In a televised face-off days before France’s presidential election, centrist Emmanuel Macron cut far-right rival Marine Le Pen down to size in one condescending swipe: ”I’m sorry, Madame Le Pen; France deserves better than you.”
To judge by the election’s outcome, France thinks so too. Le Pen, whose National Front party has spent over a decade softening its extremist image to gain ground with more voters, lost the election by a 30-point margin on Sunday (May 7). The wide open race, which knocked out both of France’s mainstream parties in the first of two voting rounds, catapulted Le Pen into the spotlight, lending credence to her views on a global stage.
Her failure to reach the Élysée Palace leaves moderates across the globe breathing easier. The specter of far-right populism’s spread has been stunted, and Europe stands more unified. And yet, Le Pen hasn’t walked away from this election a loser. In fact, she has won a far more important battle: the normalization of her ideas.
The National Front, once a pariah in French politics, has quietly moved the line on what’s politically acceptable, in ways that have made the French question what a free and open democracy (liberté, egalité, fraternité) should be. If Macron fails to diminish the party’s reach in upcoming parliamentary elections in June, or to turn around France’s lagging economy in the eyes of voters, Le Pen will have an even better shot at becoming president in 2022.
“The Front National set itself a project to win the battle of ideas,” says James Shields, professor of French politics at Aston University, a longtime researcher of France’s extreme right. As the party has worked tirelessly to shift the debate on immigration, secularism, and security to the right, mainstream parties have adopted its extremist rhetoric, and backed policies that were once inconceivable.
“What used to be taboo has now become commonplace in French politics and discourse,” says Aurélien Mondon, a lecturer on French politics at Bath University. While globalists celebrate, Le Pen will be biding her time, content in the knowledge that she has already swayed the country toward her vision.
From the start of this election, Le Pen was the candidate to beat. For the first time in France’s modern political history, her party was polling ahead of 10 other candidates in the first of two rounds of voting, including those of the country’s two mainstream parties, the Republicans and the Socialists (in previous elections the party had clawed its way into third and fourth place).
To head off this challenge, François Fillon, her closest conservative rival, took a page from Le Pen’s far-right playbook (paywall), hardening his line on foreigners. Long known as the candidate of “family values,” he campaigned to reduce immigration to “its strict minimum,” and described radical Islam as “totalitarianism like the Nazis.” Unlike Muslims, he said, the country’s Catholics, Protestants, and Jews “don’t denounce the values of the Republic.” The ideals are all laid out in a book he published last year, with punishing views of Islam.
The rhetorical shift, which became notable last October, catapulted Fillon from third and fourth place to frontrunner, with early predictions that he would face off against Le Pen in the final round. But then a corruption scandal ejected him from the race, emboldening Le Pen to court his stray voters.
She was already sailing on a lingering sense of fatigue about France’s ruling mainstream parties, after a decade of corruption allegations and unmet economic promises by the establishment.
The same malaise had paved the way for her even more extremist father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, to triumph in the first round of voting in 2002. He lost the final vote by a wide margin to Jacques Chirac, but the shock of his ascent forced moderate right-wingers to get tougher on the stump.
The policy creep began in earnest in 2004, when Chirac successfully passed a law banning Muslim headscarves in public schools. With his popularity sinking in the face of a dour economy, Chirac bowed to the FN’s fear mongering on the country’s burgeoning Muslim population, which was the largest in Europe. In destitute neighborhoods on the outskirts of Paris, Lyon, and Marseille, known as banlieues, police brutality and immigrant-led riots had become the norm.
Many French began to question the commitment to laïcité—the separation of church and state—as fears of immigrants rose after 9/11 and the 2004 Madrid terrorist attack, the worst attack on European soil in over a decade. In the FN’s view, to be secular (and secure) required adhering to French culture at all costs. In 2015, Marine Le Pen told Al Jazeera: “We have to oppose all demands that aim to shatter secularism—demands for different clothes, demands for special food, demands for prayer rooms. Demands that create special rules that would allow Muslims to behave differently.”
Nicolas Sarkozy exploited these fears when he threw his hat in the ring for the 2007 presidential election. He infused the protectionist rhetoric of his center-right party (which later became the Republican wing) with blatant racism, in ways that ”no one would have said before,” says Mondon, who outlines the shift in a 2012 paper.
To avoid being attacked as a racist, Sarkozy relied on what Mondon calls “cultural racism.” He insisted that while the French were not superior to minority groups, they were different enough to warrant separation. The French term communautarisme, communities that withdraw from mainstream society, became a way to blame immigrants for their own problems, along with everyone else’s. In a 2007 speech in Dakar, Sarkozy laid out this rationale to a Senegalese crowd, declaring that ”the tragedy of Africa” was that Africans had “never really launched themselves into the future.”
Later that year, in a stump speech in the northern city of Caen, he warned that France was facing a “moral crisis of values. It is a crisis of landmarks, a crisis of meaning, a crisis of identity. The denigration of the nation is at the heart.”
Rather than viewing the shift as a win for the Republicans, Marine Le Pen, then the vice-president of the FN, cast her father’s loss in the 2007 election’s first round as ”the victory of his ideas.”
