Le Pen can win: she appropriates issues that matter to the French
PUBLISHED: 13:34 31 January 2017 | UPDATED: 13:34 31 January 2017
Perceived wisdom says that Marine Le Pen cannot win this year’s French presidential election. But such complacency is deeply troubling
At the beginning of the year, I already have a feeling of the same bad movie playing out again.
The initial scene is rather cheerful. It will happen with friends in a cafe, or having tea, a drink, or dinner. I will listen to people with an IQ higher than mine, who are politically concerned, full of good intentions, and more or less social democrats in their outlook. People who embody, in various ways, that widely hated elite that politicians now feel compelled to attack.
In this film will necessarily come the moment when May’s French presidential elections come up for discussion. And the moment when someone will launch the inevitable ‘Marine Le Pen cannot be elected’ as a obvious fact. At this point in the conservation, things will generally degenerate. Because that self-confidence coming from intelligent people irritates and worries me.
Why could Marine Le Pen not be president? I remember one of them arguing about the ‘republican surge’ with which voters would keep the National Front (FN) out. The proof they offer is that the left mobilised for Jacques Chirac against JeanMarie Le Pen in the second round of the 2002 election, then against the FN in the regional elections of 2015. “Marine Le Pen cannot win, it is impossible,” I was told, in one of these discussions, with a shrug of the shoulders. I answered: “But my poor chap, you are completely out in La La Land.”
Read this article in French: Le Pen: Lettre à mes amis intelligents
I worry. How many elections will be needed for intelligent people to understand that what is happening outside their bubble is not rational, that the most realistic program does not necessarily prevail over the most stupid, because the anger is so huge? The same people said Brexit was too unreasonable to win, that Trump was too crazy to be elected. There is no point in beating around the bush: the things that have happened – we didn’t see them coming. And here we go again with the same arrogance.
Obviously have I no idea what the outcome of the ballot will be. Some experienced political experts admit that they have lost the keys: polls have shown their limitations, the electoral base is an ice rink and opinions unpredictable – fluctuating, capricious, disillusioned, nihilistic, cynical, profoundly and essentially angry.
Faced with the self-confidence of those who believe in rationality, I worry. I do not say that Le Pen will be president, I say that she can be president and that those who assert the contrary are off the mark.
Why? Not only because her opponents are weak. On the left, the socialist party has contracted the Corbynist disease. On the right, François Fillon, the red-hot favourite, emerged from the primary by a miracle. His campaign is flawed and becoming entangled in a scandal about his wife’s job. Between left and right, young Emmanuel Macron, becomes a serious competitor, embodying what voters are looking for nowadays: the different, the unexpected, the new.
Le Pen can win because she has managed the tour de force of appropriating, on the right of the political spectrum, those issues that fill the dreams of the French. She has succeeded, by dint of unrealistic populist promises, in embodying French passions.
In France, that egalitarian country where anti-elitism is a national sport, the FN has constructed its entire strategy on the detestation of elites and ‘the anti-system’ – a trendy posture nowadays.
In France, that country which has kept from its years of monarchy a devotion to the protective powerful state, Le Pen and her right-hand man Florian Philippot (who comes from the “sovereignist”, antiEuropean left) now appear, on the right, as the only defenders of the welfare state.
Her main challenger for the Elysee, Fillon, provided her with a golden opportunity by posing as a Thatcherite, attacking public services and social security – two sacrosanct values in France. 500,000 fewer civil servants, health insurance restricted to serious illnesses, the end of the 35-hour week, an obsession with debt, a reduction in public spending, social conservatism... Fillon is the incarnation of a classic Tory. Neoliberalism never took hold in French dreams. The French like reforms, in theory, but, in reality, expect everything from the state.
In France, that country of the Revolution and Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, Le Pen stands as the only woman among the credible candidates. And it was another woman, her ultraconservative niece Marion Maréchal Le Pen, who shook the Paca (Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur) in the last regional elections. Given the glaring and disastrous absence of women among the left and right candidates, the ultra-reactionary FN is able to appear as the only feminist party in France. That takes the biscuit!
There is just one point on which Marine Le Pen will be more British than the others: Europe. Together with anti-elitism, defence of the welfare state and ‘feminism’, europhobia will be the fourth French passion that the FN has managed to appropriate. The party took advantage of the change of course of the Gaullist right and its shift from sovereignty to Europeanism.
The Eurosceptic president Jacques Chirac finally opted for a European constitutional treaty – and ran into trouble, losing the 2005 referendum. The FN, suddenly alone on the right on this boulevard of anti-Europeanism, has been able to attract the Eurosceptic Gaullists.
The FN’s seduction operation has involved both Le Pen attempting to ‘de-demonise’ its brand, and Philippot working to reintegrate into this traditionally anti-Gaullist party the looming figure of De Gaulle.
And from now on, she is reinforced by the new nationalist, protectionist, anti-European western wave. “Donald Trump and Theresa May implement the program of Marine Le Pen,” she says – Le Pen, like French actor Alain Delon, speaks of herself in the third person.
Le Pen says anything about everything: on Europe, on the so-called rescue of France by the return to the Franc, on the exclusion of immigrants. Paradoxically, the disastrous spectacle of the Brexit negotiations, which she vigorously supported, forced her to change course. Surveys show a pro-European boom in all EU countries, notably in Great Britain and France. The populists are opportunists by definition: Le Pen has therefore reneged on her promises to leave the EU. She still maintains her idea of leaving the euro to secure the anti-European tone which helps her appear as a friend of the people against ‘elites’, ‘immigrants’, ‘free trade’ – all those filthy beasts making europhobia, a totem of pseudo-protective nationalism and of populism, a business which works. No longer does it appeal only to the proletarians, whom the left has long since lost to the FN, but also the bourgeois who have grown tired of the political class and the traditional elites. That is why Le Pen may win.
There is something else. I get often amazed by hearing people of generations younger than mine, especially the potential voters between 20 and 35 years old. Between them and me stand two enormous gaps. The first one: their political culture has been built by looking at smartphones, with a continuous spill of short, pictorial information, whose hierarchical importance is given to them by the popularity of a click more than by the quality of an analysis.
The second is more decisive: to these youngsters, the Second World War doesn’t exist, except in history books. De Gaulle and Churchill are no closer to them than Napoleon or Cromwell.
In my family, the EU was welcomed as a blessing. My grandfather, a Jew, had participated in the Allied landings in southern France in 1944. My grandmother had thrown out an old German friend who gently came to visit her in Paris, wearing uniform.
I remember my father crying all alone in front of the black and white television at the death of De Gaulle, his hero. I remember my leftie mother, who hated De Gaulle, admitting that ‘OK, we owed him that’. That meant having ended Nazism, the holocaust, war with our neighbours over nationalism and racism. In this contradictory family mixture, Europe would always emerge as common ground. Who, under 35, has been marked by grandparents having gone through the war? Who, under 35, unless you are surrounded with a conscious and caring family, can still understand how beautiful, urgent and necessary the European project is?
Many British youngsters did not vote in the Brexit referendum. Young people in France often tell me that they will not vote, that voting, or not voting, is “all the same”. For all those reasons, I worry.
Marion Van Renterghem is a reporter-atlarge at Vanity Fair, after 30 years with Le Monde