Marine Le Pen is frighteningly close to making the unthinkable happen in Franceby Lucy Wadham / March 10, 2017 / Leave a comment
Could France fall to the extreme right for the first time since Vichy? Until recently such a thing seemed impossible. Now it feels as though it could happen. In January, a YouGov poll found 38 per cent of French people thought a victory for Marine Le Pen—the leader of France’s far-right party, the Front National (FN)—was “probable” despite no poll of voters predicting she will become president. Why this gap between what so many people, including myself, know to be likely and what we believe?
Despite the evidence, I fear Le Pen could win. Not just because Brexit and Trump show anything is possible, but because for the first time in the Fifth Republic, France’s crash barrier against the lure of extremism—the electoral system—no longer feels reliable.
Introduced under Charles de Gaulle in 1962, the two-round system was designed to keep extremists out of power. Candidates must either receive an absolute majority or go to a run-off between the two candidates with the most votes. Typically, French electors use the first round to vote with the heart—expressing things like hope, desire, rage or downright blood-mindedness—and the second round to vote with the head. Something about the way in which Marine Le Pen has infused the national conversation with despair makes me doubt the barrier will work this time.
In one sense, France is just one more democracy bound up in an angry, post-crisis, anti-globalist mood. Le Pen’s arguments echo “take back control” and “America first.” But in another sense, France is different. The FN is not Ukip. It is a powerful movement that has been putting down organisational roots for three decades; this in a culture built on idealism, where despair could lead, has led in the past, to democratic suicide.
Ever since I moved to France in the 1980s, I have watched the FN base swell, and its electoral gap with the mainstream parties narrow. The potential for xenophobia was always there. Beneath the surface of the republic’s founding equality myth, France’s version of it morphed from the anti-Semitism that dominated in the 20th century, to the Islamophobia—rooted in France’s colonisation of the Maghreb—that dominates today. Its actualisation as a serious political force, however, has relied on profound social and political changes:: the withering of the old Communist Party to which swathes of the working class had owed allegiance and…