The day after the first round of the French regional elections, the center-right daily Figaro and communist L’Humanite managed for once to agree on a same headline: “Le choc.” With 29 percent of the vote, ahead of Sarkozy’s Les Republicains and Hollande’s Parti Socialiste, the far-right National Front (FN) arrived first, only the second time in a national ballot after 2014’s European elections. Worse, the FN was close to winning up to four regional executives out of 13, with figures like Marine Le Pen in the North and her niece Marion Marechal Le Pen in the southeast boasting wide leads. But apparently, everything went back to normal. Voters were summoned between the two rounds to, once again, bail out their leaders and bar the road to the FN. Socialists lists that placed third withdrew and threw their support behind Republican candidates, and voter turnout jumped 10 points. The “republican front” held firm: the National Front eventually didn’t win any region.
Barring the National Front’s achieving an absolute majority, a Le Pen presidency remains a distant prospect for now. But this tactical victory can’t hide the utter failure of the French political establishment to stem the National Front’s rise. That Le Pen’s first round showing could still be considered a “shock” for observers is stupefying. On the contrary, poll after poll continue to show her populist message gaining sway over a disillusioned electorate. Simply asserting that the National Front is a “threat to the Republic” or shaming those who vote for it don’t cut it, because both of the mainstream parties have failed to adapt the country to its current challenges. Besides, while the “republican front” has managed to bar the way for the National Front in the short term, the establishment’s ganging up on Le Pen will certainly play into her party’s victimization narrative. French political leaders now have to reckon with a three-party system, as well as Marine Le Pen, who seems poised to reach the second round in the coming presidential elections in 2017.
Both parties confront challenges in addressing the rise of the National Front. First, given that Marine Le Pen leads current polls for the first round of the 2017 presidential election, both Hollande and the eventual Republican candidate face the risk of elimination before the run-off. Though Hollande’s popularity rebounded somewhat after his swift reaction, both domestic and international, to the terrorist attacks of November 13, the French public hasn’t forgotten his poor economic performance. However, the National Front represents a deeper challenge for a French right, which now occupies an awkward centrist position.
A long-term reconfiguring of French politics toward the right could lead to a confrontation between, on the one hand, the market friendly, pro-European left embodied by figures like Prime Minister Manuel Valls or the youthful Economics Minister Emmanuel Macron, and, on the other, the National Front; such a confrontation could leave the Republicans with less room for political maneuver. While the Republican candidate would win a second-round bout against Marine Le Pen, the porosity of Republican and FN voters, especially in the southeast, represents a long term challenge to the right’s electoral base.
Alliance is impossible: the FN is still toxic to many voters, and its views on Europe and economics don’t make it a serious partner. The possibility of alliance is taboo for Republican leaders, who fear that the mere mention of it would break down the last barrier for voters; even mentioning the possibility publicly has led to the expulsion of party members (including an MP). But if alliance is out, what are the other options? Confronting the FN head on? Co-opt its message to attract its voters (thus running the risk of letting the FN shape the conversation)? Much as U.S. Republicans with Donald Trump, French strategists are at loss. The diverse philosophical families constituting the French right makes this task even harder. In his seminal study of the French right in 1954, historian Rene Remond distinguished three traditions: legitimism, the reactionary counter-Republican tradition; orleanism, a more liberal parliamentarian current (inspired by the short Orleanist constitutional monarchist experience between 1830 and 1848, close to the British tradition), and bonapartism which focuses on the defense of a strong executive leader, national sovereignty, and a direct relation between the sovereign and the people (which clearly transformed into Gaullism). How to deal with the National Front has become the major internal debate within Les Republicains, mixing philosophical traditions with tactical considerations.
