Front Become the New Mainstream?
A profound realignment in the politics of the West is brewing.
The populist Right that seems to be rising throughout the advanced world has two goals. One, obviously, is to win office. But the second, which can be achieved short of actually taking power, is simply to replace the center-right. Marine Le Pen will almost certainly lose to Emmanuel Macron in a few weeks’ time. She and her supporters can count it as a victory, however, that there will be no center-right candidate in the second round of France’s presidential election for the first time since Charles de Gaulle founded the Fifth Republic.
The Left has been undergoing a shakeup of its own. Macron represents a tendency toward the pro-market center that bears some comparison with the direction in which Bill Clinton and Tony Blair took the Democrats and Labour in the 1990s. But unlike Clinton and Blair, Macron does not lead an established party. He was formerly a finance minister in the Socialist Party government of Prime Minister Manuel Valls. In picking a nominee earlier this year to succeed the disastrous incumbent Socialist president, François Hollande, the party ultimately faced a choice between the center-left Valls and a left-wing candidate, Benoît Hamon. Hamon won, but so deep is the disaffection with the Socialists that another, independent leftist, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, outperformed him in Sunday’s first-round general election.
The hard Left can take comfort in the thought that the votes for Mélenchon and Hamon together exceeded those for Macron. But this only means that the French Left’s civil war—like the backbiting between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders supporters in the Democratic Party, or between Jeremy Corbyn and his Blairite critics in the Labour Party—will continue.
As different as France, Britain and the United States may be, the similarity of ideological struggles within—as well as between—the Left and Right in all three countries suggests a profound realignment in the politics of the West. Yet where the Right is concerned, the nature of that realignment is all too often misunderstood. There is more than one kind of right-wing populism, and the kind associated with France’s National Front has so far been the least successful. The country’s traditional center-right might even chalk up its failure to get a candidate into the second-round election as a mere fluke—though this would be dangerously overconfident.
Certainly what happened this year to France’s major center-right party, the Republicans, was unusual. The leading contenders for its nomination were two former prime ministers—Alain Juppé, who had served in that role from 1995 to 1997, and François Fillon, who held the office from 2007 to 2012. Fillon prevailed and briefly became a sensation in French politics, before a financial scandal suddenly made him seem virtually unelectable. He stayed in the race and still finished less than 2 points behind Le Pen. Were it not for the scandal, he would now be headed to a runoff with Macron, and the National Front would once more have failed to repeat its performance in 2002, the only other time it advanced to the second round. Even Juppé would have had a solid chance of getting beyond round one. Only the combination of Fillon’s initial appeal and unexpected detonation doomed the Republicans—or so they might tell themselves.
This would, however, overlook the inroads that the National Front has made under Marine Le Pen. She has already improved upon her party’s previous best showing (when she ran in 2012 and received 17.9 percent of the vote) and her father’s high-water mark in the 2002 election, where he received 16.86 percent in the first-round election; this year, she won over 21 percent. Her father won less than 18 percent of the vote in the second round against Jacques Chirac, who swept to re-election by a 64-point margin. Marine Le Pen is certain to improve upon those numbers in her showdown with Macron, though he can still be expected to win easily. (Fillon and Hamon have already endorsed Macron for the second round, and while Mélenchon has not, his left-wing voters can be counted on to prefer Macron to Le Pen. Macron goes into the second round with the center-left and most of the Left and center-right behind him.)
The National Front is growing strong, but it is not in the same league, politically speaking, as the Brexit movement or Donald Trump phenomenon. It is not really so similar ideologically, either. For all of Le Pen’s efforts to rebrand the National Front, her party is still identified with a hardline ethnonationalism and a penchant for anti-Semitism. It bears more resemblance to the unsuccessful electoral efforts of Geert Wilders in the Netherlands and Norbert Hofer in Austria than it does to Brexit or the Trump Republican vote. The difference lies not merely in the degree of success, but in the populist themes within each movement. Brexit was above all about national sovereignty and democratic self-determination: it drew support from both economic nationalists and Thatcherite free-market conservatives. And while immigration was a significant concern for Brexit votes, it was hardly the sole or dominant concern. In the case of Donald Trump, economic nationalism explains far better than racial resentment why voters in places like Pennsylvania and Michigan who cast their ballots for Obama in 2008 and 2012 helped deliver those states to a Republican who campaigned as a right-wing populist in 2016. Le Pen is an economic nationalist too, but in the eyes of most voters she’s an economic nationalist second and an ethno-nationalist first.
This is the space in which the realignment of the Right will be fought. Le Pen is fighting it by attempting to make her party more mainstream. Mainstream parties may have to fight it by taking on elements of populism. The GOP has done this unwillingly and with bad grace, only reluctantly accepting Donald Trump as the party’s leader. (And Trump’s agenda so far has failed to live up to his campaign’s economic themes.) The Conservative Party in the UK is strong enough to call a snap election because it successfully made peace with Britain’s populists: David Cameron granted them the Brexit referendum they demanded, even though he opposed leaving the EU. He then did the right thing by resigning after losing the referendum. His successor, Theresa May—who also had favored remaining in the EU—has acted in good faith toward Brexit voters since taking office.
The center-right in France may yet have a future. But for that to be so, it will have to undercut Le Pen’s appeal on nationalist themes and issues, without acquiring a reputation for bigotry. This is not easily done in the face of a hostile intelligentsia. Yet France has discovered the formula for a nationalism that rejects extremism before, and there is nothing to stop the French Right from rediscovering Charles de Gaulle today.
Daniel McCarthy is editor at large of The American Conservative.