In case you’ve been confused by the last few days of punditry, let me say outright that France is not America.
We recently concluded a presidential election in the United States in which many argued that it was imperative to smash the “final glass ceiling” by electing a female president. One doesn’t hear that kind of talk in France about Marine Le Pen, who just came in second in a runoff election. If she wins the final round against Emmanuel Macron on May 7, she would be France’s first female president.
Why is there no “ready for Marine” rhetoric? Because Le Pen would also be the first “far-right” president. Identity politics has its limits.
And so does the term “far-right.”
Indeed, the terms “left” and “right” rank among the worst of France’s exports. Their inspiration wasn’t ideology, but a seating chart. Supporters of the monarchy sat on the right in the General Assembly while radicals, revolutionaries, republicans and other foes and critics of the Ancien Regime sat on the left. (In Britain, by contrast, members of Parliament switch sides according to whichever party is in power).
Le Pen rejects the ‘far right’ label, preferring a ‘third-way’ approach that has a long intellectual history among nationalists and fascists.
Thus champions of free markets and limited government were every bit as “leftist” as the Jacobin totalitarians who would usher in the Reign of Terror. To this day, a “liberal” in France is closer to what many call a “right-winger” in America, at least on economic issues.
As for what constitutes “far right,” that has come to be defined as a grab bag of bigotry, nativism and all the bad kinds of nationalism. Le Pen, the youngest daughter of the even more “far right” anti-Semitic politician, Jean-Marie Le Pen, until recently led the National Front party (FN), which was founded in 1972 by, among others, veterans of the Nazi-collaborationist Vichy government.
How far the apple fell from the tree is hotly debated, but what is clear is that Marine Le Pen is a smarter, more opportunistic and more inclusive politician. She even defenestrated her father from the FN in an effort to “un-demonize” the party.
One of the main reasons she has come so close to being the next president of France has been her ability to sap support from former strongholds of the French Communist Party in the North. This is less shocking than it may sound, once you account for the fact that the French Communist Party has its own history of racially tinged attacks on immigration. Nearly a third of FN voters said their second choice in the runoff was the doctrinaire socialist candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the French Bernie Sanders.
Le Pen rejects the “far right” label, preferring a “third-way” approach that has a long intellectual history among nationalists and fascists. She says that the symbiotic issues of immigration and globalization (specifically relating to the European Union) yielded a new politics that “no longer put the right and left in opposition, but patriots and globalists.” She has downplayed social issues, highlighting the fact that she’s a twice-divorced single mother who champions “women’s rights.” She’s vowed to leave abortion laws alone.
Her “economic patriotism” — a mélange of anti-immigration, protectionism, support for civil service protections and entitlements (at least for the native-born French) — is an updated variant of old-fashioned national-socialism.
In other words, those looking to cherry-pick easy comparisons to American politics have their work cut out for them.
Except in one regard.
For decades, critics of America’s mass immigration have argued that the social upheaval such policies produce are dangerous and destabilizing. But the topic became radioactive for reasonable politicians, creating an opening for unreasonable ones among the working-class constituencies most affected by immigration.
This is precisely what has happened in France. Interviews with Le Pen voters tell this story over and over again. They bemoan the great “replacement” of workers but also customs, traditions and lifestyles brought by waves of immigrants.
These resentments are perhaps more acute in France than elsewhere, a country where national identity precedes political and ideological orientations and assimilation is narrowly defined. But the same dynamic is playing itself out across Europe and America.
Le Pen will probably lose but the problem will endure long past May 7.