The first round of voting in France’s presidential election is over, and pre-election polls seem to have predicted the correct outcome. As of this writing, exit polls show Emmanuel Macron won 23.7 percent of the vote, while Marine Le Pen received 21.7 percent. The two candidates will now go head-to-head in a May 7 runoff. This does not mean Le Pen will be elected president, as polls show her at a substantial disadvantage to Macron in the runoff. It also does not mean that Le Pen will be able to enact any of her policies should she be elected unless a sea change occurs in June’s legislative elections. Le Pen getting this far is not unprecedented – her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, got this far in 2002 before losing in a landslide to Jacques Chirac in the second round.
Even so, Marine Le Pen is not her father, and the stakes in 2017 are much higher than they were in 2002. The polls were right for the first round, but that does not guarantee they will be right in the second. This is partly because Macron is a political neophyte – no one knows quite what he stands for. Meanwhile, Le Pen has worked hard to purge the party of her father’s legacy, which included denying the Holocaust and other offensive positions. The memory of such things does not fade quickly, but Le Pen has made considerable progress in normalizing the National Front in French politics. The National Front is the rare populist-nationalist party that has softened its positions before getting voted into office. Le Pen has put herself in a position to contend for the French presidency, so it is necessary to think about what that means and whether it is important.
This is more difficult to do than it sounds because the media’s narrative about Le Pen’s rise has been hysterical. The next two weeks will feature more of the same: articles decrying the potential end of Western civilization, the rise of fascism, and the potential unleashing of the horrors of Europe’s past across the Continent once more. Many who never much cared about France will spontaneously generate opinions about how the West’s hopes now rest on Macron’s shoulders. If Le Pen wins, it will be the French Devolution. If she loses, complacency will set in, and Macron the empty suit will take up residence at the Palais de l’Élysée. He will continue status quo policies that in five years will bring us right back to where we started – or perhaps worse.
The key questions no one is asking are: Why did Le Pen oversee the expulsion of her father from the National Front, and why has she worked so hard to exorcise the party’s most radical positions? Stated differently, does Le Pen control her constituents, or do her constituents control her? The answer to this question is important because it is the difference between the National Front being a reanimation of the worst of 20th century European history and a 21st century political party attempting to respond to economic, political and security challenges while still operating within the framework of liberal democratic norms. If the masses control Le Pen, we’re back in the 20th century. If Le Pen controls the masses, we’re still in our own century.
The horrors of Hitler’s Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union boggle the mind, and ascribing either of those atrocities to a single man makes them easier to process. If we can process tyranny as that of an evil and unhinged individual, then society escapes blame. But as is often the case in geopolitics, the individual is less important than he seems. The totalitarian rulers who rose in 20th century Europe depended on the masses as much as the masses depended on them. A totalitarian movement relies on the breakdown of all prior social ties. Unflinching loyalty to a mystical regurgitation of “the nation” becomes paramount. Europe is not afraid of a right-wing, populist and nationalist politician. Europe is afraid that the masses will become so disillusioned that not even Le Pen will satisfy them. Whether Le Pen is leading her constituents or they are leading her may seem like an abstract question, but it is of the highest practical importance in determining if this is politics as usual or the beginning of something more sinister.
Le Pen represents two major constituencies in France. The first is her fathers’ supporters, who had no problem with his denial of the Holocaust and are displeased that she would moderate the National Front’s platform. There is a tendency to think of France as liberalism’s vanguard and the birthplace of “liberté, égalité, fraternité.” But the French Revolution was followed by the “Reign of Terror” and Napoleon’s empire. The Dreyfus Affair in the 1890s and the anti-Semitism it shone a light on was so virulent that it drove a secular and assimilated Jew named Theodor Herzl to the conclusion that Jews would never be accepted as equal members in the new European nation-states. Free France fought the Nazis, but Vichy France was a government of collaborators. Beneath and between the French republics are dangerous ideological currents that failed to come to power in the 20th century but are no less real for not having achieved their ultimate goals.
The second major constituency Le Pen has come to represent has nothing to do with this kind of thinking and is offended by it. This constituency has two key concerns: the economy and Muslim immigration, in that order. The latest unemployment figures in France stand at 10 percent. Those rates are worse in the south and as high as 25 percent for people under 24. GDP growth is stagnant. Debt is almost 100 percent of GDP. Southern France has always been the National Front’s bastion of support, but parts of the northeast are now backing the party, too. This region historically has been one of the main centers of French industrial production. Workers are losing jobs in this part of France, while across the border in Germany, unemployment is at an all-time low. Successive mainstream political leaders from across the spectrum have failed to improve the French economy despite numerous promises. Le Pen says that the issue is the European Union and that she has a plan. Many are fed up enough to see if she can deliver.
