This time, it’s for real!
Earlier this year, the French press released the results of a super-secret survey which found that, if forced to choose between nationalist leader Marine Le Pen and worn-out centrist-globalist President Emmanuel Macron, 48% would vote for Marine to lead their country.
Never has any Le Pen been reported to be within striking range of victory in this way. The pollsters claim that Le Pen’s score is explained by her securing of about one third of the center-right electorate and the mass abstention of left-wing voters who might normally vote for Macron to “bar the way to fascism.”
It’s hard to gauge how accurate the poll is. For one, the detailed results remain unpublished and the margin of error for second-round presidential polling is high. A June 2020 poll found that in a similar scenario 45% would vote for Le Pen and 55% for Macron. That’s still a loser, but far ahead of Le Pen’s actual electoral score from 2017: a disappointing 33.9%.
Perhaps Le Pen’s progress is indeed explicable with what Le Monde calls her “permanent normalization”: she is perpetually moderating her discourse and sending signals to make herself more “presidentiable” in the eyes of the mainstream media and skittish center-right voters (think pensioners and bourgeois Catholics disturbed by Afro-Islamization, but also wary of the potential instability and incompetence of a Le Pen presidency, particularly in the economic sphere).
Le Pen’s closer advisor and brother-in-law Philippe Olivier says: “There is no more detoxification, now is the time of presidentialization.”
The moves towards normalization include praise for Charles de Gaulle (loathed by Le Pen père for his abandonment of the 1 million Europeans of French Algeria), the commemoration of the victims of the Vel d’Hiv, agreeing with the media that the “Great Replacement” is a baseless conspiracy, and providing only qualified support for the persecuted group Generation Identity on grounds of free speech.
A sign of Le Pen’s attempt to break out of the “far-right” ghetto and join forces with the mainstream right: three heads of regional lists on the National Rally (RN) ticket are not RN members (the ecological essayist Hervé Juvin and the conservative politicians Jean-Paul Garaud and Thierry Mariani).
Le Pen no longer calls for the abrogation of the Schengen Area of free movement within the European Union, but only that non-EU nationals would be checked at France’s borders with European neighbors (how that would be done is unclear). Talk of leaving the euro common currency and restoring the franc are long-gone. In a recent op-ed in L’Opinion, apparently ghostwritten by high civil servants supporting the RN, Le Pen argues that studiously repaying national debt is a point of honor and morality.
In a debate with Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin, the Macronist even sought to attack Le Pen from the right saying: “you’re practically soft now.” Indeed, Le Pen now is very careful to distinguish between Islam and Islamism. Islam is “a religion like any other” with its place in France, she says, reserving her trademark “far-right” rhetorical fury for the government’s failure to eliminate “Islamism.”
All this begs the questions: Is a Le Pen victory plausible? Does it even matter at this point?
From a purely tactical point of view, whatever the complaining of dissident nationalists, I have to say Marine Le Pen is broadly right. Yes, her dutiful submission to “house-training” by the media is disgusting and dishonorable. However, assuming one wants a shot at winning, there is not much alternative given France’s electoral setup.
France does not have proportional representation like in Italy – where it can pay to have a nationalist position appealing to only a part of the electorate – but a winner-take-all-system. You simply cannot afford to alienate 51% of voters, even if 25% love you for it.
But France also does not have a purely bipolar political system like the United States, where a Donald Trump could sweep to victory by first taking over the mainstream conservative party and then crafting a message to appeal to almost-half of voters. Le Pen’s game is not to take over a conservative party but to make her historically oppositional nationalist party into a default party of government.
Are the polls credible? A first point: one should not take anything the media says at face value. They make their living by the sensationalism of cultural street-walkers. The media has for decades had a symbiotic love-hate relationship with the Le Pens: at once giving them a voice and tantalizingly suggesting the possibility of a salutary/horrifying nationalist victory (ratings!), while also viciously defaming and demonizing them, in line with the media’s role as the Guardians of Morality. Call it the forty-year cocktease.
