Don’t Count Out Marine Le Pen in the French Presidential Election

Her brand of populism combining high welfare spending and attacks on globalism will resonate beyond France

Madame President? Image Credit: Chesnot/Getty Images Europe

The first round of the French presidential election took place last week and ended with a familiar result. The two candidates who came out on top and will face each other in a runoff on Sunday, April 24, are liberal centrist Emmanuel Macron, the incumbent and leader of the party The Republic on the Move, and right-wing candidate Marine Le Pen, leader of The National Rally.

“Groundhog Day,” some people complain, since these two were also the finalists in the 2017 presidential election. And because Macron comfortably beat Le Pen five years ago, one might think that all is well: France is not going to choose a right-wing populist this time either.

It is not so clear cut, however. In 2017, Macron beat Le Pen 66% to 34%, but polls now indicate the president’s lead is as small as 6 to 8 percentage points.

Why is there even a risk that Le Pen might become the next tenant of the Élysée Palace, the French equivalent of the White House? Why is it plausible that a leader of a party with Nazi roots and ties to the Kremlin might take control of the world’s seventh-largest economy, a nuclear power, a permanent member of the UN Security Council and a centerpiece of both NATO and the Western liberal-democratic world? What is different this time?

A lot.

Let’s Be Franc

First, the main issue in this campaign has proved to be le pouvoir d’achat—“purchasing power,” or what Americans would call the cost of living. Many pundits thought the election would be all about the culture war—identity, Islam and immigration—but James Carville’s old reminder from the 1992 Clinton campaign prevailed: “It’s the economy, stupid.” Pocketbook pain matters even in France, despite its high regard for its own national culture and its general insouciance about economic realities.

This is one reason Le Pen so easily beat her far-right competitor, Éric Zemmour, in the first round of the presidential race. True, Zemmour’s Putinophilia also played a role in his demise, but when the end of the month became more important than the end of France, a single-issue Islamophobic candidate like Zemmour, uninterested in economics and not keen on handing out government money, was no match for a seasoned populist like Le Pen. She is running a campaign based almost entirely on the cost-of-living issue, and she promises, among other things, to increase the government’s family allowances (while, of course, excluding nonnationals from government benefits).

In 2017, the issues were also economic, but the major challenges were jobs, growth and a sense that France was falling behind the rest of the Western world. Macron appeared to have the answer to these problems, and since then, he has indeed liberalized the economy somewhat, cut taxes and benefits and made France a bit more like that “startup nation” he promised. Unemployment is lower than it’s been in over a decade, and growth is booming.

Now, however, the bread-and-butter issues are different. As in most parts of the Western world, inflation is back with a vengeance. This is due to several factors, such as the COVID-19 pandemic and shortages of various raw materials, now exacerbated by the war in Ukraine. Rising gas, energy and food prices have made it difficult for large chunks of the French electorate to make ends meet. In a country with the world’s highest taxes and most generous welfare state, such issues depend primarily not on growth, but on government handouts—an issue that Le Pen, like most populists, masters.

In a country in dire need of reduced government spending, Le Pen’s proposed welfare-state expansion is particularly adventurous. Most experts conclude that Le Pen’s calculations underestimate the cost of her proposals by tens of billions of euros and would thus exacerbate a national debt that already approaches 146% of France’s gross domestic product.

Furthermore, Macron’s platform is reforming France’s notorious and nearly bankrupt pay-as-you-go national pension system—the equivalent of Social Security in the U.S.—something that does not appeal to many voters. Le Pen accuses him of not understanding the living and working conditions of the French working class, and Macron retorts that her retirement program is unsustainable. Since they are fighting mainly for the leftist voters unrepresented in the second round, this is a battle Macron is unlikely to win, which is why he has already backpedaled somewhat on his original proposal.

A Kinder, Gentler Marine?

Additionally, Le Pen has worked hard to “normalize” herself. She is running as “Marine,” trying to make people forget her family name, which is tainted by the aggressive racism of her well-known father, Jean-Marie Le Pen. She has likewise de-emphasized some of the most nationalistic parts of her program, such as her proposal to leave the European Union. “Marine” is all smiles, as when she appears on Instagram with her many cats.

In fact, however, most of her transformation into a mainstream politician is superficial. For example, she still wants to ban the wearing of the Muslim hijab in public (in addition to the previous ban on burqas), to bypass France’s Constitutional Court and two legislative chambers to organize a referendum to stop immigration, and to abolish jus soli, the right of anyone born on French soil to automatically receive French citizenship. The only exception is that she no longer wants to abandon the euro.

The rise of Éric Zemmour last autumn also played a role in Le Pen’s normalization. During the fall, he seemed to have a shot at reaching the final presidential voting round. Zemmour’s presence to the right of Le Pen helped her seem mainstream by comparison.

A Meaner, Harsher Macron?

A third factor that makes this election different from the one five years ago is that Macron has moved to the right. In 2017, he was still a former minister in the government of Socialist President François Hollande, and he was still the default choice for leftist voters, particularly in the second-round presidential race against Le Pen. Since then, Macron has both liberalized the economy and taken a harsher stance in the culture war. He is therefore less likely to receive votes from the social-justice activists and proponents of welfare-state expansion who support far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who came in third in the first round and whose voters are now up for grabs. In fact, many of these voters are likely to abstain in the second round, not least since Mélenchon’s only instruction to his voters is that they don’t vote Le Pen, avoiding giving direct support to Macron.