The second issue for these voters is immigration, and by extension, radical Islam. Three days before the election, on April 20, a shooting happened on the Champs-Élysées that was claimed by the Islamic State. Paris and Nice suffered horrific terrorist attacks perpetrated by radical Islamists in 2015 and 2016, respectively. Le Pen’s platform addresses this in two ways. First, she wants to strengthen the rule of law. She plans to do this by hiring more police, building more jails, and shutting down mosques with ties to radical Islam. Second, she wants to crack down on illegal immigration. This means curbing asylum requests and introducing more stringent naturalization requirements. Le Pen also plans to limit legal migration to 10,000 people per year. One may disagree with Le Pen’s approach, but not with the fact that a problem exists and previous French governments have failed to address it.
Le Pen has earned the media’s ire for her desire to take France out of the EU and to protect not just the country but also what it means to be French. But Le Pen, at least in what she has said and done so far, is not her father, and the sins of the father should not be needlessly visited upon the child. What Le Pen is saying is not unreasonable. She is responding to a contradiction that is embedded in the core of both France and the entire liberal democratic project. It is a contradiction that most of the European political class has felt content to ignore, even as the European economy has been crippled and countries have become targets of radical Islamist terrorism.
Article 1 of the Declaration of the Rights of Man says, “Men are born and remain free and equal in rights.” Article 3 says, “The principle of all sovereignty resides essentially in the nation.” This is a contradiction. Article 1 is universalist; it does not say “French men are born and remain free and equal in rights.” It says all individuals enjoy these unalienable rights. But on the same page, Article 3 becomes pragmatic, attempting to ensure these rights are protected. Without enforcement, rights are abstractions. The individual may have rights, but we do not live in a world of individuals. We live in a world of political communities. The French nation is Le Pen’s political community, and her policy is to defend it. For her detractors, Le Pen’s great crime is that she does not consider it France’s responsibility to ensure the unalienable rights of all men. For her supporters, she is the defender of the unalienable rights of French men, and to ask France to do more is to ask the impossible.
Europe has been struggling with this issue for over a century. It fought World War I and World War II over this problem and still could not find a solution. After World War I, new nation-states emerged, but so did millions of stateless people who had no nation-state because of the way borders were drawn or because of overall diversity. This had tragic results. The end of World War II brought international institutions that promised to secure peace and to stand up for the rights of individuals and for nation-states. Those institutions have failed to secure peace and to stand up for the rights of individuals because they have no way to defend or enforce those rights. The civil war in Syria, the genocides in Bosnia and Rwanda, Russia’s invasion of Georgia and the frozen conflict in Ukraine are all examples of what happens to individuals without nation-states strong enough to defend their own. Couple this with the European Union’s inability to respond to the 2008 financial crisis and the economic problems affecting not just France but also the entire European continent, and you arrive at the current level of political disenchantment throughout much of Europe.
That disenchantment is spreading. Scotland and Catalonia say they will hold independence referendums. Two regions in northern Italy, Lombardy and Veneto, said on April 21 they will hold autonomy referendums. The Balkans are still not settled, and even in Germany, there are whispers that perhaps Bavaria would be better off going it alone. These are all symptoms of this basic contradiction at the heart of the liberal democratic order. All men have rights, but the nation is the protector of those rights. Without a nation, you can insist on rights until you are blue in the face, but no one will respect them. Le Pen sees this problem and says that France has let the strength of its nation atrophy to the point where it cannot control its economy and its security.
This is the source of her popularity in France and the reason the National Front has succeeded in growing beyond the narrow and radical base of her father. Le Pen may end up losing the election. But the issues to which she speaks will not disappear, and at some point, either she, or someone like her, will come to power. The question, then, will not be whether Le Pen or whoever succeeds her is a neo-fascist demagogue. The question will be whether France’s government can succeed where those before have failed by creating a sense that it is responding to the economic and social problems that have brought the country to this point.
There is a dark side to France, as there is a dark side to all countries. But Le Pen is not a slave of the masses. She is a political pragmatist who is holding back something far worse, and she knows what the “something far worse” is because she tried to exorcise it from her own party last year. This election is important because of what it indicates about the future of Europe. That future hangs on the nation-state’s ability to respond to the concerns of individuals. We have seen what happens when it can’t, and the result was far more disruptive than a French nationalist becoming the newest president of the Fifth Republic.
This article originally appeared on Geopoliticalfutures.com and is republished with permission.