Opinion |

Putin Admirer Marine Le Pen Is Closer Than Ever to Destroying French Democracy

Since her 2017 defeat, far right politician Marine Le Pen has been busy mutating into a more palatable candidate for mainstream voters. In two weeks, this toxic illusion could win the French presidency

Robert Zaretsky
Robert Zaretsky
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Freshly glued poster of French far-right candidate Marine Le Pen in Paris, France. Le Pen will face President Emmanuel Macron in a presidential runoff election
Freshly glued poster of French far-right candidate Marine Le Pen in Paris, France. Le Pen will face President Emmanuel Macron in a presidential runoff electionCredit: AP Photo/Francois Mori
Robert Zaretsky
Robert Zaretsky

France has discovered that it is confronting not one, but two, viral surges. Inevitably, Covid accounts for the first surge. Thanks to the rapid spread of BA.2, the omicron subvariant, cases have risen nearly 10 percent since late March. Despite widespread weariness with the pandemic, one specialist warned, "it is far from over."

But a different kind of viral surge is also far from over. On Sunday, France took its full measure with the first round of its presidential election. When the electoral results were announced shortly after the polls closed, they were not surprising, but still shocking. The two candidates left standing in a field of a dozen candidates were President Emmanuel Macron, with 28.5 percent of the vote, and the leader of the extreme-rightwing Rassemblement National, Marine Le Pen, who garnered the next highest total, 23.6 percent.

A screen shows presidential elections' first round poll projections for French President Emmanuel Macron and far-right candidate Marine Le Pen at her election day HQ in ParisCredit: AP Photo/Francois Mori

This is both déjà vu and something quite new. In 2017, Macron and Le Pen had faced off against one another in the second round of the presidential election. But five years is an eternity in politics, especially when the last two of those years have unfolded in the middle of a global pandemic and a European war.

In the previous election, Macron was the true outsider. A confident thirty-something with an impressive resumé who had never held elective office, he promised, as the title of his campaign book declared, a revolution. Not one of barricades and beheadings, of course, but of business and bureaucratic savvy.

Five years later, the revolution has yet to happen. Yes, unemployment has fallen to 7.4 percent, the lowest rate since 2008, while GDP grew about 8 percent in 2021. But a malaise over the nation’s social fractures has, at the same time, deepened. The nation’s economic expansion mostly rewarded the haves, not the have-nots, with the top 0.1 percent flaunting a 4 percent gain in purchasing power, nearly three times that enjoyed by the rest of the country.

Equally important, Macron’s apparent aloofness to the travails of many French, compounded by his habit of governing in a way variously labeled "vertical," "Jupiterian” and "monarchical" helped spark the sudden explosion of the "gilets jaunes" protests that rocked France in the winter of 2019-2020.

While Macron was managing these great waves of popular unrest, followed by the great waves of the coronavirus pandemic, Le Pen was busy mutating, shifting her political and public person to make her more palatable to mainstream voters. During the one catastrophic debate between the two candidates in 2017, Le Pen had managed to appear both aggressive and amateurish as she stumbled over her strident arguments for removing France from the EU, returning to the franc and inviting warmer relations with Putin.

French President and centrist presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron at his election night HQ in Paris, FranceCredit: AP Photo/Thibault Camus

While she had begun to repackage the image of the virulently antisemitic, Holocaust revisionist and anti-immigrant movement that she had inherited in 2011 from her father Jean-Marie Le Pen, her decisive defeat revealed she still had much work to do on repackaging her own image.

On the surface, Le Pen 2.0 is a kinder and gentler version of Le Pen 1.0. In a round of interviews with a surprisingly complaisant media, she has spoken more about her past and private life, while she has taken endless selfies with supporters on her campaign stops.

More important, Le Pen has abandoned her goals for Frexit and the franc and now articulates the wisdom of Bill Clinton’s campaign strategy thirty years ago: C’est l’économie, stupide. With unwavering attention, she has focused her criticism of Macron’s government on pocketbook issues, especially the country’s rising pouvoir d’achat, or cost of living.

At the same time, Le Pen has spoken relatively little about the issues that have long defined her movement: immigration and Islam. This is not because she has given up on these issues, but because in France’s political landscape, they have become largely mainstream. The candidate whom Macron derided as "the high priestess of fear" in 2017 is today the beneficiary of those now widespread fears and prejudices.

French far-right candidate Eric Zemmour addresses his supporters after preliminary results for the first round of the presidential election in Paris, FranceCredit: AP Photo/Michel Euler

She was also aided when, like manna from heaven, Éric Zemmour entered the race. The far right conspiracist pundit’s repeated racist provocations — most recently, his proposal for the creation of a ministry for the "remigration" of Muslim immigrants living in France — made Le Pen appear prudent, even presidential, in comparison.

Moreover, Zemmour’s refusal to condemn the war crimes committed by Russia in Ukraine obscured Le Pen’s oft-expressed admiration in the past for Vladimir Putin. Unlike Zemmour, Le Pen affirmed France’s duty to welcome Ukrainian refugees. Like Zemmour, however, Le Pen also announced that, once the war in Ukraine ends, France should again work with the man who wrought that war and the crimes his forces have perpetrated.

The election’s second round on April 24th is, as a result, less a repeat than a reset. Potentially, it is also revolutionary — though not in the way Macron meant five years ago. First, it is now clear that the traditional mainstream parties, trounced yet again, have no future in France. Whatever movements or parties that replace them will reflect a world that can no longer be defined by the usual notions of left and right, socialist or conservative.

Second, and more worrisome, are Le Pen’s prospects in the second round. Notwithstanding her newfound proclivity to sharing details about her life, a deliberate 'detoxification' rebranding strategy — such as talking about how she famously loves cats — she is no less dangerous than her frenemy Zemmour for democracy in France. If he received just 7.2 percent of the vote, it is because he stated aloud at raucous rallies what Le Pen states in bland language in her campaign platform.

Consider Le Pen’s vow to hold a national referendum on whether to implement a policy of "national preference." In effect, such a law would make it impossible for non-citizens to apply for jobs, social benefits, public housing or even medical care. In blatant violation of the constitution of the Fifth Republic, this law, declared one legal scholar, would be tantamount to "a kind of coup d’état."

A defaced electoral poster of French far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen in Genay, outside Lyon, central FranceCredit: AP Photo/Laurent Cipriani

As Hungary’s Viktor Orbán has shown, such coups are better done incrementally than immediately. That Le Pen would launch such a coup is as certain as her storied affection for cats. As Zemmour declared in his concession speech, though he disagrees with Le Pen on various scores, he would nevertheless vote for her. "She faces a man [Macron] who has let millions of immigrants into France and did not say a word about immigration or national identity during the campaign."

French voters must not forget that under President Le Pen, such noxious words about who can legitimately claim to be French would become the nation’s law.

Robert Zaretsky teaches in the Honors College, University of Houston, and is a columnist with The Forward. His new book, "Victories Never Last: Reading and Caregiving in Time of Plague" will be published in May 2022 by the University of Chicago Press

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