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The race for President of France continues to be fascinating. The early leader and (surprise) winner of the center-right primary, the socially conservative, entitlements reforming, state shrinking, tough-love Francois Fillon is tanking in the polls over a scandal involving his employing his wife at government expense (“Penelopegate”). The largely unknown, and fairly cooky, Benoit Hamon was the (surprise) winner of the Socialist Party primary, which may well lead to the final death of that rather strange animal. The current darling of the (center) left is Emmanuel Macron, who is a sort of Third Way (Blair? Clinton?) figure operating outside the normal (such as it is) political channels.
You will recall that the French Presidential election operates in two rounds. The first round features everyone. The second round features the top two from the first round. It is a good bet that Marine Le Pen will be one of those top two, thus the action is to see who will oppose her in the second round. And win. Although voters on the right are slightly less likely to support a left-wing candidate against a National Front candidate in the second round than left-wing voters to support a candidate on the right opposing a National Front candidate in the second round, the effect is (highly likely to be) the same. Unless things go differently this time. And why, in the era of Brexit and Trump, wouldn’t they?
One reason is that Marine Le Pen is the product of an earlier time. Another is that she really doesn’t stand for anything terribly tangible. She is trying on the mantle of the French Trump today. A few months ago she was auditioning for the French Farage. Her father (Jean-Marie Le Pen) used to like being the French Reagan in the 80’s, when being for deregulation and free markets was counter-cultural. Insofar as she has policies (largely yet to come for this election) they are protectionist, welfarist, and statist. Her nationalism is not Donald Trump’s nationalism: that there is no room for prejudice in patriotism is not a sentiment that would come easily to her. Although she may well adopt it in the weeks ahead.
That her positions and policies are difficult to pin down is not so much a fault as the very essence of the Front National. It was invented to be the acceptable face of the extreme right (although I don’t think that conventional description is terribly useful), and the (then) young and (relatively) high-profile Jean Le Pen (as he was at the time) was recruited to become its face. A cast of rogues – former resistance fighters, former Nazis, former communists etc. – was involved in the founding. Over time the FN became a subsidiary of Le Pen, and the Le Pen brand (arguably) more valuable than the FN one. But political parties don’t live on votes, they live on engaged volunteers (particularly in places where there is little money in politics). And engaged folks at the extremes of the political spectrum have strongly held, and strongly differentiated, views. Cue the Monty Python skit. The FN sort of floats over an ever-mutating sea of fissioning and fusing groupuscules, careful never to have too defined an ideology that could set the whole of the right of the right against it.
Of course, the sort of people who take extreme politics seriously are hardly likely to appeal to the median voter, so the FN has a practice of recruiting non-party-members – local celebrities, for example – to actually stand in elections. It is highly successful – in getting into the second round, where it is usually (although not always) beaten by the left rallying behind the candidate of the (center) right, or vice versa.
One arguably Trumpian aspect of the FN is the co-dependent relationship it has with the media. Ever since President Mitterand encouraged the state-owned TV stations to include Jean-Marie Le Pen in their coverage, there hasn’t been a political phenomenon covered with more assiduity, one might say obsession, anywhere in the world. This sick fascination consistently gives the FN a media profile well in excess of its actual importance – until it becomes important precisely because of its media profile. The coverage tends to be of the “aren’t they awful” sort when it isn’t telling the soap opera story of the Le Pen family. The FN responds by providing the media with an ongoing narrative of “normalisation”, expelling a member here, excommunicating a splinter-group there.
The consistent failure of the media to treat the FN as a (fringe) political party, preferring to treat it as an abnormal sociological phenomenon, gives it and Marine Le Pen the perfect cover. Nothing the media says now about how awful the FN is has much resonance any more, because it has been saying so at the top of its voice for decades. The media is the opposition party – along with every other party, of course. (At least, usually.) So Le Pen is free to be wildly inconsistent. And she is.
Could Marine Le Pen win the Presidency? Perhaps. It would need the left to coalesce around a candidate so massively unacceptable to the right that they stayed away in vast numbers or pulled the lever for the FN candidate just to screw them. Alternatively, it would require the candidate standing against her in the second round to have a complete meltdown between the rounds – a scandal so compromising no-one of good conscience could vote for such a person. Putting it another way, for Marine Le Pen to win, she would have to be competing with someone worse than Bernie Sanders, or someone worse than Hillary Clinton.
Would a Le Pen victory be good for France? Almost certainly not. There are no Rex Tillersons, Mad Dog Mattis’s or Jeff Sessions’s waiting to form her government. There is (as yet?) no clear vision of what France is, or what making it great again might mean, that could unite the people – or any substantial group of them – behind her. Enacting (what is likely to be) her program would entrench welfarism and statism even further. Even on the Euro and the EU her position is fatally fuzzy.
Would a Le Pen victory be good for the US? Unlikely. A France distracted by the peculiar and competing nationalisms of the FN’s milieu is unlikely to be a steady ally. (This is not so say a Macron or Hamon victory would be good for the US, either. Perhaps on balance they would be better – but I am wary of this sort of argument.) The National Front does not share values with the GOP or with Donald Trump. Even if Steve Bannon wishes they did.
Watching what happens in France will be fascinating. It may even be important. But rooting for Marine Le Pen in the hope that we – or they – get Donald Trump would be terribly misconceived.Published in