Marine Le Pen, Savior of France?

This is a very different type of I’m with her: Marine Le Pen as Joan of Arc.  She gave a speech standing in front of a statue of St. Joan of Arc and inspired supporters to create images like this one:

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Despite recent legal challenges (which illustrate France’s free speech problem), Marine Le Pen “remains in the lead in polling for the first round of the French presidential election, three points ahead of centrist Emmanuel Macron.”  She’s certainly got the opposition scared.

French President Francois Hollande has admitted that “There is a threat” that she might actually win and that he would “do everything” in his power to stop her.  He also vehemently opposes her desire to sever France from the EU: saying “it was his ‘last duty… to do everything to ensure that France is not convinced by such a plan’ of taking the country out of the EU.”  First Brexit and now maybe Frexit?

Although The Spectator is no friend of Le Pen (saying her “victory would be the worst crisis for half a century”), they nevertheless had some interesting observations in their article: The French election is now Marine Le Pen vs a collapsing French establishment.

Is France on the brink of a political revolution? Already, four established candidates for the presidency — two former presidents and two former prime ministers — have backed out or been rejected by the voters, and another, François Fillon, is on the ropes. The campaign is being taken over by outsiders …What kind of shake-up might it be — socialist (the least likely), liberal with Macron or nationalist with Le Pen? Or can the outsiders still be beaten by an electoral system designed to keep them out of power? … the two-round ballot, designed in the 1820s to prevent hotheads … from winning elections. It gives voters and politicians a second chance, not so much to reconsider their own choices as to react against the choices of others. In the first round you vote for the person you want; in the second you vote against the person you fear.

This evolved historically into what was called ‘republican discipline’: in the first round there could be a range of competing candidates of all shades, but in the second round all loyal republicans, from the mildest liberal to the reddest communist, would vote for the candidate best placed to beat the enemy of the republic — usually a royalist or authoritarian nationalist. … The crucial question in this election is whether the republican reflex still operates. If not, Marine Le Pen could win.

***

France is the most anti-capitalist country in Europe.  There are benefits. Many British people have happy memories of French hospitals, schools or trains. But one does not need very right-wing views to see the accumulating disadvantages. The highest taxes in the developed world, especially on businesses. Chronic unemployment, worst among the young and ethnic minorities. Slow growth, including among small companies afraid of the burden of regulation incurred by getting too big. Crumbling infrastructure. Anyone who arrives at the Gare du Nord must see that something is amiss. People in France do too, and have done for years. Even in the 1980s President Mitterrand lamented national ‘moroseness’. Bookshops have long been piled high with works by economists, politicians and academics warning that France was in accelerating decline. Young people emigrate, over 200,000 to London alone.

On top of this chronic malaise has come the tension between republican secularism and Islam, sparked off three decades ago by a row about girls wearing headscarves in a provincial secondary school. It is a fraught mixture of cultural difference, social deprivation and historic mistrust, but none can doubt its brooding presence, hugely inflamed by a series of terrorist attacks. Had I risked forgetting this, I would have been dramatically reminded a few weeks ago when in a quiet street in Paris I walked into a 25-man military patrol in full combat gear.

None of these observations is unique to France. Characteristic of France, however, is the seeming inability of the political system to do much about them, even over many years. Here we come back to the ‘stalemate society’ problem.

 

***

So is France in crisis? … many voters really have lost faith in the established parties and see change as coming from outside the system. The main embodiment of disillusion is Marine Le Pen. Her Front National continues to grow in rust-belt regions and those with high levels of immigration, largely by attracting disaffected working-class voters. It is probably France’s largest party, supported by nearly a third of the electorate.

Le Pen has laboured since taking over from her father in 2011 to convince voters that the Front National, though still radical, is no longer ‘anti-republican’, and indeed is the staunchest upholder of republican secularism against Islamic encroachment. The message is that voting for her is not a betrayal of the republican heritage so central to France’s self-image.  She has added to her nationalist agenda vehement denunciation of the European Union as a foreign capitalist plot.

***

Le Pen will surely win through to the second round of the election, and it is quite possible that she will head the poll in the first round on 23 April…  Brexit and Trump have created a sense that the unthinkable is possible, which could further weaken the taboo against voting for her. But it will mobilise her opponents too. I cannot believe that enough moderate voters will stay away from the second-round poll to let ‘the fascists’ win. ‘Republican discipline’ should still rally support for whoever polls best against Le Pen, which at the moment looks likely to be Macron.

Nevertheless, few now rule out a Le Pen victory completely, and if Macron’s campaign runs into serious trouble, all bets are off. Every new scandal or terrorist incident plays into her hands. If she did become president, France would face a genuine crisis, the worst for half a century. There would certainly be strikes and violent demonstrations by those who would see themselves as defending the republic against fascism. How she could form a viable government or win a majority in parliament is unclear. We would see a conflict between the Fifth Republic’s powerful president and its parliament under a constitutional system that one liberal critic has called dangerous even in the hands of a saint. The consequences for the euro, the EU, western security and Britain’s relations with one of its closest allies would be dire.

[above emphasis mine] — Sounds like the author is saying is that the establishment, pro-immigration, pro-globalization, pro-EU folks would throw a fit and try to sabotage her at every turn if she were to win the election.  They would paint themselves as defenders of the innocent against “fascists.”  Sounds familiar.  Where have we seen that before?

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