The Forces Shaping the French Election: Populism, Pride and Prejudice

Marine Le Pen’s appeal has deep, historical roots in the country that invented the European state.

Paris France
View of Paris, France from Montmartre, October 2, 2016 (Unsplash/Colin Maynard)

And why is it so critical? Nothing less than the European Union is at stake — and with it, the geopolitical contract that has bound Germany and France together since World War II.

After the defeat of anti-Islam populist Geert Wilders early this month in the Netherlands, it is reasonable to ask if populism as shaped by the alt-right has hit its limit. Europeans have watched the confusion in Britain over Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump. Now they are revisiting both their Euroskepticism and their willingness to gamble on ideologies not yet fully tested.

Yet France is subject to powerful forces quite different than the Netherlands, which has only a fraction of its population and international obligations. A large, unassimilated Muslim and African population simmers; an aging, conservative voter base roils; a discredited, weakened left wavers; and nobody knows what to do with the neoliberal threads that hold together the European Union yet impoverish just about anyone not in the upper classes.

All these factors make France a combustible mix of alt-right populism, weakened mainstream parties, terror cells, angry youth and dithering establishment elites. If we were shocked by Brexit, we should be less shocked by whatever happens next month as the French go to vote. France is as upended as everyone else. 2017 compares to the turmoil of the collapse of the Fourth Republic in 1958.

Marine Le Pen: the original alt-right

Before Trump’s Steve Bannon, before Brexit’s Nigel Farange, before even America’s Fox News, there was the French National Front.

Fashioned in 1972 out of Vichy fascists, old-school antisemites, Algerian war veterans and settlers, diehard anti-communists and unrepentant imperialists, the National Front embodied a French right wing that seemed more at home in Franco’s Spain than Gaullist France.

Yet the National Front was a legacy of empire, the world wars and national hero Charles de Gaulle.

There is, to begin, the French state pathology produced by the failure of the Maginot Line and the collaboration of Vichy France with Hitler; this makes French elites wary of dependence on foreign forces, especially hegemonic ones. For most of France’s postwar experience, this has turned into anti-American venom. Most recently, France refused to join the George W. Bush invasion of Iraq.

But also there is the legacy of repeated colonial defeat. Unlike Great Britain, France did not willingly conclude that decolonization was rational. Repeated, dirty colonial wars in Indochina and Algeria drained French power and French pride.

This produced a uniquely French complex: both French citizens and elites are not entirely convinced, even today, that the empire could never be held. France still holds a substantial New World holding: French Guinea in South America, which by itself could be a reasonable small country but is instead classified as a French département d’outre-mer, with representatives sent to the French legislature and votes in the French presidential election. This is like if Canada voted in the Brexit poll and helped choose the British prime minister.

Giving shape to both complexes, Charles de Gaulle produced the Gaullist approach to geopolitics: tied to NATO, yet striving to be free of it, he built the French nuclear arsenal over American objections and carried out an independent French foreign policy just to prove he could. This was meant to underline that France could still resist even the superpowers and to assuage a strong sense of French humiliation from defeats in World War II and its colonies.

Marine Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie, channeled the most ardent of French anxieties into the National Front. For him, the blame was simple: Jews, internal leftist traitors and a weak national spine had broken France time and time again. But he sounded a bit too much like Hitler when Nazi victims were still alive. The National Front under his stewardship never went very far.

Decades later, Marine decided to “de-demonize” her father’s party by dropping the antisemitic stuff, focusing on Muslim migrants and bashing the European Union. This is the modern template of much of the European alt-right.

The Muslim question

If there is any country that deserves credit for inventing nation states, it’s France. After the French Revolution, French elites perfected nationalism as an instrument of war and then produced a French nation state so tough it survived multiple major defeats over a century and a half.

Yet that road was paved with purges and blood. The French nation is based on a Catholic, Latin cultural core, radiating Enlightenment ideas that France had no small part in inventing.

Anyone failing to tick those boxes has long found it hard going in France. After the world wars, France softened its hard nationalist edges to fellow Europeans. Yet living in France is not the same as being accepted: expatriates still commonly complain that they don’t fit in.

This goes double for France’s 4.7 million Muslims, which equate to 7.5 percent of the population — the largest proportion in Western Europe. Yet France’s Muslims wouldn’t even be there if French dreams of glory and empire hadn’t brought them.

Great Britain and France both indulged plenty of imperial racism, but they approached their superiority complexes in different fashions. While the British walled off different races from Britannia, French elites believed they had both an opportunity and a duty to convert their colonial subjects not just to their religion but to their nationality as well. Colonial elites were sent to Paris for training in French culture and language in addition to colonial state management.

Even as late as the 1950s, the French dreamed of keeping their colonies as extensions of France itself — which does go a long way in explaining why they fought so hard to keep their far-flung empire. For the French, they were not losing colonies to be exploited for resources and labor, as the British saw their empire: they were losing bits of France.

Consequently, when Algeria fell and West Africa was decolonized, many loyal Muslim subjects were allowed to emigrate to France and settle. Yet to maintain power, successive governments did little to assimilate these new settlers as their forerunners had once tried in the colonies. Many lived in France apart from the rest of the population, ending up in squalid public housing on the outskirts of major cities.

