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.