PARIS—Something very nasty is in the air. Beyond all polls and punditry is the zeitgeist and today it lurches unmistakably toward the far right. In the world of Brexit and Trump, it sometimes feels like the election of the National Front’s Marine Le Pen is the only possible outcome of France’s presidential election next spring—the inevitable conclusion of a dystopian trilogy sounding the death-knell of the European Union and a certain era of Western democracy itself.
Naturally, experts here insist otherwise. She’s not popular enough to win, they say—too divisive, too tainted by her party’s extremist image. But like a nightmare where you can sense the macabre ending in advance, an electoral scenario favoring Le Pen is now starting to take shape.
On Sunday, former prime minister François Fillon unexpectedly won the presidential primary of France’s newly renamed center-right party, Les Républicains (LR), defeating former French President Nicolas Sarkozy in the first round of voting and knocking out another former prime minister, Alain Juppé, in the second. Like their British and American counterparts, French pollsters utterly failed to predict Fillon’s late surge in support. Now that he’s secured the LR nomination, Fillon is the odds-on favorite to win France’s two-round presidential election that begins next April.
To capture the Elysée Palace, Fillon will almost certainly have to defeat Marine Le Pen, the daughter of National Front (FN) founder Jean-Marie Le Pen and head of the far-right party since 2011. Riding high from mounting dissatisfaction with the political establishment, Le Pen has been building support for years—well before Brexit, well before the refugee crisis, and well before the recent string of terrorist attacks on French soil, all events that have only added to her appeal. She now regularly leads polls for the first round of the general election in May.
The second round is where it will get more complicated. Traditionally, French electors from across the political spectrum have joined forces to block National Front candidates who reach the run-off phase from winning office. It’s what happened in the 2002 presidential race: Le Pen’s cartoonishly racist father squeaked into the second round only to be crushed by incumbent Jacques Chirac. It’s also what happened in last year’s regional elections: Despite winning more first-round votes than any other party, the FN was unable to win a single one of the fifteen regional presidencies up for grabs.
Defeating Le Pen in the second round wasn’t supposed to be Fillon’s job. It was Alain Juppé’s. Pollsters and pundits agree that the task of unifying voters against the National Front is up to the mainstream right; after all, thanks to François Hollande’s disastrous presidency—a recent poll placed his support at 4 percent—the Socialist Party is in tatters. Juppé ran with this in mind.
Throughout the primaries, the seventy-one-year-old statesman proudly campaigned as a moderate, portraying himself as the only one capable of turning out general electors en masse against the menace of the National Front. On the campaign trail, Juppé lambasted the excesses of his opponents’ economic and security proposals. And like a wise and cheerful grandfather, he urged a pessimistic nation to embrace its “happy identity.” Primary voters either didn’t buy it or they didn’t care. Instead they chose Fillon, a classic conservative who combines support for restrictive social policies with a program of brutal fiscal austerity and deregulation.
While it’s still early, conventional wisdom says Fillon’s nomination complicates the FN’s chances of capturing the presidency. Politico Europe proclaimed it “torture for Marine Le Pen” and certain French observers seem to agree. There’s an element of truth to this: Fillon could siphon off support from social conservatives who would otherwise vote National Front. Much like the standard-bearer of the European far right, Fillon wants to curtail immigration, restrict birthright citizenship, and prioritize welfare for French citizens. He’s a proud Catholic who backed the burkini ban and promises to promote “family values.”
And yet, to reduce the presidential election to a referendum on national identity is to misread the general electorate. To do so in a country with 10 percent unemployment and annual growth of just 1 percent is especially foolish. Indeed, a recent poll found terrorism and the economy nearly tied for first place among the most important election subjects.
It may be hard for either of the frontrunners to out-chest-thump the other over national security. But on bread-and-butter economic issues, serious differences emerge. Fillon speaks longingly of Margaret Thatcher and vows to usher in the free-market revolution that France never knew. When Le Pen talks about the economy, on the other hand, she rails against privatization and calls for “strategic” state intervention.
