A few days ago, as the United States and the rest of world were still trying to grasp the full meaning of Donald Trump’s victory, one French politician rushed to the media, glowing with self-confidence: Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s far-right movement, wanted the world to know she was actually the real winner of the Oval Office.
“The people are free! It is not the end of the world, it is the end of a world!,” she said. To Le Pen, who very early claimed her support for the Republican candidate, America’s political earthquake has cleared her path to the Elysée Palace. In her view, le système in both France and the United States has crumbled and with it, so has the establishment, the elites and the media which so far have denied the National Front the right to access the highest political office in the land.
Le Pen is eager to accommodate her homemade brew with the new American recipe: nativism, identity, ethnicity, anti-globalization, Putinism, protectionism, borders. It all fits perfectly with her far-right agenda — only the wall is hard to sell to the French — the “ligne Maginot,” meant to protect France against the Germans, collapsed in 1940.
The 48-year-old Le Pen has long been betting on the anger and frustrations of those who feel they are the losers in a society struck by unemployment and income inequalities. Voting for her party no longer looks like kissing the devil in the dark. More people today support the National Front openly, including teachers, policemen and civil servants traditionally considered as the gatekeepers of “La République.” A shrewd tactician, Le Pen has transformed a marginal, vilified extremist movement into a well-organized party, which she controls with an iron fist. She expelled her anti-Semitic father, who had founded the National Front some 45 years ago, and just forbade her niece Marion, a rising star, from stealing the spotlight by taking part in a major TV program. She has adopted a more respectable style, publicly avoiding the racial overtones National Front activists cultivate, careful not to indulge in overt anti-Muslim propaganda, sticking to the anti-immigration, anti-European Union arguments that have won over some 25 percent of French voters, according to public opinion polls.
A year ago, the National Front scored 27 percent of the vote at local elections without gaining control of any region: the electoral process would not allow it. Alongside other Western democracies, France suffers from democratic fatigue. According to a study published last week, 7 out of 10 French voters believe the forthcoming elections will not change anything. One out of 5, particularly among the poorly educated, would favor a more authoritarian system. Our presidential election is a two-round system, each citizen casting a single vote for his or her preferred candidate. All pundits agree that next April Le Pen will successfully pass the first round.
The Trump shockwave has caught all traditional parties in France unprepared and left them aghast. With France’s presidential elections due in six months, the traditional party system is bursting at the seams. The Conservatives have yielded to fashion, holding primaries only to discover that the process is reviving old rivalries without renewing political offering. Among the seven candidates competing this Sunday for the first round, all but one have been cabinet ministers. The main contenders are a former president, Nicolas Sarkozy, and two former prime ministers, Alain Juppé and François Fillon. After the TV debate Thursday night, Juppé remains the favorite in the polls — if the turn-out is high, he will defeat Sarkozy. To Juppé, the American campaign demonstrates the moral and political imperative to resist populism and its load of simplistic lies. Sarkozy, who had publicly praised Hillary Clinton, changed gear and praised the choice of the American people to elect Trump without criticizing his populist overtones. Whoever wins on Nov. 27 will be the conservatives’ candidate for president.
On the opposite side, the Socialist party is in shambles. President François Hollande’s credibility and ratings are so low that his closest advisers are nervous about the opportunity of his running again. Manuel Valls, the prime minister, tries to appear as the natural heir to Hollande but not as the traitor — he’d rather leave that part to Emmanuel Macron, the dashing former economy minister who has just declared his bid. Valls has been the most outspoken about Le Pen, recognizing that she now stands a much better chance of becoming president, only to hint that he would be her most efficient opponent. Macron is the only one to infuse some fresh air into stale political atmosphere; as a result of his newcomer status, he faces massive hostility from the left and from the whole political establishment.
To expand her hold, will Le Pen now adjust back to the hateful and racist strategy which has fared so well for her new American hero? In any case, she has already won her bet: For the coming months, she will be the central character of the French political scene.
Christine Ockrent is a journalist and writer based in Paris and is a Global Opinions contributing writer.