For some time now it has felt as though God or the muse of History or some mischief-making demiurge has been placing thumbs upon the scales of Western politics, with an eye toward achieving the most disruptive and unlikely seeming outcomes.
From the shock of Brexit through the rise of Donald Trump (and I would go further back and include Pope Benedict’s resignation and Pope Francis’ ascent), events have seemed scripted to confound the experts, and whatever stars have needed to align for crazy things to happen have moved smartly into the required position. What liberals felt in October and early November, watching Anthony Weiner go off like Chekhov’s gun and Trump draw an Electoral College inside straight, was what conservatives felt at a rather slower pace across their primary season: a dawning sense that what had seemed impossible was actually, somehow, inevitable instead.
Soon we'll have another test of this unlikely pattern: the French presidential elections in April, in which Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front is very likely to finish first in the initial round of balloting. Once upon a time this alone would have been an earthquake, but we’re past that point; everyone accepts that Le Pen will be a finalist, and the only question is whether she has any chance to win outright.
It easy to make a case that she does not. The National Front has come a long way since Le Pen’s father, the irascibly fascistic Jean-Marie, somehow reached the second round of France’s 2002 presidential contest, and proceeded to lose by 64 points to Jacques Chirac. But there seems to be a ceiling on the NF’s support, and the tendency of mainstream voters to vote tactically against the far right in runoff elections is still very much in evidence. In the 2015 regional elections Le Pen’s party failed to capitalize on a vigorous first-round showing, falling short of regional presidencies even in its strongest locales. Today most second-round polls have Le Pen down in the lower 40s no matter her opponent – inching up a little lately in some cases, but always a solid 10 points off the lead.
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Which is all well and good, but readers have heard such soothing words before and yet Trump sits in the Oval Office. So it seems only reasonable to look for evidence that a Le Pen victory is being scripted somewhere in the empyrean, and that the experts will be confounded yet again.
Such evidence exists. There is, for instance, the swoon of Francois Fillon, the center-right’s chosen candidate, who seemed well positioned to gain the second round and soundly defeat Le Pen by co-opting parts of her message … until he became embroiled in a very French-elite sort of scandal, over public salaries paid to his children and his wife.
There is also the talk of a unity ticket between the various left-wing and far-left candidates, whose support if combined could gain them a ticket to the second round – enabling Le Pen to run straightforwardly against the legacy of Francois Hollande, the current Socialist president, and his subterranean approval ratings.
And then there are the riots that broke out this month in France’s suburbs following allegations of police brutality – the sort of disorder that Le Pen’s anti-immigration, tough-on-crime messaging leaves her well positioned to capitalize upon.
So a week or two ago it wasn’t that hard to imagine a future in which Le Pen, having won through to Round 2, found herself facing either a scandal-plagued conservative or a Hollande-haunted Socialist, and had the chance to run against them while burning cars and vandalism fill the news.
Since then, though, the script has taken a different turn. Instead of the chattered-about unity ticket on the left, there is now a newfound unity in the technocratic center, where the independent candidate Emmanuel Macron has claimed the endorsement of the frequent presidential contender Francois Bayrou. The youthful Macron, whose business background and political-outsider positioning are themselves vaguely Trump-like, was already polling better against Le Pen head-to-head than other candidates; since Bayrou’s endorsement he’s nearly even with her in first-round polling as well.
If Macron rather than Fillon or the left-wingers makes the second round, Le Pen’s already-difficult path gets even harder – at least based on what we see in the polling data now. But Macron is politically inexperienced, and his centrism is a tightrope walk: Recently he was in hot water with the right for calling French rule in Algeria a “crime against humanity” and with the left for doing outreach to skeptics of same-sex marriage. And his support for Angela Merkel’s open door to immigration – he recently said that it saved Europe’s “collective dignity” – is the kind of thing that could become a major liability should unrest surge or terrorism strike.
It’s also mistaken on the merits, since Merkel’s policy was reckless, Europe’s immigration-and-integration problem is severe and likely to get worse, and Le Pen’s dire warnings on this count are wiser than the blithe optimism of the establishment. Which points to an interesting difference between the National Front’s candidate and the populism that triumphed in America’s presidential race: Hers is better thought out, more disciplined, and more often correct.
Le Pen’s pessimism about mass migration may be too dark, but it’s a needed corrective to Merkelism, and much more reasonable in the European context than Trump’s overhyped warnings about refugees. Her brief against the follies of the euro is almost inarguably true (for reasons that you can about read about on Vox, not Breitbart). Her party platform overall suggests what Trumpism would look like it were more coherent – and, for that matter, more responsible, since she’s actively tried to distance her movement from the sort of toxic bigotry that Trump’s campaign saw advantages in winking at.
So while Le Pen probably faces longer odds at this point than Trump did last October, she has one advantage to add to whatever strange assistance providence might send her way: She might actually deserve to win it.