Three-quarters of 1 percent: that was the vote tally that Jean-Marie Le Pen managed to eke out the first time he ran for the presidency of France in the early 1970s. In the late hours of election night, May 5, 1974, the 45-year-old leader of the far-right National Front downplayed the disappointing results with his usual bravado. Sporting a gangster-like eye patch and a plaid tie (legend has it that he lost his left eye in a political brawl), his black suit bursting at the seams around his massive frame, the former paratrooper boasted: “This political campaign gave us the occasion to rise from oblivion, to get our name out, as well as our ideas, those of the social, popular and national right we represent.”
More than four decades later, Jean-Marie’s daughter, Marine Le Pen, president of the National Front since 2011, has led in the polls for France’s upcoming presidential election for two straight years, and she’s projected to win up to 28 percent in the first round of voting on April 23. Meanwhile, even as Marine serenely cruises along enjoying these stratospheric figures, her rival candidates ride up and down the roller coaster of public opinion, rocked by breaking scandals, sudden betrayals, and the planned obsolescence of media coverage.
The predictions for the crucial second round of voting on May 7, when a face-off between the first round’s two leading candidates will decide the fate of France, are less favorable to Le Pen. But after Brexit, Donald Trump’s surprise victory, and even the French primaries—in which two underdog candidates, François Fillon and Benoît Hamon, won the nominations for the Republican and Socialist parties, respectively—all bets are officially off.
From fringe party to first party of France, the story of the National Front looks like the chronicle of an irresistible rise. Climbing from 0.74 percent in the national election of 1974 to over 28 percent in the regional elections of December 2015, the political machine that Jean-Marie Le Pen set in motion more than 40 years ago has proved remarkably successful. National Front leaders have fashioned a self-serving narrative that presents their ascent as manifest destiny. For a long time, they say, Le Pen père was “right too soon” about the nefarious effects of globalization, “mass immigration,” and the European Union’s “totalitarianism.” Now, this story goes, the French are facing a perfect storm brought about by an explosion of Islamic terrorism, the social impact of 40 years of massive unemployment, and the pauperization of whole regions of the country, decimated by a regime of cutthroat global capitalism. As a result, the French are finally seeing “the truth” and rallying to the National Front’s worldview. “We have won a number of ideological victories,” Marine Le Pen asserted when I first interviewed her in October 2012. “Or rather, at some point it becomes impossible to ignore reality, and we at the National Front have had the courage to tell things as they are.” Her father was very much on the same wavelength: “The real dédiabolisation [mainstreaming] of the party is coming from a rapid evolution of public opinion in the face of a paroxysmal crisis,” he told me a few months later. “The people do not like to be told the truth too early,” he added with a touch of bitterness.
But 2017 is a good time to be a harbinger of the apocalypse: Some 240 citizens have died in terrorist attacks in the country since 2015, the highest number since the Algerian War. During that same period, prime-time television has shown lines of destitute migrants in Europe marching through fields, forests, snow, and mud, and makeshift boats packed to the brim with desperate families. Such images were once merely the rhetorical flourishes of fearmongers who warned of an “invasion” of Europe by legions of foreigners. If you add to this the country’s soaring income-inequality problem, the frustration with a European Union bent on austerity measures, the bloody confrontations between police and young people or union members during the many demonstrations in the last two years, and an unemployment rate stubbornly stuck around 10 percent, then the National Front’s incendiary rhetoric might just ignite the fires of electoral rebellion this time around.
In the eyes of the party’s sympathizers, recent history validates its long-held doomsday narrative of an imminent clash of civilizations between Western Christian nations and Muslim conquerors, a clash compounded by democratic and economic paralysis. What Marine Le Pen says she offers is a way out of this deadly scenario: an exit from the European Union, a return to a closed-off, recognizable country, and, if possible, separation from a globalization regime that is seen as a threat by 60 percent of the French, according to a May 2016 survey.
Over the past 40 years, French voters have feared that a National Front presidency would bring even more chaos than had befallen the country thus far. Yet since the Brexit vote and Trump’s election, Le Pen and her circle can point to precedents that make her victory sound not only plausible, but also like part of a larger wave. At a rally in Lyon on February 5, Le Pen proclaimed that “the wind of history has turned…. I believe in our victory,” she told the crowd of roaring supporters. “Other people have led the way. The British people, who chose freedom with Brexit…. The Italians, who disapproved of the constitutional referendum proposed by Matteo Renzi. The Austrian people, who have wiped out the old parties in the  presidential elections. The American people, who voted in favor of their national interest.” This long list of “awakening nations” led to a simple conclusion: In France too, “the impossible can become possible.”
