The Magazine

The Lady with the Popular Front

France’s rightists have grown too big to ignore.

May 7, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 32 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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The French prefer “tenacity” to “cooperation” by a measure of 51-44 percent, according to a poll about political attitudes published this election season. By 57-41 percent they like “hard work and courage” better than “social justice and solidarity.” Such attitudes have not been widespread in France since the war. On Friday, Dominique de Villepin, the foreign minister who led France out of the Iraq war coalition in 2003, professed himself “frightened” of France’s right-wingers. As Attorney General John Mitchell said of the United States in 1970, This country’s going so far to the right youre not even going to recognize it.”

Photo of Marine Le Pen

Marine Le Pen

NEWSCOM

Present-day France, in fact, has just the problem that the United States faced in Mitchell’s day. An increasingly angry public, gripped by a sense of peril and decline, is going to wind up ruled by an elite that shares few of its preoccupations. In the first round of France’s presidential election on April 22, Socialist candidate François Hollande edged the Gaullist incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy. But the story of the election was third-place finisher Marine Le Pen, who took 18 percent of the vote at the head of the National Front (FN), the post-fascist party her father founded. Sarkozy’s UMP shares many preoccupations with the Le Pens’ FN. But neither party can embrace the other. When the second round is held on May 6, pitting Sarkozy against Hollande, most expect Hollande to become France’s first Socialist president since François Mitterrand, who took office the same year as Ronald Reagan. 

How did Hollande convince French voters that he was their ideal leader? He didn’t. He sat around not being Sarko, as the president is called. An exit poll found 38 percent of Hollande’s voters chose him because they like him; 60 percent picked him because they dislike Sarko. This may be good news for Mitt Romney, but it is not good news for France.

All Western social democratic parties have, over the past generation, made the transition from the factory floor to the faculty club. American Democrats and French Socialists have gone farthest, and now have scant support among the working classes they were built to represent. Intellectuals—like the anthropologist Emmanuel Todd, who has called this “the most important election of the postwar period”—can get excited about the fate of the Socialist party, but no one else can. The Socialists are the party of les bobos—a word coined by David Brooks in The Weekly Standard as shorthand for “bourgeois bohemians” but which is now much more commonly heard in French. Professors, minorities, the mega-rich, single women, and government employees … these are the core of the coalition. It is arguably mightier in France than in the United States because the state is mightier. Government spending takes up 56 percent of GDP. 

What traditionally made the Socialists weaker in France than the Democrats in the United States was the general disorganization of French political life. This year, however, the Socialists took two pages out of the Democrats’ playbook. Inspired by the Obama-Clinton contest of 2008, they held the country’s first-ever presidential primary, which muscled offstage the tiny Trotskyite splinter groups that often fragment the left-wing vote. And in last week’s first round, they undertook France’s first large-scale get-out-the-vote effort. According to the website rue89, activists say they knocked on 3,675,855 doors. No group of voters can be organized quite as efficiently as residents of welfare housing. So it was in ghettos, or “sensitive neighborhoods,” as the French call them, that the Socialists registered their biggest gains. Around Lyon, according to Le Monde, Hollande got his top score in La Velette, which is the poorest, the youngest, and one of the most heavily immigrant sections of the metropolitan area. In notorious Vaulx-en-Velin, the hometown of the late terrorist Khaled Kelkal, where the Palestinian flag often flies over the mayor’s office, Hollande raised his party’s score from 39 to 44 percent.

Hollande’s platform is nugatory. Next to it, Bill Clinton’s 1996 “micro-initiatives” look like the Sermon on the Mount. Hollande wants to cut ministers’ salaries. He has a complicated kind of apprenticeship program that permits one senior citizen and one new hire, if they happen to be found in the same company, to pair up and apply for a modest tax reduction. He wants to undo parts of the legislation whereby Sarkozy, in the hardest-fought political battle of his term, managed to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62. 

But Hollande’s main focus is the European Union. He may be the most pro-EU politician in France. He was the protégé and political heir of Jacques Delors, father of the euro, the most ardent Europeanist of his generation. As his mentor’s invention has led the continent into a world of pain, Hollande has become Europe’s leading proponent of “growth.” That may sound like nonsense—who, after all, is against growth? But in the context of the bailouts, “growth” has specific meaning. Twenty-five European countries agreed to a pact in Brussels last winter to bring their budget deficits under control. In Hollande’s vocabulary, this is “austerity,” and the EU has too much of it. What they need instead is “growth,” which is Hollande’s word for government spending. Hollande’s adviser Jean-Marc Ayrault, a possible future cabinet minister, frets that the French savings rate is up to 17 percent. That is money the state needs to get its hands on in order to “invest.” 

Economists (not to mention the Economist) think Hollande is going to be a catastrophe for Europe. They are probably wrong. Not because Hollande is wiser than he lets on but because markets have likely already priced this fiscal laxity into the euro and because Hollande’s policies are not as different from Sarko’s as they look.

The European Union has managed to dismantle democracy at the national level without reconstructing it at the transnational level. It no longer does justice to the problem to say that the EU has a “democratic deficit.” It is more accurate to say that it has an “antidemocratic tradition.” We should not flatter the French by assuming that this is their biggest gripe with the EU. Their biggest gripe is that it is capitalist. When the French and the Dutch voted overwhelmingly in 2005 to stop further European integration in its tracks, it was because they detected a free-market, race-to-the-bottom, welfare-state-eroding bias in the way its institutions were set up. And they were right. 