This means any potential second-round matchup between the two could come down to a clash of economic visions: a battle between neoliberalism and welfare-state nationalism. As with Brexit and Trump, the perceived differences matter just as much as the actual ones. One is the “safe” pick associated with economic and cultural elites; the other, a chance to enact large-scale vengeance against them. We’ve seen this drama before—and it hasn’t turned out well for the establishment.
IT’S FAIR TO SAY that Fillon has the most radically neoliberal program of any center-right presidential nominee in the history of the Fifth Republic. He wants to replace France’s thirty-five-hour workweek with the EU’s forty-eight-hour limit. He vows to cut the welfare state by merging unemployment, housing, and medical aid programs into a simplified stipend with fewer benefits. He promises to get rid of the nation’s wealth tax—a measure that only affects people with assets above 1.3 million euros—and make up the revenue gap with a hike in the regressive and already unpopular value-added tax on the consumption of goods and services. Then there’s the pièce de résistance: The elimination of five hundred thousand public-sector jobs.
Such proposals demonstrate a mind-boggling tone deafness. In fact, it would be hard to come up with an economic platform that more perfectly reflects the exact opposite of the country’s mood. While this radical platform may have worked with right-wing primary voters—older, more conservative and better-off than the rest of the population—it’s extremely dangerous for a general election.
National Front spokesman Florian Philippot understands perfectly well what’s at stake. In the week following Fillon’s victory in the first round of the primary, the party’s shrewd vice president in charge of strategy and communication—and the person most responsible for its successful rebranding—previewed the sorts of attacks his party will launch against Fillon in the coming months: “He’s clearly ultra-liberal, clearly for austerity,” Philippot said of Fillon. “It’s a program of incredible violence, under the drive of the European Union.” (In French political parlance, “liberal” means free-market.)
On another cable-news show, a journalist tried to tell Philippot that Fillon’s conservative platform threatened to cut into the FN’s base of support.
“Social questions will not be at the heart of this presidential election,” Philippot retorted. “French families don’t wake up in the morning thinking about the Taubira Law [which legalized gay marriage]. They wake up in the morning thinking about how they can get a place in the childcare center... how can we pay for the kid who’s gone to study in Paris and it’s ridiculously expensive to find housing as a student? How can we deal with family welfare benefits that were frozen under Nicolas Sarkozy’s term?”
Philippot knows his base. The National Front dominated among blue-collar workers in the last major elections, the 2015 regional race. According to exit polls, the FN won a whopping 43 percent of such voters, compared to just 20 percent for the Socialists and 17 percent for the Republicans. The FN also captured more support from service-sector workers than any other party, earning 36 percent their vote, compared to 21 percent for the Republicans and 20 percent for the Socialists. (France’s official distinction between ouvrier and employé is somewhat arbitrary; it roughly corresponds to manual versus intellectual labor but also depends on the industry.)
These votes are far from guaranteed to go to Le Pen in the general presidential election. Much like young people—another group the National Front won in 2015, according to exit polls—the working class tends not to show up at the polls. About 60 percent of blue-collar and service-sector workers didn’t even bother to vote in the last regional elections. If Le Pen is to stand a chance of winning the presidency, she’ll have to mobilize these voters. Turning the election into a referendum on whether the state should dramatically slash welfare is an easy way to do just that.
Not unlike Donald Trump, the FN performs especially well in old bastions of the industrialized working class: in the North of France, the former heart of the now defunct mining sector, and the East, where steel and manufacturing used to rule the day. Once strongholds of the left, these parts of the country have been devastated by globalization and never fully recovered from the ensuing waves of job loss. The only thing keeping them from looking as bleak as the U.S. rust belt is the French state. From providing unemployment benefits to reliable transit services and jobs, public spending forms the backbone of society. Like Thatcher before him, Fillon is essentially proposing to cut the threads that bind thousands of communities together.
