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Why Is Everyone So Certain About This Weekend’s French Election?

From the Tuesday edition of the Morning Jolt:

Why Is Everyone So Certain About This Weekend’s French Election?

Everyone I know who’s following the French election – smart people, who study and understand French politics way better than I do – tell me there’s no way that Marine Le Pen can win Sunday’s second and decisive round of voting. I’m told that the French are smart strategic voters. I’m told that her second-place finish was a protest vote, or letting off steam; I’m reminded that her father, Jean Marie Le Pen, made it to the second round in 2002 and won less than 18 percent of the vote.

But I keep hearing variations the same arguments I heard before the U.K. Brexit vote and the U.S. presidential election. “A Le Pen victory is unthinkable!” “There’s no way France would turn away from its future like this!” “To elect Le Pen is to turn our backs on modernity!” “The French have no choice but to vote for Emmanuel Macron!”

Well, maybe. But we saw how voters in the United Kingdom and United States responded when the political, cultural, and media elites declared there was only one socially-acceptable option in a big, consequential election. People hate being told that they don’t have a choice.

The French are not happy with the status quo. Incumbent president François Hollande was so unpopular he chose to not run for reelection; the nominee of his party, the Socialists, got less than 7 percent in a five-way race. Emmanuel Macron is technically an outsider and a new figure in French politics, a sort of center-left technocrat, but… he’s formerly a member of the Socialist party, an investment banker (with Rothschild & Cie Banque – think that name will stir the conspiracy theorists?) and served in a senior role on Hollande’s staff from 2012 to 2014.

A longtime political figure, generally supportive of globalization and welcomed by “the Davos crowd” with close ties to the incumbent administration and the country’s financial elites, running during a time of great dissatisfaction with the status quo? While the national media declares the main opponent racist, xenophobic, and a relic of the country’s ugly past?

Does anybody else feel like we just saw this movie?

Oh, hey, look, the French unions are divided and the Left is feeling unenthusiastic about their candidate. But Americans wouldn’t know anything about that!

The anti-Le Pen demonstrations have taken longer to materialise and they have been smaller and more fragmented. Politicians have not instantly and easily united against Marine Le Pen; instead, there has been hesitation and infighting.

Even on May Day, when “No to Le Pen” marches took place in major French cities, trade unions that had firmly united against Marine Le Pen’s father in 2002 were divided. Some felt the independent centrist frontrunner, Emmanuel Macron, was too economically liberal to support, placing him in the same pariah bracket as the anti-immigration Marine Le Pen.

Commentators on the left complained of a mood of lethargy and resignation, saying Marine Le Pen’s party no longer provoked massive anti-racism demonstrations and was simply being accepted as a permanent feature of the French political landscape.

None of this is really a defense of Le Pen; she’s awful, particularly from the perspective of American interests. She wants to take France out of NATO and create a “privileged partnership” with Russia. She wants to drastically limit legal immigration to France. She wants to subject non-French employees working in France to a special new tax. The U.S. currently exports $31 billion in goods and services to France; Le Pen is protectionist and would throw up trade barriers. She has no interest in shrinking the size of the government or its power in France.

This isn’t to say I think Le Pen is going to win. But I’m struck by how many people are declaring a certain outcome is “unthinkable.” If the past year has taught us anything, it’s that political decisions that seem “unthinkable” to a country’s elites seem pretty darn thinkable to those in the working class and squeezed middle class. At the very least, we probably should be prepared for Le Pen’s share of the vote to surpass the current low expectations.

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