Four lessons from France on how to defend democracy

As much as democracy defenders wish it were not so, the drift toward authoritarianism continues unabated.

The latest warning sign comes from France. While French President Emmanuel Macron came out ahead in the first round of voting on Sunday, gaining roughly 4 percentage points more than he received in the first round in 2017, right-wing firebrand Marine Le Pen also picked up a couple of points over her results in 2017. Le Pen’s showing, combined with the votes for far-right candidate Éric Zemmour (7 percent), indicates that more than 30 percent of French voters supported the far right in the first-round vote. Meanwhile, the center right — led by Valérie Pécresse of the Republican party — lost 15 points since 2017.

One should be wary of comparisons between democratic countries’ electoral environments, since unique circumstances often play a greater role in voters’ decisions than generic trends that all democracies face. That said, many Western democracies have felt the threat from extreme right-wing nationalist parties and the widening divide between rural and religious voters (favoring reactionary, nationalistic politics) and more secular voters in urban areas (favoring globalism and secular progressivism). The Brexit vote and Eastern Europe’s drift toward authoritarianism turned out to be precursors of the MAGA movement in the United States.

The first takeaway from France is that nationalist candidates don’t seem to have been hurt by their association with Russian President Vladimir Putin, even as Western voters rise up against Russian war crimes. Voters either don’t know about Le Pen’s history of admiring Putin, or they do not care. They do not seem to understand that a Le Pen victory would demolish the West’s united front against Putin.

Democracy scholar Yascha Mounk tells me, “At the beginning of the war in Ukraine, there was an assumption that it would significantly harm extremists who have long been close to Vladimir Putin”. He adds: “Le Pen’s success in the first round of the presidential election shows that this was, sadly, naive. Many Europeans just don’t care”.

Second, right-wing demagogues don’t go away when they lose. Sometimes, they get more clever. Le Pen toned down her strident anti-immigrant rhetoric to focus on economic issues, such as inflation. France 24 reports, “She wore her easy-to-grasp pitches for getting money into voters’ pockets on her sleeve — slashing [taxes] on fuel and excusing anyone under 30 of income tax, sharpening her appeal to a working-class electorate frustrated with the left”. Meanwhile, “those interested in making sure she was still just as hardline on immigrants and Muslims could consult the brochure”. Voters have short memories and can become accustomed to right-wing candidates — even extreme ones.

Mounk explains: “Even if Macron wins the second round, the margin between him and Le Pen will almost certainly be much more narrow than it was five years ago. The ‘cordon sanitaire’ which marginalized the far-right in France is fast eroding. Voting for Le Pen is not nearly as taboo as it has been in the past”.

Third, if national leaders spend too much time on the Ukraine conflict, even if voters consider it a noble cause, they might be accused of ignoring the everyday needs of voters. Macron got an initial bump in popularity in the first weeks of the war, but come election time, voters wanted to know what their leader had done for them. French political watchers argue that Macron has attempted to use the global crisis to cast himself as a crisis manager instead of a hard-fighting campaigner. Staying “above the fray” might be the worst strategy when facing fiery populist opponents.

The American Enterprise Institute’s Kori Schake tells me: “Macron is banking on grandeur on the international stage as his campaign strategy. Le Pen’s got the better argument for French voters by focusing on kitchen-table issues”.

Finally, pro-democracy parties cannot defeat authoritarian-minded, right-wing nationalists unless they put aside relatively small differences to form broad coalitions. To his credit, France 24 reported that Macron quickly wrapped up endorsements from “Communist Party candidate Fabien Roussel, Socialist Anne Hidalgo, Yannick Jadot of the Greens and ... Pécresse”. Those leaders plan to “vote for him to prevent the far-right leader [from] coming to power”.

The hard-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who drew 22 percent in the first round, was more circumspect. “We know for whom we will never vote", Mélenchon said on Sunday. “You should not support Le Pen”. Should that bloc of voters sit home because Macron is insufficiently socialist for their liking, they might wind up with a President Le Pen.

Not all of these factors might apply in the United States. Nevertheless, the enduring support enjoyed by defeated former president Donald Trump (coupled with the ho-hum attitude of the media, which treats his party like a normal one) should not be lost on President Biden and his party. Nor can they ignore the rise of inflation and the need for building cross-ideological coalitions. No one should be under the illusion that remaining “above the fray” will be helpful to defending democracy.

Jennifer Rubin writes reported opinion for The Washington Post. She is the author of “Resistance: How Women Saved Democracy from Donald Trump”.

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