Personally, I am skeptical of a Le Pen victory, but I have been wrong before. French voter preferences really are very stable on the whole and the RN (former FN)/Le Pen brand is nothing if not established and polarizing. I don’t see what has changed in the last five years (as opposed to the last 40) to change a critical percentage of voters’ minds. Then again, I am not a formerly apolitical gilet-jaune prole, nor a bourgeois Catholic pensioner. Perhaps some of these groups are more open to Le Pen now, and some leftists will be so disgusted with the Macron presidency as to not vote for him to block “fascism.” But I find that hard to believe.
More prosaically, Le Pen regularly tops the charts of negative approval ratings, with ~47-51% of French people having a negative opinion of her. Although, admittedly, there has been improval of her net negative rating from -34% in January 2020 to -26% in February 2021.
Who knows! A lot could happen, or not happen, between now and April 2022. French national politics has gone from a stable bipolar system to an incoherent winner-take-all toss-up for whichever personality can win at a particular moment every five years, the whole system readjusting according to that personality’s party, with no coherent opposition. Far-left, Green, Socialist, conservative, nationalist, and centrist-globalist candidates all could plausibly make the second round. And the outcome of the second round cannot be foreseen with great confidence.
Another question: would a Le Pen victory even matter? The 2010s feel like a different era, the heady years of the euro-financial crisis and the migrant crisis, when our governments’ hapless flailing made it seem the whole liberal-globalist order was on the verge of collapse.
After Brexit and Trump, people are more modest in their hopes. But we also have the perpetually successful example of Viktor Orbán in Hungary – where a national-populist government has managed to maintain secure power and popularity, with real if modest demographic results – and of Matteo Salvini in Italy, whose short stint as interior minister was wildly popular among Italians, only ended by the parliamentary chicanery of the populist-turned-establishmentarian Five-Star Movement.
A President Le Pen would have to choose carefully. Much of her discourse has been based on a kind of paleo-socialism, protectionism, and sterile formal sovereignism. While some targeted measures may work, on the whole these simply will not deliver the expected results for French workers and consumers. The big one would be euro withdrawal – no longer on the cards. One hopes that Le Pen would not exhaust herself politically in sterile “taking back control,” as the British have done.
More productive for Le Pen would be the Salvini-Orbán agenda: halting illegal immigration, massive reduction of legal immigration from outside of Europe, and a cultural reform agenda in academia and the media around a Zemmourian defense of national heritage and free speech. Hungary and Poland in particular are taking steps in this direction.
As of today, we cannot say that an RN government would have a coherent agenda. To the extent the RN has an ideology, it is quaintly old-fashioned republican assimilationist French civic nationalism.
We can also be sure that any Le Pen administration would face a massive campaign of defamation and sabotage at the hands of the media, the courts, para-statal “civil society,” and elements of the bureaucracy – just as Trump did. The French State being stronger and more dominated by the executive, Le Pen would likely be in a stronger position, though how much so is unclear.
While the country’s left-wing cartoonists feverishly fantasize about Le Pen’s coming totalitarian dictatorship, the RN in fact has no revolutionary agenda whereby compromised elements of the State apparatus would be forcibly retired and neutralized.
Best case scenario: like Salvini, President Le Pen would focus on a few popular issues, like illegal and legal immigration, and then face up and defeat the anti-national forces on those issues. Then one could consolidate victory with cultural measures (e.g., starving politicized and biased left-globalist media, “educators,” and NGOs of government subsidies).
Alternatively, an RN government could focus on challenging the entrenched establishment through further direct democracy – e.g. a referendum on immigration or institution of the Citizens’ Initiative Referendum (RIC, a key gilet-jaune demand) – with some risk of democratic entropy.
If a new consensus could be formed, a national régime could be quite popular, as in Hungary. The news may be shocking to déracinés identity-less globalists, but most people like the idea that their government is on their side.
In other news, Marine has taken advantage of a year’s confinement to get formal training and a degree in cat-rearing. So if things don’t work out politically at least she has a plan C.