Despite the hysteria, Le Pen is not going to win—and populism is not an unstoppable epidemic

Not a victory shot.
Not a victory shot.
Image: EPA/Charles Platiau
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Marine Le Pen, France’s far-right presidential candidate, announced on Apr. 24 that she is temporarily relinquishing her responsibilities as leader of the National Front (FN) party to focus on campaigning for the runoff, in which she is facing Emmanuel Macron, the center-left candidate.

Le Pen can use any help she can get: Garnering 21.7% of the total votes in the first round of voting, against Macron’s 24%, she is projected to lose by nearly 20 percentage points in the second round on May 7. The theory is that her extremist beliefs will inspire a large enough percentage of the first-round losers, and their voters, to back Macron instead.

These are just poll results, of course, and after Brexit and Donald Trump, the West seems increasingly wary of polls. As a result, France’s first-round results are being met with heavy skepticism. They were met with similar skepticism leading up to the first round—which they accurately predicted. Arguments that “Marine Le Pen could become the next Trump,” analysis of the candidate’s  similarities with Donald Trump’s political style and warnings about writing her off too soon have reached a fever pitch with the election mere days away.

But for all this gloomy rhetoric from the progressive commentators, continental Europe is neither the UK and nor the United States. As much as it may be tempting to fit the French election into a broader global trend towards populism, there are plenty of reasons to resist this rhetoric.

The global rise of populism isn’t so global

For one thing, the numbers simply don’t support a Le Pen victory. European polls tend to be quite good, and if anything can skew a bit generously in favor of nationalistic candidates. A large number of voters would have to stray from their political affiliations for the far right to get enough votes to win.

In short, those worried a far-right populist will soon take over the EU’s second-largest economy and begin to dismantle the region’s institutions can exhale a bit. The populist wave will not overrun France—not this time, at least.

In fact, populism, while spreading, is not nearly as unstoppable as the commentariat has recently made it seem. Brexit happened, Trump won, and far-right populists fared very well in elections in Austria, the Netherlands, and yes, France. But populism isn’t about to “sweep Europe,” nor is France ”the next to fall.”

In Austria and the Netherlands, much feared victories by Norbert Hofer and Geert Wilders failed to materialize. And even Italy’s referendum, which many commentators argued was part of the global populist wave, wasn’t a clear populist victory; Italians who voted against the referendum otherwise identify as mainstream party voters. Which begs the question: Why are so many liberals overreacting?

For one thing, Europe—let alone the West—is not monolithic politically: What works in one governing system will not automatically work elsewhere.

“We probably insist too much on the role of other elections on the behavior of the electorate in Europe,” Christian Lequesne, professor of politics at Sciences Po, tells Quartz, “people still vote according to national political criteria, and the national context is very important.”

And just as governments differ from region to region, so too do the extreme movements that oppose them, says Lequesne. “There is a big risk to overgeneralize the question of the far-right in the western world, and in the European Union in particular,” he notes, adding that “we have to see each different national context,” because each far-right movement has idiosyncrasies that make it different from the others.

Despite what Americans may think, not every far-right leader is a metaphor for Trump. In France—as in most of Europe—far right parties have successfully campaigned on issues once championed by the left, such as the defense of the welfare state (Le Pen, for instance, is championing the message that globalization is a threat to acquired welfare benefits for French citizens).

Except for the UK’s UKIP party, which is neoliberal, most other far-right parties are generally in favor of state intervention in the economy, explains Lequesne, a position that couldn’t be further from the values held dear by American far-right factions like the Tea Party.

There are, surely, traits that connect far-right parties around the West—among them anti-elitism, a fear of the end of social promotion, xenophobia, and questions of national identity. But, with the exception of the latter, those traits are shared by far-left parties, too.

What can still go wrong

Rather than oversimplifying the complexities and idiosyncrasies of populism, it’s more useful to examine it on a case-by-case basis. As it so happens, France’s populist movement is an interesting example. Unlike populist movements like the Tea Party, or the Five Star Movement, the rise of the National Front can’t be traced to post-2001 fears of global terrorism, or a specific economic recession. Rather, the party was founded by Marine Le Pen’s father Jean-Marie Le Pen decades ago; a consequence of the French left’s inability to embrace a changing society, provide convincing answers to a loss of job security among the French working class, and stop the reduction of services in rural areas.

Indeed, what French philosopher and psychoanalyst Felix Guattari wrote about Le Pen senior in the 1980s resonates eerily well today (pdf, p. 70) today: ”[I]f you think that Le Pen is only a simple resurgence, or some flaky throwback, you’re dead wrong! […] Le Pen is also a collective passion looking for an outlet, a hateful pleasure machine that fascinates even those that it nauseates. To be content to speak of neo-fascism lends confusion to the matter. […] Le Pen is also fed by the conservatism of the left, by trade union corporatism, by a beastly refusal to address questions of immigration or the systematic disenfranchisement of the youth, etc. It is not enough to refer to the past, because this kind of fascism strives to find itself in the future.”

“Even if she’s not going to be the next president of France, there is an increase in support of Le Pen in this country” Lequesne says, noting that in 2002, Le Pen’s father also made it to the final runoff with just under 17% of the vote. Following massive protests, Le Pen would lose that election badly to Jacques Chirac, garnering only 18% of the total vote. A decade and a half later, his daughter may get more than 30% of French votes—not enough to win, but certainly enough to worry liberals.

On May 8, France may wake up to president Macron. That won’t mean that the “populist tide” has been stopped anymore than a Le Pen victory would mean that populism had overrun Europe. For France, however, what Macron does with his victory is arguably more important than how many votes he gets. An approach that heavily favors neoliberalism might well increase Le Pen’s popularity over the next few years, perhaps even culminating in a National Front triumph in 2022.