Before Donald Trump, before Nigel Farage and Brexit, before Viktor Orban and Geert Wilders, there was Jean-Marie Le Pen. As far back as 1984, this crude, bullying, narcissistic, and bigoted former paratrooper shocked French opinion when his far-right National Front party received nearly 11 percent of the vote in elections for the European Parliament.
Le Pen’s party—and his style of nationalist, right-wing populism—has grown steadily ever since, sending tremors of panic through the French political establishment at regular intervals. Its current leader—Le Pen’s daughter Marine—has overall led in the polls for the 2017 presidential election for several years. And while a Le Pen presidency still looks unlikely, given the long-standing tendency of French voters to unite against the National Front in the second round of the country’s two-part elections, it is not at all inconceivable.
If you want to understand the populist fury now crashing over the West, France provides a good place to start. Not only has the country had its own Trumps for a long time now, but the conditions under which Trumpism can flourish have been present in France for much longer than in much of the rest of Europe and the United States. There is a good case to be made, in fact, that France was the “patient zero” of the West’s current epidemic of populist fever.
Think of the conditions that helped propel Trump to the American presidency. Economic stagnation? Since the 1980s, the French economy has expanded at barely half the pace of America’s, and for all but a few brief moments over this long period, unemployment has remained stubbornly at over 8 percent. Resentment of entrenched ruling elites? A very high proportion of France’s political and business leadership graduates from a handful of small, ultra-elite grandes écoles, and is widely criticized as aloof and out of touch. Perceptions of national decline? In many ways, France has still not recovered, psychologically at least, from its loss of great-power status and its colonial empire. Loss of sovereignty? France has surrendered far more to the European Union than the United States has done to any combination of international organizations and multilateral trade pacts. Xenophobia and controversies over immigration? Already in the 1980s, the expansion of the French Muslim population was giving rise to alarmist headlines such as “La France islamique?” in the mainstream French press. Terrorism? Spectacular terrorist attacks traumatized Paris in the early 1980s and again in the 1990s, and again in our own moment.
Just as in the United States, but over a much longer period, these factors have come together to propel the career of both Le Pens— political outsiders who, like Trump, have exploited an ethno-nationalist politics that admires power above all else, makes its case through veiled and not-so-veiled appeals to racism, and has built a base among the aggrieved and resentful older members of the country’s white working class.