In 2005, a few months before the referendum on the European constitution, Nicolas Sarkozy received a visit from Patrick Buisson, a mysterious right-wing pundit and polling expert. Buisson, a former editor for Minute, an extreme-right magazine known for its racist and anti-Semitic rants, had been close to Jean-Marie Le Pen and had even written a book praising him in the 1980s. Given that these offenses were committed in an era before social media, Buisson’s troubled past didn’t haunt him much. Buisson had switched his allegiance away from Le Pen the father and believed Sarkozy, the Interior Minister and leader of the UMP, had a chance to break with the inaction and softness of the Chirac years and set in motion a shift to the right. The “yes”, largely backed by all major leaders of both political parties and favorable media coverage, was comfortably dominating in the polls. Nothing to worry about.
Buisson wanted to meet Sarkozy to tell him of his unorthodox vision. Backed by qualitative studies, the Euroskeptic pollster gave Sarkozy an expose on the disconnection between the population and the elites, which would inevitably lead to a victory for the “no.” Sarkozy was impressed with the talk but unconvinced. “I think you’re wrong. But if you’re right, we’ll see each other again.” In May 2005, to the dismay of the French establishment, the “no” won the referendum with 55 percent of the vote. Sarkozy started discreetly consulting the controversial Buisson and adopted his strategy, focusing much of his discourse on identity and security. A popular law and order Interior Minister, he seemed not to shy away from addressing the previously taboo issues of immigration, insecurity, and Islam. In 2007, Sarkozy was elected President after gathering a strong 30 percent in the first round; Le Pen senior, for his last campaign, finished with a disappointing 11 percent. Ever since, Sarkozy’s formula has been to address the concerns of National Front voters on identity and security while rejecting any form of alliance. The right had finally found the answer to the question that had haunted it since the rise of the FN in the 1980s. (That rise, not incidentally, was largely encouraged behind the scenes by a cynical Mitterrand, the socialist President from 1981 and 1995, who was only too happy to divide the right.)
The Buisson formula has now shown its limits: it worked with a new and dynamic candidate like Sarkozy in 2007. But despite a sharp right turn on issues like immigration, Schengen, and social values, Sarkozy failed to win reelection in 2012, and Marine Le Pen rallied for 18 percent in the first round. In the same vein, since coming out of retirement in 2014 to lead the party again, Sarkozy has upped the ante on issues like halal food in schools or the Islamic veil, hoping to tap in to National Front voters, to little avail so far. Worse, center-right leaders now wonder aloud if this strategy hasn’t actually reinforced the National Front by letting it shape the agenda and legitimizing its discourse. In a telling about-face, Christian Estrosi, the right-wing Mayor of Nice and a former Sarkozy ally who beat Marion Marechal Le Pen in the regional elections by a whisker, admitted on Tuesday: “The more we go right, the more we strengthen the FN.” Yet Sarkozy’s first decisions (notably firing the moderate Nathalie Koscisuko Morizet from the second-ranking post in the party) after the recent elections point to a doubling down in this direction. While Sarkozy’s tough talk will play well in the November 2016 Republican primary, his rival (and so far the favorite), former Prime Minister Alain Juppe, has tried to develop an alternative message appealing to moderate voters with a message focused on economic reform and alliance with the center: confront the FN head on with an alternative liberal vision, at the risk of alienating some of the Republican base in the process. But can a former, unpopular President (Sarkozy) or a man who was Prime Minister in 1995 (Juppe) really convince the electorate that they’re for real? The truth is, this debate won’t matter much if voters see it as one more electoral ploy by the same leaders who helped create this mess in the first place.
Beyond ideological choices, French leaders have to address the growing gap voters perceive between political word and deed. The vote in the first round of the recent regional elections was more a result of the voters’ rejection of traditional parties than it was a sudden turn to the FN. In terms of raw number of votes, the FN actually did not advance much since 2002. As the commentator Frederic Gilli wrote in Le Monde: “The strong progress of the FN in the proportion of expressed ballots is more linked to the collapse of traditional parties than to a strong rise on its part.” Gilli shows a threefold phenomenon: an anchoring vote in favor of the National Front, a rise in abstentions, and increasing votes for independent candidates in local elections. Pointing to voter turnout is a way people often minimize the extent of a calamity; in this case, it’s the opposite: “The problem is that we prefer to be horrified by the FN results rather than confront the extent of the political disaster we face.” After all, voters ponder, if this set has failed, why not give someone else a chance?
