French Lessons
What the parliamentary elections, and Le Pen’s success, demonstrate.

Marine Le Pen at Place de l’Opéra in Paris


John O’Sullivan

The French center-right will be passive spectators at this Götterdämmerung for some time. Nicolas Sarkozy was a failure as president, leading his party down a series of ideological alleyways. He began as a pro-American market reformer; he ended as a global salesman for market interference, proclaiming that “the state is back.” In his failure, he was a domineering leader, and such figures rarely leave strong lieutenants in their wake. At present, his party, the UMP, is both leaderless and directionless. While it settles on a new leader and a new philosophy, it is likely to take the cautious course of objecting to whatever Hollande does, but doing so within the established doctrines of France’s Euro-establishment.

As I argued on the morrow of Sarkozy’s defeat, such a situation — a French Socialist government heading for economic trouble, an overly cautious and conventional opposition, a looming crisis over the euro — is tailor-made for Marine Le Pen. She performed unexpectedly well in yesterday’s election, getting 42 percent of the vote in a district in northern France, while her party scored 14 percent nationally. Because of the vagaries of the French electoral system, the National Front is expected to win only three seats in the National Assembly — and she may not be one of them. Other parties must hope so. Almost the best result for the National Front would be for its leader to be its sole parliamentary representative. She could then hardly fail to look like Marianne defending France’s interests and honor against a cross-party establishment wedded to European illusions and global interests. Even without that theatrical addition, Le Pen and her party cannot fail to benefit from the developing Franco-European crisis.  

That would be a thoroughly bad thing. Le Pen is no conservative. She is a shrewd and gifted leader of a radical nationalist and populist party drawing on anti-market strains of both left and right for a policy of “étatisme in one nation.” A National Front government, if one were really conceivable, would aggravate almost all the bad tendencies in the French political tradition. Economically, it would unite domestic over-regulation with high levels of protectionism. Socially, it would maintain or increase the already-generous social benefits and intrusive labor-market interventions that keep unemployment high and the economy stagnant. In foreign policy, it is at least questionable how far it would go in reversing the commitment to the European Union that has been the basis of France’s attempt to remain a world power since the mid-Fifties. And, to put it no more strongly, such a government would have to be watched closely to ensure that its policy of being tough on immigration did not morph gradually into one of being tough on immigrants.

What can be said in Le Pen’s favor is very simple: She is a warning to mainstream conservative parties everywhere not to neglect patriotic and traditionalist voters on a wide range of issues — but especially on protecting their national identity, their patriotic values, and their democratic sovereignty. Conservative leaders who ignore this lesson will end up looking like unemployed corporate lawyers in a bad year for the economy. Such leaders and such parties win only by default when their opponents self-destruct. Marine Le Pen seems unlikely to be so obliging. Even François Hollande, like Mitterrand before him, may prove adept at abandoning socialist principle if it looks like being personally inconvenient. We can only hope.

— John O’Sullivan is editor-at-large of National Review.