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The Center Holds in France—but for How Long?

Nearly everyone but Vladimir Putin, chief Brexiter Nigel Farage, and the staff writers at Breitbart are celebrating centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron’s landslide two-to-one victory in the French presidential election against the National Front’s Marine Le Pen.

In The American Interest, journalist and Paris resident Claire Berlinski compares French voters to “passengers on a long-haul flight, colicky infants on either side, [who] find themselves trapped with a flight attendant cheerfully offering them the chicken or the plate of raw monkey eyeballs dipped in Ebola.”

Lest you suspect she is exaggerating, let’s get this something out of the way: Marine Le Pen isn’t the French Donald Trump. Sure, they’re both right-wing populist change agents backed by the Kremlin, and of course that’s a significant overlap, but Trump is closer to Dwight D. Eisenhower than he is to Le Pen. For when it comes to authoritarian demagoguery, Americans are amateurs. More than just about anyone else in the world, the Europeans are pros at it.

Le Pen’s party was founded not by an abolitionist like the Republican Party but by her father Jean-Marie and his claque of Vichy nostalgists, Holocaust deniers and embittered pied noirs from French Algeria. Le Pen père famously and repeatedly stated on television that the Nazi gas chambers were a mere detail of history and has never been able to scrub the stench of neo-fascism out of his pores.  

Two years ago, Marine forced her father out of the party and tried with some success to detoxify the National Front and rebrand it as one that is anti-European and anti-immigrant rather than quasi-Nazi and anti-Semitic, but as recently as last month she reverted to form and declared that France is blameless for the round-up and deportation of Jews during World War II.

“France wasn’t responsible for the Vel d’Hiv,” she said, referring to events in July of 1942 when almost 5,000 French police officers, on orders of the government in Paris, arrested thousands of Jews and held them in the Vélodrome d’Hiver sports stadium. All, including the children, were later deported by the French authorities to Auschwitz and murdered. “If there was responsibility,” she continued, “it is with those who were in power at the time, it is not with France. France has been mistreated, in people’s minds, for years.”

These events, and France’s complicity in them, are as incontrovertible as the Holocaust itself. The French erected memorials to the victims inside and outside Paris decades ago. Until Le Pen opened her mouth, it wasn’t even controversial, certainly not among decent civilized people. But the National Front is neither decent nor civilized. Just last month, Jean-François Jalkh, who denied that the Nazis used Zyklon B gas to exterminate Jews, was promoted to replace Le Pen as the head of the party. And members of her inner circle have been caught on camera organizing neo-Nazi rallies and waving Iron Cross flags.

These people are not conservatives. They aren’t extreme conservatives or even pseudo-conservatives. They are something else entirely, something a lot of us thought had become permanently alien to Western electoral politics. Yet they beat the conservative party in the first round of elections.

Marine Le Pen and Vladimir Putin openly laud each other. She visited the Kremlin in March of this year and gushed that Putin “represents a new vision…A new world has emerged in the past years. This is Vladimir Putin’s world, Donald Trump’s world in the United States, Mr. Modi’s world in India…I think I am probably the one who shares with all three great nations a vision of cooperation.” As you might expect after such comments, she supports Russia’s violent annexation of the Crimea in Ukraine. “Crimea,” she lied, “has always been Russian.” She goes even farther, though, and denies that Russia even invaded Ukraine in the first place.

Le Pen admires Putin for his anti-European nationalism, which she shares. Putin, for his part, endorsed her for the plain reason that she promised to weaken his enemies in the European Union and NATO by withdrawing from both.

Donald Trump’s bizarre pro-Putin tweets and Putin’s clear preference for him over Hillary Clinton in the American election were never as brazen as the romance between Le Pen and the Kremlin. The surreal chumminess between Trump and Putin was never going to last and may be over already, but it’s probably safe to say that a friendship between Putin and the National Front will last years.

Don’t get complacent just because normal politics prevailed in the election’s second round—the mainstream center-left and center-right parties both collapsed in the first. The underlying malady that hollowed out the establishment center hasn’t yet been addressed let alone solved.

Imagine if, during the presidential election last year in the United States, neither a Democrat nor a Republican were on the ballot. That’s basically what happened in France, and the left-wing revolt is just as creepy as the right’s. Candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon forged a political alliance with the communist party and is practically a communist himself, and he got three times as many votes as the mainstream center-left party. The squishy centrist who won the second round was only the first choice of 24 percent of the country, yet a full third of French voters would rather have raw monkey eyeballs dipped in Ebola for dinner than chicken.

So, sure, the center is holding, but for how long? Macron epitomizes the French status quo and intends to double down on it at the time when the French status quo has been broadly repudiated. Far more people on both ends of the spectrum hate it than like it. If he fails to satisfy the discontented—and it may be as difficult for him as it would have been for Hillary Clinton to satisfy the Trumpkins and the Bernie bros—the outcome of the next French election probably won’t look like this one.   

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