Sarkozy and Hollande are both dyed-in-the-wool Europeans. Hollande’s entire political career rests on the building of Europe. When French voters said no in that 2005 referendum on a proposed EU constitution, it was Sarkozy who connived to adopt the essence of the constitution via bilateral treaties. The problem for both men, and for their parties, is that their European agenda is dependent on voters who dislike the whole idea of a European Union. And they can win these voters only through empty promises. Sarkozy has promised in the course of the campaign to renegotiate the Schengen treaties, which allow passport-free travel from one European country to another. No one believes he will do it. Hollande’s pledge to renegotiate the deficit pact to France’s benefit is probably another such promise. His advantage over Sarkozy is that he has not yet served the term as president that will teach the public to doubt his word. 

But the French public now has an alternative. For many years the National Front was a fringe element of French life, a holdover of the antidemocratic French right of midcentury. An American used to hearing commentators describe as “scary” such characters as Sarah Palin and Paul Ryan might assume that the French were only ever pretending to be scared by the party’s founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen. But that is not true. In a nation that collaborated with the Nazis and reestablished a democratic republic after the war only with considerable difficulty, Le Pen was a man of antirepublican sentiments. There was a lot of putschist, authoritarian activity in France in the 1950s, and it was common to hear that France’s natural form of government might be “Latin,” like the regimes of Franco in Spain and Salazar in Portugal. Charles de Gaulle was able to establish the Fifth Republic in 1958 only by making certain concessions to this sentiment. Protecting that republic, meanwhile, required foiling a coup attempt. You do not need to be a neurasthenic with a finely calibrated moral sense and a degree in peace studies to figure out why Le Pen scared people. All you need to do is read The Day of the Jackal. That is why there was a so-called cordon sanitaire around Le Pen and the Front that did not exist around the rather large French Communist party. No self-respecting party could form coalitions with it. 

But by the time Jean-Marie Le Pen got 17 percent of the vote in the first round of the presidential election in 2002, this antirepublicanism was a spent force, and the party was almost entirely “pretend scary.” A lot of beliefs about the National Front, because they comforted the self-regard of elites, flourished unexamined. One was that the National Front was motivated mostly by questions of immigration, race, and crime. Jean-Philippe Moinet, former president of a watchdog group called the Observatoire de l’Extrémisme, wrote this week of “the connection between immigration and insecurity, the explosive cocktail that is the trademark of all extreme-right movements.”

In fact, the major preoccupations of the National Front in recent years, and especially since the party was taken over by Marine Le Pen 18 months ago, have been the erosion of French democracy by the European Union and the erosion of the French economy by globalization (of which immigration is certainly an aspect). The FN has become a protectionist, anticapitalist party of the dislocated working classes. Nonna Mayer, an expert on extremism at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques in Paris, estimated this week that Marine Le Pen had won the allegiance of 35 percent of the working class. Polls taken shortly before the first round showed her the top votegetter among the youngest voters. 

And the FN is not the only such party. Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s Left Front, which got 11 percent of the vote, also distrusts the EU and the capitalism it represents. Mélenchon was willing to encourage comparisons to the National Front a year ago, when he debated Ms. Le Pen on national television, as if the two were candidates in the same primary. Today he seeks to distinguish himself from Ms. Le Pen by extolling France’s racial diversity. One might look at the two parties as extremist wings that sometimes overlap, as left and right did so dangerously in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s. But Le Pen and Mélenchon are not as different as that, and there is something we need to be conscious of. The extremists in olden times were extremists because they took the view that democracy was not up to the challenges of the day. Mélenchon and Le Pen, whether you like them or not, are calling for more democracy, not less. 

French politics has been moving towards an impasse for years because both the main parties have won reelection by promising more than they could responsibly deliver. Since the financial crash of 2008, they are running by promising more than they can deliver, period. So all promises disappoint, and as they disappoint, the main parties leak voters. 

In this election, the leakage has reached the point where neither the Socialists nor the UMP can elect a president without appealing to the voters of the National Front. While the Socialists will have an easier time proposing protectionist measures, Sarkozy’s UMP, on all other matters, has a bigger policy arsenal for appealing to Le Pen voters. He can urge notifying the parents of minor children who want to get abortions. He can back a National Front proposal that, in adjudicating cases of police violence, there should be a “presumption of legitimate defense.” An Ipsos poll shows that Sarkozy would get about 48 percent of Le Pen’s people, versus Hollande’s 31 percent.

There is one concession that would drop most of the Front’s votes into the UMP’s lap. That would be an agreement to form alliances with FN candidates in the legislative elections that are scheduled for June. Sometimes a Socialist or a UMP candidate gets knocked off in the first round by a Front candidate; by tradition, the cordon sanitaire dictates that Socialists and the UMP, as the case may be, vote for each other in the second round. Neither party could break the cordon sanitaire in this election without losing more of its members than it picked up. Socialists have anguished over whether it is proper to appeal to Le Pen’s voters at all, dividing the Front into ex-Communists and bigots, and fishing for the votes of the former but not the latter. Sarkozy has mumbled something about how voting for Marine Le Pen was “compatible” with the Republic. But he cannot go further than that. His own spokeswoman, Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, wrote an anti-National Front book last year, in which she described the party as a “poison.” Chantal Jouanno, the glamorous ex-karate champion and sports minister, has said she would vote for the Socialists in any election that pitted them against the Front. 

The upshot of this election’s first round is a likely victory in the short term for the Socialists, but a larger long-term victory for the National Front. Sheer arithmetic is doing away with the cordon sanitaire, turning the FN into the natural political home for voters driven out of the two larger parties by an evolving economy. It may be turning the FN into the natural opposition party of France.

Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.

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