Yet a victory in may is still very far from certain. To date, pollsters have consistently predicted that Le Pen will lose the second round of voting under every conceivable scenario. In fact, if any lesson can be drawn from the last few election cycles, it’s that the National Front has managed to lead consistently in the first round only to go down to defeat in the second, when the face-off between the top two candidates becomes a referendum for or against the far right. On December 6, 2015, Le Pen scored an impressive 40.6 percent in the first round of the regional elections in Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie. A week later, she hit the wall of the “republican front,” a coalition uniting all of her political opponents against her in the runoff. Le Pen may be breaking records each time, but so too are the voters who rally in ever-stronger numbers to keep her from power.
Joël Gombin, a political scientist who for years has been mapping the polling results county by county at the Jean-Jaurès Foundation’s Observatory of Radical Politics, acknowledges that “Le Pen could possibly reach 30 percent of the votes in the first round” of this year’s race. But, he continues, “the obstacle of the second round remains insurmountable, for lack of any political alliance or transfer of votes from other parties.”
For many, this is why the analogy with Brexit or Trump’s win is flawed. In a two-round election like those in France, the argument goes, voters can literally think twice about their choice: There’s no morning-after hangover as happened with Brexit, and no popular vote at odds with the final election results. This key difference speaks to the wisdom of having a robust system of political safeguards in place to shield a democracy from the depredations of populist counterfeits.
But the two-round system can also create the illusion that France will always be immunized against nationalist fevers like the current one. French politicians have been basking in a comfortable fantasy, sheltered by the system from the rebellion of the masses, and so they’ve done little to address the root causes of the National Front’s rise. This constant repetition of the same old tired politics fuels the frustration of those who have had enough and feel unheard, ostracized, and underrepresented by the system. The result is like a pressure cooker in which the steam has been steadily building—and when it finally explodes, the results will not be pretty.
Although the experts are skeptical that such an explosion will happen in this election, they nevertheless remain cautious: No other presidential race in memory has been as volatile, and, from the beginning, almost every single prediction has proved wrong. Former president Nicolas Sarkozy failed miserably in the primaries; so did Alain Juppé, an early favorite who was seen for months as the future president of France. Then the incumbent president, François Hollande, threw in the towel—a first in the history of the Fifth Republic.
In the meantime, Emmanuel Macron—a brash 39-year-old newcomer who has never run for office before—entered the race backed only by a solid dose of chutzpah, a shrewd sense of the vacuum in the political center, and an abundance of social-media know-how. With his Internet-based community En Marche! (“Forward!”), Macron appears intent on signing the death warrant for the old political order, even though he served as deputy chief of staff to Hollande, eventually became his economics minister, and had previously worked as an investment banker at Rothschild—a pedigree that puts him right in the middle of the decision centers where most of the failed policies of the last few years have been implemented. Yet he has managed to brand himself as an “anti-system” candidate, capitalizing on the rampant disgust with career politicians in France. Macron is certainly disrupting business as usual: For months, commentators dismissed him as a media-blown “bubble”; now, he is the only one to rival Le Pen in the polls.
Another complicating factor in this election is the degree of uncertainty that exists in many French voters. A mere seven weeks before the first round of voting, a third said they were still undecided, according to a March 5 survey of more than 15,000 voters by the Center for Political Research at Sciences Po in Paris. In the same study, 47 percent of those who had made a choice said they could still switch to a different candidate come Election Day. But this degree of uncertainty isn’t divided equally among the candidates. Le Pen has the most solid base of support, with 76 percent of her likely voters absolutely certain of their choice. For Macron, that number is only 42 percent; 58 percent of his likely voters admit that they could still change their minds.
Another variable that has analysts worried is turnout. While the average abstention rate in French presidential elections is usually around 22 percent, in the same study, a third of voters declared that they would probably stay home on April 23. Here again, the National Front’s supporters are more determined to take history into their own hands: 83 percent said they were certain to go to the polls, compared with 68 percent on average. In this sea of uncertainty, Le Pen is the only one to stand on a rock of stability.
And yet 58 percent of the French continue to think that the National Front “represents a danger for democracy”—an increase of 11 points since 2013, according to a survey by Kantar Sofres–OnePoint in February. This is despite Le Pen’s efforts to clean up the party’s image and her posturing as a champion of republican values. Even her polling numbers should be taken with a grain of salt: Although as many as 28 percent of voters say they’ll vote for Le Pen in the first round, only 19 percent actually want her to win, compared with 75 percent who don’t. Today, as in previous elections, a first-round Le Pen vote doesn’t necessarily mean that you embrace the National Front’s agenda or hope to see it win power. Protest votes continue to account for a significant portion of the party’s electoral results.
