The once unimaginable is upon us: Marine Le Pen may be elected President of France.
In the early days of the Front National, led from 1972 to until 2011 by the wily and racist Jean-Marie Le Pen, it was unthinkable that he could ever be President. But in 2002 he polled 16.86% of the votes in that year’s elections, and then in 2005 and 2008 he was convicted and fined for “incitement to discrimination, hatred and violence towards a group of people”, in relation to statements made about Muslims in France. A criminal conviction renders a person ineligible to stand for President.
As Cécile Alduy noted four years ago in “The Devil’s Daughter” (The Atlantic, October 2013):
“For more than four decades, her father has made a name for himself with xenophobic and anti-Semitic slurs, claiming, among other niceties, that gas chambers were merely ‘a detail in the history of World War II’. Over the past two years, Marine has given the oft-demonized National Front a drastic makeover, or ‘dédiabolisation’. (Jean-Marie is commonly referred to in the French press as le diable – ’the devil’ – while Marine has from time to time been called la fille du diable.) She has purged the party of old-school diehards, barred skinheads in Nazi garb from rallies, promoted respectable young technocrats to management positions, and tamed its rhetoric.”
Les chiens ne font pas des chats is the French equivalent of “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” Marine Le Pen began to clean up the Front National immediately she inherited her father’s mantle. She realised that a racist, anti-immigration platform would need to be firmly couched in more “reasonable” populist appeals to preserve French identity and culture, and to reverse the economic decline France has suffered in recent years.
Yet Marine Le Pen’s agenda is fundamentally nationalistic and xenophobic. Among her policy proposals are drastic limits on immigration, a prompt exit from the euro zone, and what she calls the “national preference”, a set of discriminatory measures against non-nationals. In a country beset by high unemployment (10% nationally and 24% among 18 to 24-year-olds), rising anti-European Union sentiment, and unrelenting multicultural tensions, such measures have resonated in the French public’s imagination.
Le Pen has also exploited the fear, anger, and trauma in France over a series of bloody terrorist attacks by men claiming to act in the name of Islam. This tactic has been popular with voters both young and old.
Marine Le Pen has learnt from Donald Trump’s manipulation of truth and exploitation of populist ill-feeling. She is promising to make France great again, to tackle unemployment by kicking out those who are taking other people’s jobs, to invest in industry and agriculture, to repair the crumbling towns of rural France, and to restore French values – a euphemism for attacking other cultural norms “in the name of the people”.
But it is Le Pen’s inherent despotism that poses the greatest danger. She allies herself with the autocratic likes of Russian President Vladimir Putin, with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, and with Polish leader Jarosław Kaczyński. She would like to count Donald Trump among her admirers. And she is intent on tearing apart the European Union, an irony for a country that for years has benefitted obscenely from EU agricultural subsidies estimated in billions of euros.
There is something even more sinister in the air. A Europe in the shadow of Russia, and in which France allies itself with an increasingly disunited United Kingdom against a Germany beset by anti-democratic leanings both within and without, spells deep political and economic turmoil that will set its peoples back decades. To paraphrase John Donne:
“No country is an island entire of itself; every country is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were… And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
The bells are tolling loudly in Europe, but people seem to be hard of hearing.