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News Analysis: The far right lost in France’s election. It also won

Supporters of French far-right leader Marine Le Pen gathering on stage
Supporters of far-right leader Marine Le Pen gather on stage after the early official results of the French presidential election runoff in Paris.
(Francois Mori / Associated Press)
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The far right has gone mainstream in France.

That’s the headline from the landmark showing by Marine Le Pen in the French presidential election. The fierce nationalist didn’t win Sunday. But she edged another step closer — snatching a victory of sorts from her defeat to reelected President Emmanuel Macron.

With 41.5% of the vote, unprecedented for her, Le Pen’s anti-foreigner, anti-establishment politics of disgruntlement are now more entrenched than ever in the psyche and political landscape of France.

Since the Le Pen dynasty first started contesting presidential elections in 1974 — beginning with Marine’s father, Jean-Marie — never have so many French voters bought into the doctrine that multicultural and multiracial France, a country with the words “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” inscribed on its public buildings, would be richer, safer and somehow more French if it was less open to foreigners and the outside world.

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Marine Le Pen waves and makes a rueful face.
Far-right leader Marine Le Pen speaks after the early result projections of the French presidential election runoff were announced in Paris.
(Francois Mori / Associated Press)

Had she become France’s first female president, her plan for fighting Islamic terrorism would have included stripping part of France’s population — women who are Muslims — of some of their liberty. She wanted to ban them from wearing headscarves in public, which would seem hardly equal or fraternal. Same goes for her proposals to move French citizens to the front of lines for jobs, benefits and housing.

For headscarf-wearing voter Yasmina Aksas, Le Pen’s defeat wasn’t a celebration moment — not with such strong backing for her and ideas that “used to be limited to militant far-right groups” becoming increasingly acceptable in polite company.

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“It’s still 40% of people voting for Le Pen,” the 19-year-old law student said. “It’s not a victory.”

Internationally, Le Pen wanted to start diluting France’s relationships with the European Union, NATO and neighbor Germany — moves that would have been seismic for the architecture of peace in Europe, in the midst of Russia’s war in Ukraine.

In short, France escaped a political, social and economic electroshock by not voting in Le Pen.

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Or perhaps just delayed one, should she choose to stand again in 2027. That’s a long way off. Much could change. But Le Pen isn’t done yet.

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“In this defeat, I can’t help but feel a form of hope,” she said. “I will never abandon the French.”

Surpassing 40% of the vote elevates Le Pen into illustrious, mainstream company. Since Gen. Charles de Gaulle beat Francois Mitterrand by 55% to 45% in 1965, all defeated finalists have lost 40-something to 50-something, with two exceptions — both named Le Pen.

Jean-Marie was trounced 82% to 18% by Jacques Chirac in 2002 and Marine lost 66% to 34% to Macron in 2017.

Voters used to regard it as their civic duty to keep the Le Pens’ score low, seeing a ballot against them as a blow against racism and xenophobia. Fewer think that way now.

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A victory by Emmanuel Macron in Sunday’s runoff would make him the first French president in 20 years to win a second term.

April 23, 2022

By championing cost-of-living issues, befriending the working class, changing her party’s name and distancing herself from her father, Le Pen broadened her appeal and made herself less scary to growing swaths of France’s electorate. Immigration isn’t the top concern for all her supporters. They’re not all wary of the EU, Muslims and foreigners. But Le Pen does speak to many who feel unheard and uncared for by officials in Paris and Brussels.

And so although Macron became the first French president in 20 years to win a second term, he also has failed: failed to achieve the goal that he set for himself at the outset of his presidency.

Five years ago, in his triumphant victory speech, Macron pledged to cut the ground from under Le Pen’s feet by assuaging the voter anger she feeds on.

“I will do everything in the five years to come so there is no more reason to vote for the extremes,” he said.

Yet France’s extremes are now doing better than ever, finding growing, enthusiastic and completely unabashed audiences for “us against them” far-right rhetoric.

In far-right speak, “us” are largely white and Christian people being submerged by migration, impoverished by globalization, terrorized by Islamic fundamentalists and losing their French identity to imported cultures, religions and values.

“Them” are all those they blame: the elites, foreigners, financiers, the EU, Muslims, “the system.” Their list is long.

The market for their politics has become so large that this election saw several strains of extremism to choose from.

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Rabble-rousing former TV pundit Eric Zemmour, who has been repeatedly convicted of hate speech, placed fourth out of the 12 candidates in the first round of voting on April 10. He makes racial arguments that white French people risk being replaced by non-European immigrants and their children. He sugarcoated France’s collaboration with its Nazi occupiers in World War II. During his campaign, he filled auditoriums with audiences supportive of his anti-Islam, anti-immigration invective.

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For Le Pen, he also had the advantage of making her look vanilla and electable in comparison, which also partly explains why she did so well. Together, the far right won 32% of the first-round vote.

Now Le Pen has taken another step forward against Macron, despite losing to him again in the runoff.

It wasn’t enough to get into power. But she came closer than ever.

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