Le Pen is even losing support on the two proposals central to her platform: Only 22 percent of the voters polled are in favor of leaving the eurozone and returning to the franc—down 12 points from 2011—and less than a quarter (21 percent) are in favor of the Front’s signature issue, “national preference,” which would discriminate against foreigners to give jobs preferentially to French citizens. The latter number represents a 24-point drop since 1991, when the measure was first proposed. Here, history tells a different tale than the fable of continuous “ideological victories” by the far right.
Even so, the Front’s alarming ascent from an obscure extremist coalition to a populist party contending for the French presidency owes as much to the failure of the country’s mainstream politicians as it does to the popularity of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s ideas. Apart from having been shat on by pigeons in the most massively attended demonstration in French history, President Hollande will probably be remembered as Mr. “Reversal of the Graph.” In July 2014, he pinned the future of his presidency on his ability to “reverse the graph of unemployment”—a mathematically and psychologically aberrant phrase that may have cost him the chance to run for reelection. If unemployment started to go down consistently, Hollande explained, he would feel that he had earned the right to campaign for a second term. But people are not automatically comforted by the sight of abstract economic indicators turning incrementally from red to green. They couldn’t care less that, on paper, the French unemployment rate has been dropping by one or two decimals of a percentage point. They want jobs, for themselves and their kids (24 percent of the country’s 18-to-24-year-olds are unemployed), as well as food on the table and wages decent enough to pay the bills. Perhaps even more important, they ask for respect, dignity, and the recognition that they matter.
Hollande never talked about the French people to the French people—only about France and his “reversal of the graph.” On the condition of anonymity, a presidential counselor laments: “We have confused the governance of things (public policies) with the government of the souls and human passions (which is the primary material of politics), that is, the human need to belong to a whole that transcends us, to know where we are going collectively.” People seek a place in society and in the national narrative—and the National Front has offered them plenty of the latter.
For her part, Marine Le Pen prizes disillusioned voters for who they are (French) rather than what they have (not much). The working class has been solidly voting National Front for the last three decades: Among the working-class voters who intend to turn out this year (42 percent anticipate staying home), nearly half— 44 percent—lean toward the Front. Even young people in France—especially the less skilled, those with no bright future ahead of them—are siding with Le Pen. What she promises is as much moral as economic security: a sense of belonging and a new narrative in which the forgotten “losers of globalization” can take their revenge on history. With her, the underprivileged trade a lack of economic status and social footing for symbolic, even “ethnic” capital. Resentment and identity politics are what give Le Pen her edge, not her economic platform of “smart protectionism.”
“Attacking her on her agenda is bullshit,” fumes a political counselor from Hollande’s cabinet. “People immediately retaliate: ‘What credibility do the failing elites have to give lessons on what does or does not work?’” Overthrowing the political establishment is proving to be a strong motivation in this year’s election, perhaps even more powerful than throwing out immigrants.
Within the National Front, party officials are counting on this fact. Louis Aliot, who joined in 1990 and once served as Jean-Marie Le Pen’s chief of staff, is now the Front’s vice president and the companion of Marine Le Pen. Early in March, he bluntly described the mood on the ground to me: “People are already living with terrorism, unemployment, lack of security… they think it won’t be worse with us. ‘We have tried everything! Why not you?’ they say.” Rather than sing a tale of “ideological victories,” Aliot was pointing to a rather nihilistic moment in the country’s history: “The French don’t believe in anything and anyone anymore, except for a certain toleration for those who have not been in power yet. A kind of resignation and fatalism prevails—with, curiously, the hope that the end of the tunnel will come with a complete shake-up. People are starting to really want to topple the system.”
As of this writing, Le Pen remains unlikely to win the second round, even against such a discredited figure as the conservative candidate François Fillon, who is trying to extricate himself from a string of corruption scandals that saw him formally charged with embezzlement on March 14. But the margins are incredibly tight compared with the 2002 presidential race, when Jean-Marie Le Pen stunned the nation by coming in second in the first round. He eventually lost soundly, with only 18 percent of the vote, to the incumbent president, Jacques Chirac, who received 82 percent in the runoff—a landslide victory that reassured the French about their democratic instincts. Today, with a mere eight-point difference separating Fillon and Marine Le Pen in some polls, her defeat would constitute a near miss—and a somber warning—rather than an outright rejection.
This year may not be Le Pen’s moment—but if she loses, it will only turn up the pressure one more notch. And if nothing is done to truly address the economic malaise and the social and moral depression that are eating up France from the inside, the next time could very well be hers.