Is France heading for its own far-right surprise?
First Brexit. Then Trump. It seems the entire West is in the throes of a populist, anti-elite insurgency.
Could France be the next domino to fall? Will the country elect Marine Le Pen, the far-right leader of the Front National party, as its president in next year's election?
Marine Le Pen's rise in the polls has been strong and steady. She is still well short of a majority, but, well, the same could have been said for both Brexit and Trump. Neither looked like they could happen — until they did.
Trump's election might turn out to be a mixed blessing for Le Pen. She greeted the news with relish, for all the obvious reasons: It proved that the pundits are often wrong. Indeed, a full-blown populist can defeat the establishment politician. But if the incompetence that Team Trump has been showing throughout his transition keeps asserting itself — if this is what a populist insurgent in power looks like — it could backfire for her.
Then again, perhaps Trump's fumbles might not hurt Le Pen. After all, she looks better than Trump along two distinct lines.
The first is temperament. Trump is unstable, volatile, hot-tempered, and seems to lack self-control. This is a stark contrast with Marine Le Pen, who just might be the most message-controlled politician in France — or anywhere. In a media environment where everything she says can and will be held against her, she has shown remarkable steadiness. Moreover, the Front National under her has been a remarkably disciplined organization, free of the backstabbing and leaks that are so common in political parties everywhere. In publicized private remarks, French President François Hollande marveled at her mastery of policy detail. Unlike Trump, Le Pen knows how to run a tight ship. To wary French voters, she could offer the same populist message as Trump, but with executive competence on top.
And when it comes to her views, Le Pen also offers a favorable contrast to Trump. While the latter openly pandered to white nationalists during the course of his campaign, Le Pen has been disciplined and ruthless about policing her movement. If some 19-year-old county chair posts a racist cartoon on Facebook, he is immediately expelled from the party. Moreover, Le Pen took the highly symbolic and charged action of expelling her own father from her party for expressing even more racist slurs when she took over. "It is never pleasant to be murdered by one's own daughter," he deadpanned at the time, before suing her over the expulsion, which was just approved by the courts.
Le Pen has expanded her party's platform from a single-minded focus on immigration and crime with a side of tax cuts and deregulation to a full-blown populist embrace of a strong state. Front National politicians are now much more likely to talk about the harms of globalization and free trade to industrial employment, the horrors of bank bailouts, or the injustice of entitlement cuts, than they are about immigration and crime. Even as the migrant crisis swept the airwaves, Le Pen took a self-imposed hiatus from appearing in the media until the campaign started in earnest in the fall. Everyone in France already knows where she stands on immigration, and headlines about waves of migrants streaming in did her work for her much better than she or anyone else could have.
Meanwhile, Le Pen's warnings that terrorists could smuggle in with the wave of migrants, denounced by the entire political and media class as racist nonsense, have looked prescient since Islamic State terrorists did exactly that and murdered hundreds at the Bataclan and on café terraces around Paris a year ago.
Recently, Le Pen unveiled her official campaign logo, a mild-looking blue rose. The logo is a wink at the Socialist Party's logo, a red rose, and to the 1981 election, when François Mitterrand became the first left-wing politician to win a national election in the history of France's Fifth Republic. Her campaign posters show only the logo, and her name in all caps: "MARINE." The Front National's logo of a tri-color flame, iconic but associated with xenophobia, has disappeared from the campaign's materials, symbolizing the party's self-conscious transformation into a mainstream party. Indeed, Le Pen's rush to the center has been so fast that former conservative president (and current candidate) Nicolas Sarkozy's aides bragged to the press that they would outflank her to the right.
These changes have made the Front National not only the party of the French working class, but an increasingly appealing choice to an increasing number of constituencies. Even among school teachers and low-level civil servants, who are usually a rock-ribbed constituency for the left, the Front National has been polling well: They see crime and economic insecurity around them just like other French people, and no longer fear that the Front National would cut their jobs or pensions the way a conservative government might. As France ages, an increasing number of pensioners are sympathetic to the Front National, and other traditionally conservative constituencies see the Republican Party as no longer credible, after Sarkozy won the presidency on a promise to clamp down on crime and immigration and achieved few results.
So, is it possible? Could Marine Le Pen win? It all depends on who she might face in the run-off, where her presence looks all but assured. It's a certain bet that millions of French people who have never contemplated voting for her would vote for her against the fantastically unpopular François Hollande. The rest of the French political establishment looks like a bunch of exhausted insiders. Alain Juppé, the Republican frontrunner, got his first government job 30 years ago, and has a rap sheet for corruption. Socialist Party politicians are pushing Hollande to step aside for his prime minister, Manuel Valls. After all, the former's approval ratings are in the teens, whereas the latter's are in the 20s.
It's anybody's guess whether Marine Le Pen will be the next president of France. But so far, all the stars seem to be aligning in her favor.