In parts of France, there is now a profound hatred of Macron. Not only is he an English-speaking globalist and former investment banker, but he also dresses in $1,500 suits and has attended all the elite French schools. Worse, he has made several gaffes indicating that he looks down on average French people, particularly those who have a hard time finding a job. The sentiment that Macron evokes in large parts of the French populace resembles the disdain directed at Hillary Clinton in the U.S., especially after her infamous comment about the “deplorables.” There is therefore a risk that the anybody-but-Macron argument will gain ground, making people abstain from voting or vote for Le Pen just to wipe the smirk off the elitist Parisian guy’s face.

Five years ago, Macron was a blank slate, difficult to attack. This time, as the incumbent, he has a legacy to defend and a term in office he’s accountable for, making him more vulnerable than in 2017. Despite France’s firm belief in the state and its authority, the French are always looking for a revolution. They may figure that now that they have tried this “new guy” and it didn’t really work out, why not give the veteran lady a shot?

Macron, S’Il Vous Plaît . . .

Despite the factors listed above, I would guess, like most analysts, that Macron will get a second term. France is probably not ready for a Le Pen presidency. Yet I, like most analysts, never thought that Donald Trump would become a U.S. President, transforming the very soul of American conservatism into an unrecognizable ghost of its past and making the Gipper roll in his grave. We could easily be wrong this time, too. Le Pen might win.

The French political landscape is undergoing a deep transformation. In the first round of France’s presidential election earlier this month, Anne Hidalgo of the Socialist Party received less than 2% of the vote, while Valérie Pécresse of The Republicans received less than 5% of the vote. If this were U.S. presidential politics, we’d be saying that the Democratic candidate got less than 2% of the vote, while her GOP opponent scored less than 5%.

True, all sorts of caveats are necessary here. The parallel between presidential politics in France and the U.S. is inexact, given the particularities of the American two-party system and the overall leftist tilt of the French political landscape. Nevertheless, the two main parties that have dominated French politics for more than half a century—the center-right Republicans and the mostly center-left Socialist Party—have been all but wiped out of France’s political scene. Their candidates came in fifth and tenth, respectively.

In this atmosphere, it is possible that Le Pen’s combination of reactionary national conservatism and unsustainable welfare-state populism is exactly what the French want. As a classical liberal with a love-hate relationship with France, a part of me thinks: Let them have it. The French deserve it, since they seem so unable to adapt to a world of digitalization and globalization.

But also as a classical liberal, another, more reasonable part of me realizes that the Western world in general and European countries in particular are so intertwined and interdependent that Le Pen’s elevation to the French presidency would spell misfortune for not only France, but the rest of the world. And the rest of the world, particularly the rest of Europe, is following closely what is happening there.

A Gauling Development

France is not just any country: It’s the home of The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen; it’s the birthplace of the Enlightenment; and it’s the country with the strongest “soft power” in the world. It is also a founder of the EU and the most powerful EU state, especially in the post-Angela Merkel era. A France led by a national populist would have far-reaching consequences.

Some outcomes seem clear. First, a Le Pen presidency would undermine the united front that Western countries have put up against Russia’s war in Ukraine, which some commentators have called a revitalization of the West. Le Pen is opposed to sanctions against Russia that would entail costs for the French people, and she recently called for a rapprochement with Russia once the war in Ukraine is over. She wants to take France out of NATO’s integrated command, so that French troops remain solely under French control.

Even though she no longer says she wants to leave the European Union, Le Pen would de facto provoke a Frexit, and France would no longer be a member of the EU. Le Pen does not accept the supremacy of EU legislation over national laws, yet the EU’s internal market, with its free flows of goods, services, capital and people, depends on national laws’ deference to EU laws. The other member states are not going to tolerate a wholesale exception for France.

Any liberalizations of trade and migration within France would likewise be out of the question. Globalization would suffer a setback. Le Pen is now presenting herself as an environmentalist, emphasizing “localism” over Macron’s “neoliberal globalism,” which she argues is devastating for the environment.

National populist movements worldwide would also receive a powerful boost. If a leading country like France can be governed by a member of their movement, national populists might reason, why not their own countries? Right-wing populist parties all over the world would no longer have to look to less globally significant countries like Brazil or Hungary for inspiration; they could rely on France for support and ideas.

Finally, center-right parties elsewhere would have to rethink their paths going forward. They would inevitably notice that they were losing in most countries either to leftists or to national populists, and they would become more likely to opt for a nativist, protectionist route. Donald Trump showed the way, and Le Pen’s success would provide further guidance in that direction.

Emmanuel Macron has his faults, but a Le Pen victory on Sunday could have catastrophic consequences. Let us all hope that reason prevails.

This piece is from The UnPopulist, a Substack newsletter by Shikha Dalmia, a visiting fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. The UnPopulist is devoted to defending liberal and open societies from the threat of rising populist authoritarianism. Go here to subscribe.

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