As Al Qaeda began its small but potent terror campaign to drive Muslims into the arms of their Sunni supremacist ideology, they saw opportunity in France’s poor Muslims. Within the millions were a few thousand who could be tempted, organized, motivated and unleashed.

Initially, Al Qaeda focused on the United States, seeing it as the “head of the snake,” but when the the United States drove Al Qaeda out of Afghanistan, Al Qaeda decided to hit chip away at America’s War on Terror coalition.

Most successfully, Al Qaeda managed to force Spain out of Iraq after the 2004 Madrid bombings. This allowed it to turn its sights on France, Germany and the United Kingdom.

Al Qaeda utilized incidents like Charlie Hebdo‘s anti-Islam satire to galvanize local French Muslims into functional terror cells. Forced to headquarter in Yemen, Al Qaeda organized a series of murderous assaults on France, hoping to bring to power a government not entirely unlike Ms Le Pen’s.

Not to be outdone, the Islamic State also carried out the biggest butchering in November 2015.

Both have the same goals: to empower a deeply anti-Muslim government that will almost certainly radicalize France’s Muslim population.

That many French citizens are aware of this has made the strategy only marginally effective. François Hollande carried out vast security sweeps after the November 2015 attacks, but, being an old-school socialist, deferred from the kind of full-on police state needed to radicalize the entire Muslim population.

Yet the Sunni supremacists have enjoyed small victories: France has banned the veil in public, for example, and continues to harass mosque-goers through legislation and complaint.

Each of these victories has given fodder to the Islamophobia of Marine Le Pen. She rightly notes that the French nation was designed around a Catholic, Latin core, which incoming Muslims do not share. She is wrong in thinking that that much matters. Yet the more Sunni supremacists attack, the more right she appears, even if the anthropology of her thinking is far off the mark.

The aged left

Islamophobia alone would not be enough, however. For Marine Le Pen to enjoy great success, she needs weakened enemies. Luckily for her, her foes have done a fine job of hollowing themselves out.

François Hollande, the sitting president, represents the empty left. For decades, France’s left wing was one of the strongest in the Western world. American elites seriously worried France would fall to communism after the war; French Communists were one of the most powerful Soviet-friendly political parties beyond the Iron Curtain.

Yet like all ideologies from the 1950s, France’s left has aged badly. It has little to offer the masses in an age of EU-driven globalization and Sunni supremacist terrorism. Developed to protect both French farms and factories, neither are in demand the way they once were. Few inspiring elites have emerged from this sector of French politics.

That’s partially because the left has gotten nearly all it’s wanted in France: limited workweeks, generous maternity leaves, powerful unions and strong welfare systems. Decades of leftist-driven consensus means that even hard-right political parties like the National Front do not question the fundamental social contract between elite and citizens in France.

That dampens enthusiasm for traditional parties and gives breathing room to parties like the National Front. Much as Trump won partially because he was so unreliable a Republican, Le Pen’s greatest strength is that she is an outsider — and a hated one at that, with Parisian elite looking down their noses at the daughter of an overt antisemite. As loyalists stay home, voters who never saw many options in the system turn out.

The disgruntled French conservatives

Additionally, France’s identity as a Catholic country has returned to the fore of the public mind. While it’s easy to presume all France is Parisian in mores and attitudes, there remains a wide swath of conservative Catholics both within the country’s major cities and the countryside. Last October, there were sizeable protests by Catholics against gay marriage.

But the establishment cohort of French conservatives, as once led by Nicholas Sarkozy, the former president, have been tarred in scandal, ineffectiveness and the largely true accusation that they are just as responsible for the country’s ills as the Left.

Combined with the left, France’s conservatives built the neoliberal European Union, inviting in the globalized forces that are now seen as a threat to a national identity hundreds of years in the making.

François Fillion, the mainstream conservative candidate, has done himself no favors along the way, using his influence to give family members plush, useless jobs in government.

This has further discredited a political faction already seen as unable to save France’s old identity.

Onward to the election

These ingredients produce Le Pen’s stunning poll results. Yet France’s presidential system is not so easy to slip through. Unlike the United States, France requires runoff elections — you have to convince the French not once but twice. Would Americans have gone with Trump twice, once the reality of his actual rule set in? Would Brexit have won two in a row?

It’s entirely possible that Le Pen and the National Front enjoy frontrunner status come the first round. That may well shock the establishment and force it to close ranks around the second-place candidate, whoever that ends up being.

Yet we cannot wholly discount that it will also do the precise opposite. Rather than force France to come to terms with its own dark forces, it may cause the French to embrace them. This is the phenomenon that helped propel Trump. Americans were not entirely honest to pollsters about their support for him. Borderline French supporters, voting for another, more decent candidate, may throw deceny to the wind in a second round if they suddenly seen Le Pen and her positions as winnable.

France’s election will be critical to the future of the EU and neoliberalism. Should Le Pen slip in, it will surely be a death blow to the EU project. Few would have bet on Brexit, so insane it seemed. Few will bet on Le Pen. Yet long shots are simply long, not impossible.

This story first appeared at Geopolitics Made Super, March 22, 2017.