The real winner of the first round of France’s crucially important presidential election was Marine Le Pen and her “far right” National Front Party. Of course, she came in third, which means that she’s eliminated from the runoff in two weeks. But now she’s the talk of all Europe, and can look forward to a potentially huge victory in the looming legislative elections.
Her victory raises some troubling questions about exactly who she is, what her party stands for, and where her support is coming from — and some of those questions should worry Americans as much as anyone.
Le Pen’s surprisingly strong showing (about 18.5 percent) put her within ten points of both Nicolas Sarkozy (the conservative sitting president, who came in at about 27 percent) and the Socialist candidate, François Hollande (who got about 28.5 percent). The runoff will be between Hollande and Sarkozy, but both have emerged somehow diminished, compared with Marine Le Pen.
One might think that National Front supporters will go mostly for Sarkozy. But recent polls put Hollande even farther ahead of Sarkozy in a one-on-one runoff, 54–46. There are several reasons for that.
First, Sarkozy is a Gingrich-like figure who has managed to alienate a lot of people in the middle, and whose approval rating is consistently in the 30s.
Second, the “far left” (i.e., Communist) coalition got battered and came in at only 11.5 percent; but its leader, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, immediately endorsed Hollande and practically begged his supporters to vote Socialist and do everything possible to defeat Sarkozy. So Hollande’s own vote plus the Communists gives him nearly enough to win the second round outright.
But the most interesting reason Sarkozy is in trouble now is that Le Pen has a very good reason to want him to lose. It’s increasingly clear that she aims to destroy Sarkozy in order to replace him as the leader of the right-wing in France. In that plan, a Sarkozy loss in the second round would be a stepping stone to a National Front victory in the legislative elections that will occur just weeks later. That in turn would be the critical stepping stone to an eventual Le Pen presidency.
The most troubling thing about Le Pen is that her definition of “right wing” is very different from yours, and goes far beyond anti-immigrant sentiment. A single sentence in her “victory” concession speech summed it all up. I’ll give the original first so readers who speak French don’t have to rely on my translation: “Face à un président sortant, à la tête d’un parti considérablement affaibli, nous sommes désormais la seule et véritable opposition à la gauche ultralibérale, laxiste et libertaire!” My translation: “Facing a president who has emerged at the head of a considerably weakened party, we are, from now on, the sole and true opposition to the ultraliberal, laissez-faire, and libertarian Left!”
Confused? You shouldn’t be. In France, the terms “ultraliberal,” “laissez-faire,” and “libertarian” are all associated with the philosophy of transnational free trade at the heart of the European Union — and particularly with its philosophy of free trade in labor, which is progressively eroding national identity across Europe. The National Front is a nationalist movement, as the name suggests; it is not merely anti-immigrant (in fact she didn’t even mention immigration or foreigners in her speech Sunday) but even more anti-Euro, anti-Europe, and protectionist. What Le Pen apparently hopes to do is to co-opt the protectionist tendency in the French labor movement, and push neoliberalism off on the left!
Whether that strategy will work remains to be seen. Clearly, the National Front’s strong showing owes a lot to the more moderate tone of Marine, compared with her father, Jean-Marie. But the party is not more moderate. If anything, it has become even more radical in sweep.
The National Front has been increasingly successful in blending tendencies of both the far right and the far left into a broad-based populist movement.
That suggests the kind of realignment that I’ve long feared might happen in the United States — the coalition of anti-immigrant nationalists of the Right with protectionist (and anti-immigrant) working class elements of the Left, pitted against the rent-seeking beneficiaries of the middle-class entitlement state and its anti-poverty programs.
Where would such a realignment leave the proponents of economic freedom — the essence of a free society? That question is now squarely facing France, and may be squarely facing us sooner than we think.
— Mario Loyola is director of the Center for Tenth Amendment Studies at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, and a former counsel for foreign and defense policy to the U.S. Senate Republican Policy Committee.