WITH France gearing up for the presidential election in April next year, there came a shock the other day in the pages of the bien-pensant French national daily newspaper Libération (known familiarly as Libé).
On the last weekend of February 2021, the paper – originally the organ of the Maoist Left – caused a fluttering of feathers among Left-wingers, and possibly a flutter in the heart of Marine Le Pen, leader of the Rassemblement National, the National Rally (formerly National Front) party, when it appeared to break with the three-decades-old orthodoxy that has dominated French elections: ‘Vote for anyone to stop Le Pen.’
Anticipating, as the polls already are, a run-off in 2022 between current president Emmanuel Macron and his rival of choice, Le Pen, Libé canvassed its readers on how they might vote next year, quoting one of them on the cover: ‘I’ve tried to stop them before. I’m done this time.’
The cover was significant because in 2002 the paper famously urged its readers on its front page to just say NON to the pro-colonial, anti-immigrant Jean-Marie Le Pen – Marine’s father – when he snuck into the run-offs against the incumbent Jacques Chirac, running then for a second term.
The Socialist candidate having been unexpectedly knocked out, Libé implied that the patriotic duty of every Leftie was to hold his nose and vote for a soft Right-winger against a neo-fascist. Chirac subsequently went on to win his second term by an historic landslide, taking 82 per cent of the vote.
The message ‘anyone but the extreme Right’ has become such a cliché of French politics that it has paralysed open discussion of any of the concerns the RN’s electorate might have by simply placing them beyond the pale.
To discuss Islamism, immigration or law-and-order is to ‘play the extreme Right’s game’, because, it is freely admitted, this is the territory on which they will always win. It speaks volumes of their opponents that they feel there is no alternative narrative they could present on any of these issues, preferring instead to sweep them under the carpet or simply criminalise certain opinions.
Those who like to brandish the neo-fascist bogeyman to help smother the debate and silence their opponents are particularly concerned now because Marine Le Pen has spent the last decade since she became party leader ‘detoxifying’ (she calls it ‘undemonising’ – dédiaboliser) the RN brand (the name-change from Front National to Rassemblement National was itself part of that process).
Regular appearances in the media have – in the eyes of her opponents, which is pretty much the whole non-Le Pen political class – had the result of ‘normalising’ her message. Or, to use the modern term, ‘shifting the Overton window to the Right’.
With Macron’s current, newly-discovered interest in sovereignty (a word beloved of Le Pen), even if he usually adds the word ‘European’ to it, and his legislative crackdown on ‘separatism’ (a codeword for ‘Islamism’ that is designed to avoid ‘stigmatising’ Muslims), he is widely viewed as trying to engineer a 2022 election between Le Pen and himself by offering an end-of-presidency RN-lite style approach.
His goal would be capturing some of those who might like the RN’s policies, but would need an industrial-size peg on their nose to vote for it.
The perceived risk is that people might like this approach and vote for its full-blooded version rather than some ersatz one in the form of Macron.
By playing the RN’s game, it is said, he is fanning the flames that could see France burn while Le Pen fiddles. A recent survey suggested that while Macron may have won by getting double Le Pen’s vote in 2017, the margin for 2022 could be Brexit-thin (48 per cent – 52 per cent) and therefore on a knife-edge.
While Le Pen’s opponents might be worrying that some of their supporters may not bother forming part of the ‘Popular Front’ against her next year, in the real world, years of attempting to demonise Le Pen or exclude her from the debate has simply made her message more audible.
When, from an average voter’s point of view, the whole opprobrium of the political élite is directed against them one day (the Yellow Vest movement being a recent example) and against Le Pen the next, it doesn’t take much to think: ‘They seem to hate her as much as they do us; she must be doing something right.’
Some commentators have mentioned the possibility of wildcards such as the fervently nationalist political commentator and writer Eric Zemmour, or the anti-racist TV presenter Cyril Hanouna, entering the fray as disruptive elements, stealing votes from Le Pen or Macron, and even making it to the Elysée.
While one should only expect the unexpected at the moment, the French, who are proud of their tradition of producing rebels who are also statesmen, might wish to send out a defiant message by giving the mainstream politicians a jolt (as they nearly did in 1981 when comedian Coluche was polling at 16 per cent of the popular vote before withdrawing). But they will generally favour someone who does not make them look like clowns on the international stage.
Zemmour, if he stands and does well but doesn’t make the run-offs, could actually provide the space for Le Pen, who has largely now acquired the respectability of a statesman, by emboldening sceptical voters to give her a shot at the crown.
Politically, in a France which is traditionally Catholic and conservative, there’s little about the RN to frighten the horses any more. Le Pen has defended abortion rights in public, in the teeth of the party’s traditional base, and has picked up a significant part of the gay vote.
Long gone is RN’s Thatcherite free-market capitalist economic programme (an approach now more closely linked in people’s minds with the ex-banker Macron), replaced by a big-state Keynesian industrial policy (now ironically also being favoured by a post-Covid Macron).
Opposition to membership of the EU and the euro has disappeared from the programme (mainly out of electoralism, it still being popular among the rank and file party members, but seen as too disruptive a change by most voters).
And it is undeniable that the anti-Islamist, immigration-unfriendly messaging doesn’t just go down well with Français de souche (‘home-grown’ French, a euphemism for ‘white’), but with a sizeable number of settled, second or third generation immigrants sick of being associated with, and having to live cheek-by-jowl with, Islamist troublemakers.
In the end, would it matter if Le Pen made it to the Elysée? Honestly, not that much from a day-to-day policy point of view. Law and order would get a bigger priority. French jobs for French people would be the programme. Securing the borders against threats would hog the headlines.
What would almost without any doubt happen, though, is that the counter-revolution would begin from day one. Le Pen Derangement Syndrome would go from being a political strategy to keep her out of power into a full-scale attempt to kick her out early.
Fear of the riotous consequences might be enough to keep the average voter from taking a punt on her next year. But for the hard done-by and the forgotten of France, for whom a casual disdain for them, their patriotism and the rule of law is a daily experience, I can certainly imagine them thinking: ‘Well, it can’t be any worse than this, can it?’