Le Pen of France, like Trump, capitalizes on discontent over the establishment, job and cultural insecurity.
By François Godement*
If you asked a Wisconsin farmer why he voted for Donald Trump when his great-grandparents supported Senator Robert La Follette, a maverick progressive, he might not have an answer. If you asked a French voter from the wider suburbs what he might have in common with a Wisconsin farmer, he would give a bewildered laugh.
Yet there is a link between the upsurge for Trump, which surprised even the Republican establishment, and the tide of French voters for the National Front and its vocal candidate, Marine Le Pen, who just launched her raucous campaign. Each combines disaffection from the established parties – all liars, damn liars – a sense of dispossession where one cannot separate economic and job safety issues from wider cultural insecurity, which leads to a reversal of attitude towards newcomers and foreigners. Voters come from both the right and left.
The reversal towards foreigners is particularly telling. France alone in Europe shares a unique characteristic with the United States: It has long been an immigrant country. Every other European nation saw large waves of emigration from the mid-19th century to the 1930s. Millions of Italians, Spaniards, Portuguese, Poles, North Africans and Western Africans came to France in the heyday of economic growth, and while there was friction, xenophobic groups were not a significant force. In fact, the strongest discrimination targeted competitors from within – antisemitism defined the French far right more than xenophobia in the pre-WW2 era. Republicanism was the functional equivalent of “In God we trust,” also serving to paper over obvious inequalities and common prejudice.
Post-war, immigration turned to non-European newcomers. Still French speaking for the most part, and despite of racism, they gradually integrated in what was, until a decade ago, the world’s most functional melting pot, as measured, for example, by the rate of intermarriage. Two events tipped the balance: a generous policy adopted in the late 1970s, allowing family relatives to join immigrants already in place, at the same time that unemployment rates began an inexorable rise. The French-born children of the previous generation of immigrants are not integrating and often revert to imagined communities from their countries of origin. The simultaneous shift of policy from integration to multiculturalism transformed into a political disaster. Never mind what is really responsible, whether the rise of militant Islam, which reduces intercommunity exchanges and marital unions, or mass unemployment, now at 10 percent and reaching 50 percent in the most disaffected neighborhoods. Communitarianism and destitute ghettos are worse in the United States, but fear pervades France too: Marseille’s roughly 30 violent murders per year are talked about as much as Chicago’s 700 victims.
This suggests that France could be sensitive to the Trump vote effect. Here is a brash celebrity from New York who battles the status quo with plebeian appeal, whose money largely originated in the building industry – the brick and mortar economy. In France, too, there is widespread suspicion, especially in “la France périphérique” of the “elites”: journalists, who rate even lower than politicians in opinion polls, high civil servants with their revolving door from politics to large companies and finance. A major issue for the less educated French is what jobs and acquired benefits they might keep as the digital economy takes control. Here is a politician who talks about “us and them,” what the elites like to call a nativist. The United States and France share similar feelings of dispossession: It may be economic, the fear of “falling” or “déclinisme” is widespread. It may be based on tensions about identity, with Mexican immigrants and the language issue, the few but conspicuous Muslim immigrants, viewed as threats. In France, with the largest percentage of Muslims of all EU countries except Bulgaria, the prospect of another wave of Muslim newcomers, combined with an immediate terrorist threat, has tipped public opinion against immigration.
But there are also great differences. In the United States, the wage decline of blue-collar as well as many white collar employees is as undeniable as the record-breaking surge of a small class collecting the benefits of globalization. In France, wages have continued to rise, and an extensive tax system targets the rich. A majority of Americans still rejects universal health care, but the French seem ready to go to the barricades if it is withdrawn for French citizens – they are less touchy about foreign residents. The Christian right exists in France, but has less influence than in the United States. Part of the radical right in the United States rejects the federal government, while this is almost unknown in France. In the United States, the 65+ age group voted predominantly for Trump, and the Democrats still hold on to the youth vote. In France, the National Front is the leading party among young voters, while retirees still vote for traditional conservative parties.
The real political crux is that it’s hard to find someone as different from Donald Trump as Marine Le Pen. The family business she inherited is a political party, the Front National with a structure of top-down and personal leadership, exclusions and elaborate united front tactics. While Trump may have taken a leaf from Bernie Sanders, a Democratic challenger to Hillary Clinton, he admires entrepreneurs and business people, naming more billionaires to cabinet positions than any of his predecessors. Marine Le Pen, instead, has an economic program that seems a resurrection of the old 1970s French Communist platform with systematic opposition to bankers, Europe and any economic reform. Her first motto for the coming campaign – “La France apaisée,” France appeased – borrowed from an old François Mitterrand slogan, not exactly words for a revolutionary upsurge or to “make France great again.” She manages a smiling media presence that often disarms criticism while Trump seems to revel in polarizing hyperboles. In short, Le Pen has all the trappings of a highly professional politician – and is sometimes criticized as such by more radical members of her own party.
More fundamentally, in France it is the political left that is exploding under the weight of contradictions. While the officially designated candidate comes from the left wing of the Socialist party, he is overtaken by two other candidates running outside the party, one even more to his left, the other claiming to be “neither right nor left.” The conventional right by and large kept its unity. In the United States, the Republicans may have won an unexpected majority, but they are divided as they have never been in their history with Trump upending his share of bedrock Republican principles.
For now, Marine Le Pen, the far right candidate, leads the polls for the first turn of the election. The same polls indicate that she would be defeated by a wide margin in the second round by Emmanuel Macron, the newcomer who is “neither left nor right,” and more narrowly by François Fillon, the conservative candidate who is hit by a financial issue.
It may turn out that the rocky start of the Trump years becomes a deterrent for voters in France and Europe. If France’s political right – which has conducted a successful primary – failed to draw voters away from the National Front, it would not be because Le Pen has successfully symbolized anger and discontent, but because she has reassured voters beyond her camp. Her public footprint of the last two years has been designed to show her as a reasonable and acceptable candidate, up to and including some wobbling on leaving the euro.
Were she to succeed, still possible at present, she would be constrained by such political requirements. She could simply not carry out what was once the crux of her program – leaving the euro and the EU. The immediate shock would be in terms of dealing with immigration from outside Europe – that is an area where both the traditional right and Socialist government of François Holland have undergone profound change.
Whatever superficial similarity there might be between the movements of Trump and Le Pen, their rise in power would produce very different results.
*François Godement is the director of the European Council on Foreign Relations’ Asia & China program and a senior policy fellow. He is a non-resident senior associate of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, DC, and an outside consultant for the Policy Planning Staff of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. His last published book is Contemporary China: Between Mao and Market, Rowman & Littlefield, 2015.