Elected on the basis of sweeping rhetoric for change, the last two Presidents have underwhelmed in office, making grand declarations but doing little to address the structural challenges facing France: a rigid labor market, complex tax system, an uncompetitive higher education system, and a broken integration model. With a 10.5 percent unemployment rate, 23 percent for youth under 25 and anemic economic growth, a distressed electorate is losing belief in the major parties’ ability to live up to their promises. Worst of all, people have lost all faith in what their leaders say. Just after the Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Casher terrorist attacks this past January, for example, Prime Minister Manuel Valls denounced a “territorial, social, and ethnic apartheid” in France. Whatever the relevance of the comparison, you would expect groundbreaking measures to follow such strong words, yet nothing happened. To many, the French political elite appears remote and much more conservative than the electorate, which is clamoring for change. Politics has turned into a profession, with most leaders entering at a young age, often with similar academic backgrounds, and showing little drive to innovate in ideas, methods, or personnel. The President, his Chief of Staff, Economics Minister, Finance Minister, Foreign Minister, and Environment Minister all graduated from the same public affairs school—four of them in the same year.
Naturally the National Front, with its mix of toxic xenophobic rhetoric (Marion Marechal did not hesitate to question the compatibility of Muslim and French identities) and retrograde economic proposals (a mix of statist interventionism and Europhobia), has little to offer. Worse, it would be a mistake to believe that its basic operating software has really changed. Ever since Marine Le Pen took over from her father as the head of the National Front, she has embarked on a strategy of “de-demonization” to make her movement respectable, away from the controversies of a party that was founded in 1972 as a refuge for Vichy apologists, French Algeria nostalgics, and other far-right ideologues. A series of controversial statements on the Holocaust, the German occupation, and democracy made Jean-Marie Le Pen a pariah. Marine Le Pen has stayed clear of such utterances (and has even gone as far as expelling her father from the party) and focused on Europe and immigration. But make no mistake: the National Front still deals in xenophobia, putinism, and preposterous rhetoric. Marine Le Pen differs with her father merely on communication strategy. Her father’s Holocaust revisionism did not prevent her from walking in his footsteps. The mayor of Beziers, Robert Menard, who was supposed to embody the new generation of leaders promoted by Marine Le Pen, recently took issue with the kebab joints in his town. This is hardly the stuff of a government party.
In the absence of a real political alternative, the FN did manage, however, to capture a national angst over decline, lack of opportunities, and middle-class insecurity. It was helped in this by a wave of writers like the right-wing polemicist Eric Zemmour, whose bestselling essay, “The French Suicide,” pointed to the ones who deserve blame: liberal elites who have given in to the forces of globalization, Europe, the United States, and rabid feminists (Zemmour is awkwardly obsessed with the decline in manliness, which he links to most of our woes). Zemmour and his kind have dominated the public space crusading against political correctness and “bien-pensance.” As the Italian anarchist Antonio Gramsci put it, ideological victory precedes electoral victory.
It is reassuring to assume voters have just become racist or xenophobic, to complain that they watch too much television or don’t have the right diplomas. The truth is that both parties have abandoned the field of politics to demagogues who hijacked a legitimate frustration at elites with a dangerous illiberal discourse. (Hey America, sound familiar?) There will be no quick fix. Perhaps Sarkozy or Juppe will manage, each in his own way, to slow Le Pen’s progress and bring the right back to power in 2017, especially if the left doesn’t qualify for the second round. Perhaps Hollande will win back the electorate and the Republican candidate will be squeezed out of the second round. But if France’s political leaders don’t address the public’s disaffection, the voters will do it for them.