For all the talk about the Fillon scandals, Emmanuel Macron’s great prospects or Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s last-minute surge, most commentary about the French election essentially still comes down to one concern: Could Marine Le Pen really become president?
In both casual conversation and specialized coverage, in France, Europe and elsewhere, the answer to that question is often amazingly presumptuous: Ms. Le Pen will make it to the second round of the election, but she won’t become president. Hardly anyone seems to contemplate the possibility of her winning outright, with a simple majority, in the first round of voting this Sunday. Most polls promise the reassuring prospect of a final duel.
Why? Some analysts point to the heavy political baggage she has inherited from her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who led the far-right National Front party before her. Others invoke various mathematical impossibilities. In any event, “Marine Le Pen will not be president” — the idea has become commonplace, a kind of political verse, a comfortable mental habit.
But it masks a peculiar form of denial no one wants to recognize as a potentially terrible mistake. And it leads to this contradiction: Even as the mainstream discusses the need to mobilize against a Le Pen presidency — with a “vote utile,” or tactical vote — it dismisses the very possibility that she might win.
This paradox is partly the result of the happy memory left by the 2002 presidential election. In the first round that year, Mr. Le Pen routed Lionel Jospin, the Socialist candidate, by taking advantage of the left’s state of general disarray. But the ensuing face-off between Mr. Le Pen and Jacques Chirac, of the mainstream right, turned into a display of force by the proponents of French pluralism: Many different camps — the right, the center, the left, the far left — rallied to give Mr. Chirac a crushing victory.
There were vast demonstrations then, and they consecrated the aesthetics of a republican front that had come together against the far right. They also created a mythology about how a citizenry could mobilize. Today’s denial is a result of that fortunate traumatism.
The far right is now seen as a counterweight, but still not as a main player. It charts the terrain of political discourse, establishes what issues will be debated and gives voice to people’s anxieties. But that won’t go any further, or so it is said. The National Front exists to arouse fear, not to govern.
This idea also proceeds from the simplistic portrayal of the putative average French voter. The bien-pensant elites see him and her as responsible citizens well aware of what rides on their votes — the “noble savages” of current French politics.
It’s a notion as wishful as Rousseau’s theory. French voters may not be that noble.
Here’s an example. Why else won’t Ms. Le Pen become president? Because she’s a woman. It’s uncouth to say that, but grand political analysis is also made up of petty prejudices. France is a paradoxical country: It was a republic before its time, but it remains a monarchy after its time, in its mores, its practices and its vision of power.
It would have been easier to understand how same-sex marriage could unleash such stormy debates in a conservative monarchy like Spain. But it was in France that the law was bitterly fought over before it passed, and that it became a test of certain politicians’ modernism.
Similarly, Ms. Le Pen has worked to appear electable by casting herself not as a woman who wants to improve the lot of women, but as a female politician who wants to save France. She talks mostly about immigrants, terrorism, Islamism, colonization and the euro. Not so much about the status of women.
Meanwhile, by talking about immigrants, terrorism, Islamism, colonization and the euro in the stark terms that she favors, Ms. Le Pen has little by little lifted taboos and normalized some scandalous propositions. Populists like her realize that the best tool of propaganda isn’t accuracy, but the internet and the fake. Their focus isn’t truth, only effects. And it works: Voters today don’t read long analyses; they remember forceful assertions.
So why is it, finally, that Ms. Le Pen cannot become president? Because while the far right has changed its discourse, the mainstream elites still hold on to their old ways of seeing the world, or imagining what it is.
Their analysis of the rise of populism is out of sync. It rests on assumptions, faulty reasoning and denial. The prospect of a Le Pen presidency upsets a kind of political positivism: the view that democracy can go only from good to better, from being a necessity to being a right. Ms. Le Pen’s election would run counter to the course of history, the reasoning goes, and therefore it cannot be. This is a happy ending for elites: a narrative convention, a marketable concept, a variant form of utopia — and the basis of an irrational political analysis.
Kamel Daoud is the author of the novel The Meursault Investigation. This essay was translated by John Cullen from the French.