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How Marine Le Pen Has Upended French Politics

Six months before the presidential election, the dominance of the National Front has shaken up the country’s establishment parties.

Patrick Aventurier/Getty Images

“Pas de facho dans nos quartiers, pas de quartier pour les facho,the protesters chant. No fascists in our neighborhood, no quarter for fascists. It is the most powerful statement of the day, delivered by an assembly of some 200 members of far-left political groups interrupting an otherwise uneventful Saturday afternoon in Lyon. Gathered at the steps of the city’s Nouvel Opera House, they are protesting the imminent opening of a bar and social club under the auspices of the far-right extremist group, the Groupe Union Défense. The “Pavillon Noir,” or the Black Pavilion, as the bar is to be called, promises to be a meeting place for nationalist sympathizers, where one can escape from “a world in which modernity beats down on all our lives.” The Pavilion Noir is not an isolated phenomenon: Its debut comes on the heels of another such locale in Lille, “La Citadelle,” operated by a 14-year-old nationalist organization known as Génération Identitaire.

The opening of these two bars, the creation of a physical space in which adherents to a racist and rigidly nostalgic conception of French identity can mingle, is a tangible marker of what is by now a grim reality. Right-wing nationalism has solidified its position as a major, durable pole in French political life. The chants delivered before the Nouvel Opera House are reinforced by an ominous banner held by the protest’s leaders, which goes unnoticed by the stream of pedestrians hustling toward the city’s primary shopping boulevard—it reads, “Jusqu’à quand?” Until when?

The Groupe Union Défense is nevertheless the extreme of the extreme. The real powerbroker on the nationalist right is Marine Le Pen, whose National Front has established itself as a major movement vying for power on the national stage. In a country ravaged by persistently high unemployment, fractured by a growing rift over refugees and immigrants, and struggling to recover from a seemingly unrelenting stream of terrorist attacks, public confidence in President François Hollande’s government (and the political class more broadly) is struggling to find a bottom.

This is just the sort of climate that Le Pen has been eagerly waiting to exploit. For many years, Le Pen has been painstakingly working to expand her party’s base beyond its old, devoted circle of followers whose lineage goes back as far as the aftermath of the French-Algerian War, when many military veterans and committed imperialists felt betrayed by a political class that gave up control of France’s last colonial outpost. Ever since she became party leader in 2011, Le Pen’s efforts at modernization have been more akin to tactful patricide: her predecessor, and the National Front’s founder, was none other than her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who was ultimately expelled from the party in 2015. While Le Pen the Older’s National Front was the party of overt neo-Pétainism, Holocaust denial, and xenophobia, Le Pen the Younger has sought to turn the party into a nationalist political force, opposing the evils of immigration, international finance, and European globalists and their Parisian puppets.

Whether it is due to the course of recent events or Le Pen’s efforts at sanitization, the result is this: Six months prior to the country’s presidential elections in March 2017, the National Front holds a plurality of public support.

In a country such as France, which holds its elections on a two-round, run-off system, it is by now nearly a fait accompli that the National Front will advance to the decisive second round. This has occurred before, during the 2002 presidential elections. In that year, however, the general assumption that the Socialist candidate, Lionel Jospin, would face incumbent President Jacques Chirac led to a flurry of independent campaigns by a broad range of alternative parties on the left. As a result, Jean-Marie Le Pen eked out a second-place finish in the first round, only to be clobbered in the second round, 82 percent to 17 percent.

What a difference a decade and a half makes. Now enjoying nearly a third of public support according to recent polls, Le Pen is perhaps not far off the mark when she refers to her National Front as the “first party of France.”

The rise of the National Front has prodded the establishment parties to co-opt and address the issue of French identity. And the now undeniable permanency of the far right has made the coming months decisive for the political class.

For Nicolas Sarkozy, the former president attempting to make a comeback, the only way to survive in the new political terrain is to essentially outdo Marine Le Pen. Many commentators have compared Sarkozy’s strategy to a pastiched version of Donald Trump’s: Speaking in packed auditoriums at a feverish pace, Sarkozy has sought to dominate the race with one attention-grabbing statement at a time. From insinuating that French identity sources to a common ancestry among the tribes of pre-Roman Gaul, to resentfully questioning whether “one has the right in France to suggest that France must remain French,” Sarkozy has taken his penchant for agitation and demagoguery to a new pitch.

Cementing himself as the establishment candidate gone rogue, Sarkozy hopes to carve out his own place in the populist revolt and to fold Le Pen’s supporters into a newly radicalized conservative party, which in recent years has been rechristened Les Républicains. Sarkozy’s gambit seems to have paid off to a certain degree: As of early October, he enjoys the support of an energetic base of low-ranking party cadres and has largely closed the gap before the November primaries with his principal rival, Alain Juppé.

There remains nevertheless the possibility that Sarkozy’s campaign will flounder. It is difficult to pitch yourself as an anti-establishment candidate when you have served both as president and party leader. Indeed, Sarkozy’s past has already come back to haunt him: New revelations have re-ignited speculation that Sarkozy received campaign donations in 2007 from former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. The implicating documents, retrieved from the corpse of a former Gaddafi lieutenant found in the Danube River, have revived a past that the newly reinvented man of the people would certainly prefer forgotten.

