Can Marine Le Pen win? I have been regularly in France this winter and spring trying to find the answer to this question. In 1982 I published the first biography of François Mitterrand in English and have mentally lived part of my political existence in France ever since.
Mitterand was the first socialist president elected under the 5th Republic. Can Marine be the first extreme right-winger? After Brexit and Trump will it be third time lucky for immigrant-hating nationalist-populism?
According to Professor Pascal Parrineau of the Paris Science Po university, Mme Le Pen has the most solid base of support amongst voters of any other potential candidate. They don’t care about her being investigated over allegations about fiddling MEP expenses. They are the losers of globalisation who dislike the pro-European elites and dislike the changes that immigration especially of Muslims from North Africa has brought about.
Polls show considerable fluctuations between January and February 2017 in terms of absolute certainty of voting for a candidate. Out of voters asked in January 2017 who they would vote for when asked the same question a month later, 75% said confirmed their vote for Fillon, 77% for Macron, but 91% for Le Pen. Macron’s support is flaky with only 38% saying they were certain to vote for him and 62% saying they might change, whereas Marine Le Pen had a score of 74% sure to vote for her and only 26% ready to change their mind.
In other words, Le Pen has the most solid and committed block of voters of the other possible second round candidates. It is reminiscent of the solid 22%-25% of votes often from the same couche of voters – those who find it difficult to make ends meet and believe there are powerful elites running in France for their own profit and interests – that voted for the French Communist Party in all national assembly election between 1945 and 1980.
The French Communist Party was hostile to Europe and to immigrants and made many of the same populist denunciations of the power elites of Paris that Marine Le Pen does today.
But the French Communists were never able to break their glass ceiling and it is unlikely that Marine Le Pen can. Every opinion poll put either Macron or Fillon at 60% or more in the second round and Marine Le Pen at 40%. In the past the figures in French opinion polls in March were those in the votes in April and May.
She will certainly get some of the ardent Catholic homophobe, small farmer and anti-immigrant votes that Fillon carefully cultivated as he worked his way up to win the nomination.
The paperback edition of Michel Houllebecq’s best-seller, Soumission (Submission) has just come out. He is France’s number one writer who choses topical themes for his brilliantly written novels. This one is based on a moderate Islamist French politician beating Marine Le Pen to become president of France in 2022. Bit by bit France becomes a Muslim nation and invites Muslim nations like Morocco, Algeria, and Egypt to join the EU in order to Islamise Europe.
Far-fetched of course, but with just enough truth based on the relentless proselytising by Islamists linked to the Muslim Brotherhood and other ideological expression of Islam in France, to be plausibly readable.
Fillon won the primary of the centre-right Les Républicains after publishing a book last September “Islamic Totalitarianism”. France remains shocked by the Islamist slaughters in Paris and on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice on Bastille Day.
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Just as Brexit played on fear of too many East European immigrants, and Trump won on the basis of too many illegal Mexican immigrants, so in France there is fear about the impact of Islamist ideology and Muslim patriarchal control of women. That fear will find an electoral outlet by voting for Marine Le Pen.
However, it is still not likely to be enough to carry her over 50 per cent and into the Elysée. Her party remain linked to its past. Nigel Farage refused to join in a common European Parliament group with Marine Le Pen because, as the UKIP leader, said “Anti-semitism is embedded in the Front National”. For once, Farage was telling the truth and although Marine Le Pen has gone out of her way to insist the old fascist roots of the Front National are long expunged, and has brutally stripped her father of all his honorific positions in the party, the odour remain and now and then pops up in an unguarded Frontist comment on Jews.
It may also be helpful to see Brexit and Trump as not so much victories for populism – today’s fashionable catch-all but increasingly meaningless phrase – but as victories for novelty. Brexit was brand new in the sense of the first time ever Britain could vote on deciding a policy for the nation, kick the establishment and fire a prime minister in one glorious vote. Trump was sheer novelty – a man with no political record who promised the earth.
Marine Le Pen is very old hat. She has been around a long time. She has promised to pull out of the Euro and return to a French franc. This is sending frissons of fear down the spine of many older savers who like the stable Euro and are terrified of a financial crash if a National Front government tries to restore a weak, devalued franc.
And try as she might there remains too much sulphur around the name Le Pen and her party’s roots in the darkest outer extremes of French rightist and racist politics. As a French middle class women put it to me “La France est trop grande pour une Presidente Le Pen.”
That will stop her. The novelty candidate is Emanuel Macron. A bit like Tony Blair in 1997 – denounced as Bambi with no government experience, or perhaps Justin Trudeau – Macron is a post-politics politician who has swept past the classic candidates of the left and right. Unlike Marine Le Pen who cannot fill big halls, Macron has got the big Mo behind him with increasing support from business and the liberal-left. The accusations against him of not standing for anything are the same charges against Blair.
The one thing he is strongly in favour of is a refusal of a renationalisation of Europe exemplified by Brexit and supported by the new right of Wilders in the Netherlands or Petry in Germany – and, of course, by the Kremlin.
Marine Le Pen will score well in the second round but President Macron will enter the Elysée. For Britain, a strongly pro-EU French president reaching out to the next Chancellor of Germany and committed to a reformist liberalisation of France at a time when the EU as a whole is finally emerging from the long post-crash years will be a challenge.
Denis MacShane is a former Minister of Europe and works as a Senior Adviser at Avisa Partners, Brussels.