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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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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