Every surge of right-wing populism confronts voters with a different dilemma. In the Brexit referendum, the risk was the policy, not the politicians. Voting to leave the European Union was not a vote to make Nigel Farage prime minister; it was a vote for a leap into the unknown, but one supervised by mainstream Tory leaders.
In the case of Donald Trump, there was risk in the policy, but the central question was always about the candidate himself: about his fitness for the office, his ability to execute its basic duties, the effect that his demagogy and self-dealing would have on civic norms.
In the case of Marine Le Pen – presently facing off against Emmanuel Macron, the John Lindsay of the Eurocrats, for the presidency of France – the main risk is her party. To elevate her to the presidency is to empower the National Front, an organization that despite years of renovation and attempted purges – extending to Le Pen’s own father, Jean-Marie – still includes figures like her successor (briefly; he just resigned) as its leader, who appears to have done the “I’m just asking questions” thing about the gas chambers.
Parties matter, their histories and undercurrents matter, and the Front’s Vichy taint is a good reason to prefer a world where a Le Pen never occupies the Élysée Palace.
At the same time, individual personalities and their policies also matter – and there the case for #NeverLePen seems weaker in important ways than the case for #NeverTrump.
To begin with, nobody seriously doubts Le Pen’s competence, her command of policy, her ability to serve as president without turning the office into a reality-TV thunderdome. Trump’s inability to master his own turbulent emotions is not an issue with his Gallic counterpart.
Nor is there much evidence that Le Pen herself draws any personal inspiration from the Vichy right. However incomplete the project, she is the reason that her party has ejected Vichyites and disavowed anti-Semitism and moved toward the French mainstream on many issues.
This has been done, of course, in the hopes of gaining power. But that is how the purging of poisons always happens, and being disowned by one’s father is a quite costly and dramatic act of political purgation.
Some argue that Le Pen has simply replaced anti-Semitism with Islamophobia. But her attacks on Islamic fundamentalism and her defense of a strict public secularism have been echoed by many mainstream French politicians. An argument for quarantining her perspective would apply to Nicolas Sarkozy or François Fillon, not just her.
Overall, the politician that Le Pen has obviously strained to imitate is not her father or Marshal Pétain, but Charles de Gaulle – the de Gaulle who fiercely opposed European political integration, who granted Algeria its independence in part because he doubted France could absorb millions of Muslim immigrants, whose “France First” worldview consistently gave other Western leaders fits.
Even the most controversial utterance of Le Pen’s campaign, a denial of widespread French complicity in the deportation of French Jews, was deeply Gaullist: An insistence that the true France existed with de Gaulle’s government-in-exile, not Pétain’s regime.
This is comforting myth, of course, and perhaps de Gaulle’s style of nationalism is too chauvinist and mystical for our era.
But on the other hand, our era’s “enlightened” governance has produced an out-of-touch eurozone elite lashed to a destructive common currency, and an experiment in mass immigration that has changed French society faster than integration can do its necessary work.
These are the same sort of issues that helped Trump win the presidency, but in the European context the challenges are more severe and the populist critique more compelling.
There is no American equivalent to the epic disaster of the euro, a form of German imperialism with the struggling parts of Europe as its subjects. There is no American equivalent to the challenge of immigrant-assimilation now facing France – no equivalent of the domestic terror threat, the rise of Islamist anti-Semitism, the immigrant enclaves as worlds unto themselves.
Which means that while much of Trump’s notional agenda was an overreaction to the country’s problems, some of Le Pen’s controversial positions are straightforwardly correct.
She is right that France as a whole, recent immigrants as well as natives, would benefit from a sustained mass-immigration halt. She is right that the European Union has given too much unaccountable power to Brussels and Berlin and favored financial interests over ordinary citizens.
And while many of her economic prescriptions are half-baked, her overarching critique of the euro is correct: Her country and her continent would be better off without it.
The French will presumably vote against her nonetheless. They will choose Macron, a callow creature of a failed consensus, over the possibility that the repulsive party’s standard-bearer might be right.
That decision will be understandable. But it’s the kind of choice that has a way of getting offered again and again, until the public finally makes a different one.