If Sarkozy’s momentum sputters out, then it is increasingly likely that Les Républicains will unify around the more moderate Juppé. A former prime minister and current mayor of Bordeaux, Juppé has sought to side-step Sarkozy’s lurch to the right by championing what he’s deemed an “amicable” French identity—L’Identité Heureuse. Sarkozy and Le Pen argue that Parisian elites have become so lost in their bubble of cultural relativism that they are blind to the destruction wreaked upon France’s secular, Western identity by immigrants and refugees. Juppé responds with a sunnier promise: With restored economic prosperity through liberalization, France can recover from its spiritual malaise.

One of the great French pop songs of the 1930s was Ray Ventura’s cringe-worthy, proto-camp hit, “Tout va très bien Madame La Marquise.” In the song, a Marquise comes to learn that a string of coincidental disasters has led to the total destruction of her country estate, from which she is absent. She discovers that her husband, learning of his bankruptcy, commits suicide and accidentally knocks over a candelabra in the act. This sets fire to the chateau that, thanks to a gust of wind, spreads to the stables, ultimately killing the Marquise’s prize horse. The song was a pure product of Depression-era France, trapped between economic stagnation and the specter of fascism.

It is hard to imagine a better representation of how François Hollande must deem his own political fortunes, despite his projected façade of composure and poise. Elected on a populist platform promising broad tax increases on the wealthy and the financial services industry, Hollande ended up governing to the right, backing away from his redistributionist message after a capital flight and recently pursuing reforms to liberalize the labor market. Elected to confront European Union austerity and seek greater fiscal integration, Hollande ended up towing Germany’s line and supporting it in negotiations with Southern European member nations. Elected, in contrast to Sarkozy’s staunch identitarianism, to heal the division between wealthy urban centers and the immigrant suburbs, Hollande’s promise to reunify the nation has unraveled. In the wake of a wave of terrorist attacks, he now oversees a government with emergency security powers, in which racial profiling is common practice and his own prime minister, Manuel Valls, is a vocal proponent of the infamous “Burkini Ban.”

Needless to say, the prevailing mood on the French left is one of dismay and drift. Hollande faced a certifiable revolt throughout the spring as thousands of left-wing activists, students, and union members took to the streets and occupied public squares in the so-called “Nuit Debout” movement, protesting a package of labor reform laws that was ultimately enacted through extra-parliamentary means. (By virtue of an obscure provision in the French constitution, the government can secure the passage of a law unless confronted with a vote of no-confidence by the legislature.)

On the center-left, the mood is no more boisterous. A recent column in the daily newspaper Libération poked fun at what it deemed the altogether “failed” term of the sitting president. Within the party, government ministries clash with regional and municipal officials on the question of Syrian refugees—in Paris, the Socialist Mayor Anne Hidalgo has vowed to make her city a “capital of refugees,” to the chagrin of Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve, whose state police harass refugee encampments.

It is assumed that Hollande will seek a second mandate despite his flirtation with record-low levels of popularity, and he will face a primary fight. Many, however, have come to conclude that the Socialist Party has no fighting chance at all in 2017. There has even been incessant talk in the newspapers about Socialist Party members voting in the Les Républicains primary for Juppé. Considering it a foregone conclusion that the candidate to oppose Le Pen will likewise be from the right, these voters consider it imperative that that person be Juppé, and not Le Pen’s doppelgänger, Sarkozy.

The woes of the Socialist Party, and of the French Left more broadly, run much deeper than the tactical necessities of avoiding a Le Pen-Sarkozy second-round contest. In the center-left magazine L’Obs, Daniel Cohen writes that the left is “in search of a social base.” Indeed, any frank autopsy of the French left begins with the decades-long unraveling of its working-class base, and its transfer into the arms of the National Front. In the United Kingdom and the United States, this trend seems to have found a countervailing tendency in the insurgent campaigns of Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders, who have burst onto the political scene over the past year to offer a popular leftist alternative to right-wing nationalism.

In France, however, the cause célèbre of the press is a centrist figure intent on making the old divisions of left and right obsolete. In mid-July, Emmanuel Macron took to the stage at Paris’s storied Maison de la Mutualité. An unknown young functionary of the Hollande-Valls government just two years prior, having disaffiliated from the Socialist Party in 2009, the 38-year-old spoke to a crowd of 3,000 individuals and elected officials from both major parties who had joined his new political movement, En Marche!

Macron insists there are two Frances. One, comfortably ensconced in privileges accrued over decades, is intent on maintaining a congealed social and political system. The other—the France of “artists, entrepreneurs, creators, employees, society leaders, students … retirees, the unemployed”—strives to break free from the chains of this system. Macron speaks of a country where “our institutions, our system … are ancient, tired,” where the promises from “les trentes glorieuses”—the three decades of economic growth and social democratic consensus after World War II—cannot be fulfilled.

Macron will perhaps be remembered as the supreme Machiavellian of 2016. Finally resigning as Hollande’s minister of the economy in late August, after having been one of the primary advocates for the government’s string of liberalization reforms, he has yet to formally announce his candidacy. What is certain is that he will have chosen an opportune time to do so, the right being divided between a populist wing and a teetering moderate core, and the left mired in exhaustion and disappointment.