BRUSSELS – For months, the conventional wisdom in Europe has been that the extreme right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen could not win the French presidency in April-May elections.
But, as I saw in Paris last week and at the German Marshall Fund’s Brussels Forum this weekend, those predictions are shifting. The cover of the French magazine L’Obs (Le Nouvelle Observateur) blares: “If Le Pen is elected … the black scenario for the first hundred days.”
Commentators in Le Monde and the British newspaper the Guardian warn that victory is possible for Le Pen, a hard-line French nationalist who detests immigrants, Germany’s Angela Merkel and the European Union.
Indeed, if this fan of Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin (who both love her back) becomes the French president it will generate a political earthquake in Europe. Her brand of vindictive populism would have a toxic effect on France’s democratic institutions. And she seems bent on destroying European institutions that have kept peace on the continent since World War II.
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Of course, Le Pen could still lose in the two-stage presidential election that takes place on April 23 and May 7. In the first round, polls show her running neck and neck with the centrist Emmanuel Macron (he has 27 percent, she 26 percent) in a field of 11 candidates, and the top two will take part in a runoff. But nearly half the French voters are still undecided.
If the past were prologue, Le Pen would be crushed in the second round as far too extreme. That’s what happened to her father Jean-Marie Le Pen, a virulent anti-Semite and Holocaust denier who founded the fringe National Front party in 1972 and made it to the second round 30 years later.
But the media-savvy Marine has cleaned up her party’s image and expelled her father from its ranks; she now presents herself as the protector of France, and Jews, against Muslims.
And a strange set of factors have paved the way for a possible Le Pen win. Like Trump, she builds on a base that feels unmoored by the cultural and economic impact of globalization. Muslim immigrants, a much greater factor in French life than in the United States, become the scapegoat to blame for all ills, along with the European Union. And, like Trump, Le Pen is a master at whipping up public fear of more terrorist attacks.
But none of this would have been sufficient had not the favored candidate, the conservative Francois Fillon, done himself in with a series of late-breaking financial scandals (some still believe, contrary to the polls, that he could make a comeback).
Now, public disgust with political parties of the left and the right has propelled the 39-year-old Macron and his new En Marche! party to a current lead. It is assumed he will face Le Pen on May 7. But it’s unclear whether this former socialist and pro-Europe centrist can rally enough voters in that final round.
And, indeed, when I watched Macron and Le Pen (and three other candidates) face off in the first televised presidential debate, it reminded me of the famous W.B. Yeats quote, from “The Second Coming,” written in 1920 when the world was falling apart: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
The baby-faced Macron appeared weak and defensive under Le Pen’s barbed attacks, and he wandered all over the political map. She, on the other hand, banged her message out fiercely: The French need to take back their country from Muslims and multinational institutions (a populist theme that will sound familiar to anyone in the land of Trump).
However, Le Pen’s nasty populism revealed its face when she proclaimed: “I want to be president of the true Republic of France.” In other words, only those who support her are truly French. And the rest are … “enemies of the people”? (Again a line heard in the United States).
To make certain that true Frenchmen reign supreme, Le Pen wants to change the voting system in ways that benefit her party. Until that happy day, she wants to use popular referendums to circumvent parliament (where her party is unlikely to win a majority.)
“If she were elected it would change the country profoundly and might even lead to civil war,” says Simone Rodan-Benzaquen, the American Jewish Committee’s Paris director. Benzaquen adds that, while Le Pen herself disavows anti-Semitism, she retains high-level officials in her party known for their extremist and anti-Semitic ideas.
And a Le Pen victory would not only upend France but would have a frightening impact on Europe. She wants to close France’s borders and withdraw from NATO and the European Union, and she constantly whips up anti-German feeling.
“Her election would kill the Franco-German engine at the heart of the European project,” said Guardian columnist Natalie Nougayrede, at the Brussels Forum. “She has campaigned consistently against cooperation with Germany and Merkel. She would fuel hate and exacerbate tensions in society.”
In other words, the era of European cooperation spearheaded by the French-German partnership that ended the horrors of intra-European warfare would be shattered. And in its place? Well, Le Pen seems to envision a club of illiberal, nationalist-populist democracies, firmly ruled by representatives of the true people.
Perhaps her role model is Russia; she received a $10 million campaign loan from a Kremlin-friendly bank and has reportedly asked for more. And on Friday she traveled to Moscow to meet Putin; not surprisingly she has called for the lifting of sanctions on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.
“It’s now the world of Putin, the world of Donald Trump,” Le Pen said after visiting the Kremlin. Yes, she really said that. Imagine a triumphant troika of Le Pen, Trump and Putin if she wins and Trump surmounts his Russian hacking problems.
Is this really the world that Americans (never mind the French) want?
ABOUT THE WRITER
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may write to her at: Philadelphia Inquirer, P.O. Box 8263, Philadelphia, Pa. 19101, or by email at email@example.com.
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