Op-Ed: Turns out the French election is a lot like ‘Lord of the Rings’


“The board is set, the pieces are moving. We come to it at last, the great battle of our time.” As “Lord of the Rings” fans should know, Ian McKellen’s Gandalf says these lines to Billy Boyd’s Pippin as, standing on a terrace at Gondor, they gaze in horror at the storm clouds massing over Mordor. With the fate of Middle Earth hanging in the balance, the forces of light and darkness prepare for their epic clash.

Standing on a terrace in Paris, French voters might well be muttering the same words — in French, of course — as they prepare for next week’s presidential election between the moderate Emmanuel Macron and the ethno-nationalist Marine Le Pen. In fact it seems to me that J.R.R. Tolkien’s masterpiece serves as a guide to current events in France.

Tolkien’s epic, inspired by World War II, traces the journey of the hobbit Frodo Baggins to destroy the One Ring in the fires of Mordor. As he stumbles toward his goal, and Middle Earth’s salvation, coalitions form, or fail to form, in his wake. There is, for example, the decision by the wizard Saruman, once dedicated to preserving the order of the world, to collaborate with Sauron the Abhorred, master of Mordor.


A similar betrayal stunned France on April 28. Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, the leader of Arise France — a hard-right party that won nearly 5% in the first round of voting — appeared with Le Pen to announce that they were uniting their forces. Should she win, Le Pen vowed, Dupont-Aignan would become her prime minister.

Just as the future of Middle Earth was thrust into the hands of an untested youth with a weakness for older blonds, this now is also the case for France.

Though Dupont-Aignan doesn’t campaign in a flowing beard and gown, he has long flaunted something equally dramatic: the political and moral standard of Gaullism. Dupont-Aignan has always described himself as a Gaullist — namely, someone committed to reestablishing France’s role as a powerful and sovereign nation. This, in turn, has made him skeptical of transatlantic or European alliances and hostile to the EU’s monetary union — just like Le Pen. And yet he scorned her party, the National Front. Just a few months ago, he declared that “a republican Gaullist has nothing in common with the National Front. Period.”

That was then. At the recent news conference, Dupont-Aignan declared that he was sacrificing personal interests for the superior interest of the nation. Skeptical observers were as unimpressed by this claim as, say, the Ents were by Saruman’s landscaping ideas for Fanghorn Forest. Not only did Le Pen promise Dupont-Aignan the keys to the Matignon — the prime minister’s official residence — but also a check to cover the debts he had run up during his presidential campaign. Thus for the first time in the nation’s history, a mainstream political party has struck an alliance with Le Pen the Abhorred.

Once an Axis of Evil forms, everyone else must choose sides — or be condemned by history for failing to do so. Take Denethor, the Steward of Gondor, who refuses to commit himself even as Sauron’s forces breach the city walls. Or Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the Steward of Revolutionary Purity, a.k.a. the leader of the hard-left party Defiant France. Having failed to reach the election’s second round, he has not called on his followers to join, well, the Rohirrim — the republican front forming against Le Pen — by voting for Macron.


Macron is our French Frodo. Just as the future of Middle Earth was thrust into the hands of an untested and provincial youth with a weakness for older blonds, this now is also the case for France. There are, of course, important differences. Frodo goes about barefoot, while Macron, one imagines, wears shoes to bed. More important, Frodo never sought his task, while Macron has run toward it with the swiftness of one of Legolas’ arrows.

Granted, many of Le Pen’s followers have strictly nothing in common with Sauron’s chthonic creatures. They are, instead, the assembly line and skilled workers whose lives have been overturned by the forces of globalization. Yet a President Le Pen will forget them as quickly as President Trump has forgotten his own base. Moreover, the National Front continues to harbor subterranean and sordid elements, including neo-Nazis and Holocaust revisionists in senior positions.

At the end of the trilogy, Frodo succeeds in his task and Mordor is destroyed. Here lies both the greatest difference and greatest similarity. The forces that have lifted the National Front to the threshold of power will not, like Mordor, disappear after next week’s election; if anything, they will strengthen and remobilize for the next election in 2022. But given the expectations of the French people, the weight on Macron’s shoulders, should he win as expected, will be as great as that on Frodo.

Robert Zaretsky teaches at the University of Houston and is finishing a book on Catherine the Great and the French Enlightenment

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