The former prime minister is vulnerable on another front too. Simply put, Fillon reeks of the establishment, or les élites, as the French say. Juppé had a longer career in government but his golden years as prime minister were in the 1990s. By contrast, Fillon’s term as prime minister under Sarkozy, from 2007 to 2012, is decidedly fresher in the minds of voters. For many, it’s synonymous with the economic crisis and a broader, ill-defined political malaise. There’s a reason why Sarkozy was only the second French president to lose re-election since World War II.
In his recent book on the National Front, political scientist Joël Gombin looks at voters’ confidence in political institutions. French society as a whole has little faith in the “system,” he notes, but FN voters share this sentiment more than those of any other party. Facing a choice between a former prime minister who served under an unpopular president and someone untainted by the burdens and compromises of governing, the preference of the politically disillusioned seems self-evident.
To be sure, there are many reasons to be deeply as skeptical of the National Front’s commitment to the welfare state as of Donald Trump's. It doesn’t extend to immigrants. It oozes of opportunism. And serious internal debates persist: a more free-market wing of the National Front represented by Marine Le Pen’s twenty-six-year-old niece and parliamentarian Marion Maréchal-Le Pen has well-known reservations about Philippot and his influence, though the latter seems to have the presidential candidate’s ear for now.
Still, none of this alters the favorable circumstances for the National Front as it enters election season. Marine Le Pen’s newly unveiled campaign logo, the blue rose, all but encapsulates the FN’s desire to seduce disillusioned voters of the left, combining the traditional color of French conservatives with the traditional emblem of international socialism.
Chillingly, the image captures one of the defining gestures of another generation of the European far right: the desire to demolish traditional class and political divides with the cleansing power of nationalism. In The Brown Pest, French activist and writer Daniel Guérin observes that fascism “promises the moon to each social category without worrying about accumulating contradictions in its program.” Indeed, like its predecessors, the National Front could not be less concerned about conflicts of this sort. It vows to protect big French corporations. It vows to protect French small-business owners. And it vows to protect French workers.
THOUGH INCREASINGLY GRIM, the electoral landscape may not be entirely irredeemable.
Ironically, Fillon’s nomination could have the effect of opening up space for a genuinely left-wing presidential campaign—one that combines defense of a well-funded, redistributive state with respect for ethno-religious diversity. Juppé at least paid lip service to left-leaning voters. Fillon cannot credibly do the same. Those horrified by the prospects of the most likely second-round matchup right now will want a candidate of their own to rally behind.
But the Socialist Party is a wreck, leaving the French left in a state of uncertainty. Amazingly, the sitting president is still considering a run for re-election, despite his abysmal poll numbers and massive unpopularity. Emmanuel Macron, a former economic minister under Hollande who recently launched his own presidential campaign, is too pro-business to fit the profile required of the moment. Two progressive candidates running in the Socialist primary, Benoit Hamon and Arnaud Montebourg, may gain some traction but are probably doomed because of their own associations with Hollande.
The most likely beneficiary of the vacuum is Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the founder of the Left Party, who in 2017 is running as an independent. Mélenchon currently polls around 15 percent, about even with Macron for third place, but his economic populism and anti-establishment aura offer him an opening, especially in this cycle. An admirer of Bernie Sanders and a gifted public speaker, Mélenchon has a go-it-alone attitude that sometimes vexes and grates even those open to his message. But if there were ever a time to put aside such hesitations, it is now, as the abyss approaches.
If Mélenchon manages to sneak into the second round and win, we’ll have learned a valuable lesson: the antidote to today’s resurgent far right is not austerity or the free-market reforms that have fomented mistrust in the political system on both sides of the Atlantic. It is a populism of the left that directs people’s anger where it belongs—not at immigrants, but at the wealthy elites who demand such regressive policies—and shows that the state can deliver material benefits to all those living within its borders.
But this remains only a slim hope. For now, the National Front’s much uglier message seems likely to gain momentum. The party and its candidate have the fortune of surging at an exceptional moment—the left is weak and fractured like never before while the right lines up behind a vulnerable candidate. Le Pen and company could not have asked for more.