Once in office, Sarkozy doubled down on the rhetoric. He challenged the country to a nationwide debate on what it meant to be French, and created a ministry for immigration and national identity (a move he later apologized for to win back voters). He proposed stripping foreign-born French citizens of their citizenship if they committed serious crimes and denying automatic citizenship (paywall) to French-born people if they had foreign parents and a record of juvenile delinquency.
On his watch, a record 32,912 migrants were deported in 2011, a 17% bump from the previous year, and citizenship for French migrants plummeted.
The backlash to Sarkozy’s crackdown was a wakeup call for Marine Le Pen, who during this period took over the party’s leadership from her famously erratic, anti-semitic father. In a bid to attract mainstream voters, she began championing the rights of women and the LGBT community, insisting they were threatened by Islam. “Nowadays, in certain neighborhoods, it’s not easy to be a woman, or homosexual, or Jew, or even French or white,’ she said at a meeting in Lyon in 2010.
Le Pen’s counter-move paid off. She won a record share of votes for her party (18%) in the 2012 presidential election’s first round, boosting her credibility for years to come. In an interview last month, her father remarked on the shift in attitude she achieved: ”The voters, the citizens—[have] realized that the ideas we defend are not ‘extremist,’ as our adversaries say, but that they conform to the truth.”
Nothing captures France’s conflicted emotions about Islam quite like last year’s burkini saga. The poignant image of three policeman forcing a woman lying on a beach in Nice to remove her clothes—a loose long-sleeved blouse, leggings, and a headscarf—lit the internet on fire, and prompted a ban on the full-body swimming garment across 30 French towns.
François Hollande’s socialist government remained conspicuously silent on the matter, until a widespread petition and calls by his socialist rival, Benoît Hamon, to speak up forced his hand. Eventually, he condemned a nationwide ban. Meanwhile, Socialist prime minister Manuel Valls chimed in, calling the burkini “a provocation” (paywall), chiding the New York Times for criticizing France’s treatment of female Muslims, and insinuating that naked breasts were more French than headscarves.
To hear those words from a socialist prime minister showed ”how far the narrative has moved to the right,” Shields says.
When three terrorist attacks hit France in an 18-month period on Hollande’s watch, his government officially declared war on “radical Islamism.” “We have to defend laïcité, without compromises—there have been too many,” prime minister Valls said a week after the Paris terrorist attacks.
The state of emergency his government imposed after those attacks, still in effect, has lasted longer than any since the 1960s-era Algerian War. Human rights groups have warned that France has reached a tipping point, as security forces carry out searches without warrants, break up perceived threats to public order, block suspicious websites, and reportedly raid Muslim communities at will.
As a central plank of Hollande’s ”war” plan after the Paris attack, he proposed to strip convicted terrorists with dual nationality of their French citizenship and deport them. The plan—which the public largely supported—was eventually thwarted by Socialist party stalwarts, who accused Hollande of knee-jerk politics that betrayed the Republic’s values. His reversal only served to further divide the party, prompting the justice minister to resign in protest.
“Sometimes resisting is staying, sometimes resisting is leaving. To stay true to oneself, to us. For the last word of ethics and law.”
The moral bankruptcy in French politics has only continued to deepen. The extent of Sarkozy’s flirtation with the extreme right became clear when a campaign adviser released a book last year with transcripts from secretly recorded conversations with a former campaign adviser, in which Sarkozy apparently curried favor with the National Front. “The values of the National Front are those of all French people,” Sarkozy reportedly said to his adviser. ”Of course we have common values with the National Front.”
As for Hollande, a damaging book released last year by two journalists, who interviewed him over five years, cast him as a blatant xenophobe. France has ”too many” immigrants, he said. Its intellectuals are “not very interested in the idea of France,” and the justice system is full of “cowards.”
The vitriol has spread to other parts of Europe. Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte swung to the right in an open letter (paywall) to migrants released in January of last year, warning that those who refused to “adapt, and criticize our values” should “behave normally, or go away.” Shortly after Brexit, the UK home secretary floated plans to force businesses to reveal the number of foreign staff they employed to make it harder for firms to employ migrants. The plans were later abandoned and registered by police as a hate incident.
A notable pillar of stability has been Emmanuel Macron, France’s newest and youngest president, whose campaign was chock full of declarations like: “No religion is a problem in France today.” He has opposed the hijab ban at universities proposed by Hollande’s government, and said the concept of laïcité should not be “vindictive.”
Whether he can hold his ground is an open question. French Muslims are skeptical that any politician can survive the Élysée without a dose of Muslim-bashing. The public, meanwhile, seems royally conflicted about what to think. In recent opinion polls, most opposed public use of the burkini and the headscarf.
For Macron, heading off the far right will require more than winning the election. With no existing party structure, he will need a to build a majority or strong coalition from other parties in parliament to see through his goals. In sharp contrast to Le Pen, Macron has championed Angela Merkel’s policy towards refugees (Germany accepted nearly one million asylum seekers last year) and vowed to expedite asylum requests.
Perhaps his most fitting allies, the ruling Socialists, are projected to hemorrhage seats (link in French) in June’s parliamentary election. The FN, which currently holds just 2 seats, is expected to inch up to between 15 and 25 seats. A divisive presidential race makes for an unpredictable playing field in parliament, one that could sideline Macron completely. Without an effective alliance, Macron risks sparking “major chaos,” as one Socialist official put it. Le Pen will be banking on it.