Last Wednesday, as the world sought to absorb the news of Donald J. Trump’s electoral triumph, France’s far-right leader Marine Le Pen was up early, already commenting on Twitter. Even before the American president-elect gave his victory speech, she rushed to congratulate him and “the free American people.” This was hardly surprising, since Ms. Le Pen, the leader of the National Front, is hoping to become the next French president.
On Wednesday evening, we watched her holding forth on mainstream television news, where she has not been a regular guest. Most journalists have as little sympathy for her as she has for them, and she had been staying out of the public eye over the past 10 months, working hard to build an electoral strategy. During the period between France’s regional elections last December, when her party scored 27 percent of the popular vote but failed to win control of any region, and the presidential election next spring, she has set herself a single goal: to build enough respectability to shatter the so-called republican front through which mainstream parties unite in the second round of a French election to prevent the National Front from winning.
Ms. Le Pen, 48, has worked patiently to transform her party from a marginal extremist movement into an organization able to seize and exercise power. Now she needs to ramp up the frustration among French citizens, which has already propelled her to the top of opinion polls ahead of the first round of presidential voting on April 23, into a force powerful enough to break the barrier of conventional politics and push her through to victory in the second round, scheduled for May 7.
She is emboldened by Mr. Trump’s upset of Hillary Clinton, which she thinks has significantly enhanced her chances of achieving just that. What the president-elect has done, she said on French public television, has been to “prove that what was presented as impossible can be made possible.” Now she confidently says she believes that it can also happen here — that France in 2017 will provide the third stage of a global political uprising begun by Brexit and reinforced by Mr. Trump’s victory.
She is not the only one to believe it. Former Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, a respected center-right senator, thinks the news delivered to France by the American election is this: “Marine Le Pen can win.” Just as a Trump candidacy, let alone a victory, was unthinkable a year ago, most French experts had dismissed the possibility of the far-right leader’s winning the Élysée Palace in 2017. Brexit and Mr. Trump have changed that. “This is the people’s choice,” Ms. Le Pen boasts. “If the people deliver so many surprises to the elites,” she said, it is because the elites “are disconnected.”
“You don’t draw the right lessons,” she told an interviewer who tried to get her to condemn Mr. Trump’s sexism. “This question is of no interest in the face of this gigantic change.”
Ms. Le Pen is walking a fine line. She does not want to be Donald Trump. She is wary of his excesses. She wants to avoid accusations of racism and sexism: that image belonged to her anti-Semitic father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, whom she managed to expel last year from the party he had founded. Remember: She wants to be respectable.
Nowadays, she looks poised on television, does not display anger at reporters, gets published in The New York Times and gives interviews to Foreign Affairs. She pays tribute to the role played by Senator Bernie Sanders in the American campaign. It’s not being Mr. Trump that interests her; it’s the dynamics that propelled him to the White House, the way he harnessed popular anger and channeled it into an electoral machine.
This anger, she feels, has the same foundations in France as in the United States or Britain: Alienated by “wild globalization” and open borders, she says, people want their nation back. They want to “regain control over their destiny” from arrogant elites who “despise the people.” Her supporters are mostly blue-collar workers who have deserted leftist or social-democratic parties, but she has also been making gains in the white-collar world. There are, though, some differences that make her case even stronger: A high level of unemployment (9.6 percent) and an undeniable European migrant crisis have fueled discontent in France. But Mr. Trump’s candidacy was endorsed by a major political party, while France’s traditional parties still view the National Front as an outsider.
However, the mainstream parties also feel the heat of the American turmoil. Former President Nicolas Sarkozy’s center-right party, Les Républicains, will hold a primary this month, and Mr. Sarkozy, following Mr. Trump’s lead, has stepped up his provocative rhetoric about immigration and Islam. Though he denies being a populist, he does not mind playing this card, sometimes even more so than Ms. Le Pen. In Mr. Sarkozy’s eyes, Mr. Trump’s rise shows that Americans have had enough of political dogmas and of candidates supported by the establishment and the media — candidates like his main rival in the primary, former Prime Minister Alain Juppé. Yet it is hard for a candidate to run against the system only four years after leaving the Élysée.
Whether Ms. Le Pen or Mr. Sarkozy will succeed by taking up the Trump mantle is uncertain. But after the American’s victory, French politics will not be the same. “It is not the end of the world, it is the end of a world,” Ms. Le Pen lectured. The French media are keeping a close eye on the post-mortem being carried out now by their American colleagues who were certain of victory for Hillary Clinton, rather than Mr. Trump; it is time for soul-searching on this side of the Atlantic, too. Politicians are having panic attacks as fault lines in the political debate are displaced from left-wing ideological differences to opposing views about globalization or the establishment.
Interviewed by Le Monde, former Foreign Minister Hubert Védrine, a longtime aide to President François Mitterrand, spoke of “an era of electoral insurrections.” Unless French elites “finally listen to the social distress and understand people’s attachment to security, identity and sovereignty,” he said, the insurrection will reach France. The historian Pierre Rosanvallon regrets that “many genuine democrats hate populism but fail to understand its deep roots.” It is not enough to protest the consequences of populism, he told me; you also need self-criticism. And Mrs. Clinton, he noted, has not been particularly good at self-criticism.
Now let’s see if the French can do better.
Sylvie Kauffmann, the editorial director and a former editor in chief of Le Monde, is a contributing opinion writer.