Has Marine Le Pen Already Won the Battle for the Soul of France?
With unemployment barely budging from its rec ord 11 percent level and news of massive layoffs monopolizing the headlines, Marine Le Pen echoes the legitimate concerns of those who fear that France’s model of social redistribution is threatened by fierce international competition and stringent European rules. She also gives them a narrative to frame their experience of identity loss and downward social mobility. “It’s now nation versus globalization,” she told me. “Do we go on with mondialisme—the erasure of borders, complete economic deregulation, financial powers ruling the world—or do we consider that nations should have a say in it, and so we give them their rights back?” Her discourse of regained national sovereignty hits home: in a January survey issued by the Institute of Political Science’s Center for Political Research (Cevipof), 61 percent believed that globalization was a threat to France; 70 percent wanted to give greater power to national governments and less to the EU. A majority of workers stated, like Le Pen, that France should exit the euro—an unthinkable statistic only a few years ago.
For the first time since the so-called Identity, Tradition, Sovereignty group in the European Parliament imploded in 2007, after only a few months of existence, anti-European far-right parties may be able to coalesce into an official parliamentary group in Strasbourg, with all the political leverage that implies. In November 2013, leaders of the Netherlands’ PVV, Belgium’s Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest), Italy’s Northern League, Sweden’s Democrats and Austria’s Freedom Party convened with Marine Le Pen in Vienna to form the European Alliance for Freedom. Jean-Yves Camus is careful to qualify how dangerous or even effective such a coalition could be: “Putting nationalist parties from all around Europe in the same room has always ended in fiery fights between people who have many reasons to disagree on religious or ethnic issues, or on unsolved border disputes or on conflicting national memories.” Other analysts remark that such a coalition would gather, at best, 4 to 6.5 percent of the seats in the European Parliament—not enough to do real harm.
The municipal elections may also not be the tidal wave Le Pen has hoped for. For lack of credible candidates, the National Front is now expected to run in only 500 of the 36,000 towns and cities where elections will be taking place in March. In recent months, defectors have come out in the press and described nauseating racist comments heard in members-only meetings. As a result, Le Pen’s popularity may well have plateaued.
But the real measure of her success may be less in the polls than in people’s minds. On immigration and Islam, she has already won: according to the same Cevipof survey, 66 percent think there are too many “foreigners” in France (up from 49 percent in 2009), and 63 percent believe that Islam is not compatible with French society’s values. The topic has become such a land mine that challenging these views is political suicide: left or right, few have the courage to contest with hard facts the National Front’s narrative of immigrants stealing jobs and benefits, even though studies show that immigration as a whole brings in a net benefit of somewhere between 4 billion and 12 billion euros to the state’s annual budget. On other issues, too, public opinion is proving fertile ground for the National Front’s electoral efforts. Distrust in political institutions is rampant: only 8 percent trust political parties, 23 percent the media, 23 percent the Parliament. Like Le Pen, 85 percent think France is in decline. And with 78 percent of the people polled responding that democracy is not working well in France, democratic disenchantment is at its peak.
In fact, the mood in France has become quite toxic. Last fall, Minister of Justice Christiane Taubira, who is black, was compared to a monkey in demonstrations against gay marriage; on the cover of Minute, a far-right weekly; and on the Facebook page of a National Front candidate. Then came the Dieudonné scandal, and France discovered that anti-Semitic YouTube posts attract hundreds of thousands of viewers. On January 26, a Tea Party–flavored hodgepodge of anti-tax protesters, pro-life zealots, gay-bashers and Dieudonné fans marched in Paris in disturbing numbers, turning out by the thousands to chant slogans like “Jews out, France is not yours!” Which raises, again, the important question: Who has changed the most in recent years, the National Front or the French?
I asked Le Pen if she thought she had won on the ideological front. “Oh yes. We have achieved a great number of ideological victories,” she promptly replied. “The problem is, that’s not enough. We have to transform them into political victories.” With two rounds of elections in the coming months and a pernicious political climate, she might be able to do just that.