When longtime National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen unexpectedly made the runoff of the 2002 French presidential election, the shockwaves threw hundreds of thousands of people into the streets to protest. Fast forward 15 years, and the prospect that Marine Le Pen — daughter of Jean-Marie and leader of the far-right party — will finish in the top two on April 23, thereby qualifying her for the May 7 runoff, is being met with general resignation.
Who is Le Pen, and what are the electoral and ideological implications of her rise? If you’re just turning your attention to French politics and the upcoming election, here’s a guide to some of what you need to know about the French far right in preparation for the vote.
Le Pen’s rise has inspired comparisons to Donald Trump’s success in the United States. Le Pen herself has urged her followers to draw inspiration from Trump’s presidential victory, heralding it as a sign that her party’s longtime ideas are resonating worldwide. The parallel only works so well — indeed, the National Front’s decades-long rise may tell us more about this American moment than vice versa.
But Le Pen and Trump share some obvious ground. Both say they want to fight ills that threaten the greatness, if not the very survival, of the French and American people.1 Trump’s “America First” message echoes Le Pen’s promise to implement policies that prioritize French nationals, and his vilification of immigrants and Muslims mirrors her vision of a civilizational clash that would ward off what she calls “the rule or threat of Islamic fundamentalism.” “Will [the next generation] even speak our French language?” she asked in a February speech. Le Pen, who vows to protect French identity and combat “globalist” forces, has said she would organize a referendum on France’s membership in the eurozone and the European Union within six months.
Le Pen is now campaigning to end birthright citizenship, significantly cut immigration levels and restrict immigrants’ access to social services and public schools. And not unlike Trump on the campaign trail, she mixes such exclusionary reforms with proposals to strengthen the state’s economic role. She has promised increased deficit spending and expanded social protections for French nationals, including a lower retirement age. Europe’s far-right parties have increasingly turned to such proposals to appeal to working-class voters, although this approach has often not been kept up when they have been in a position to govern.
Since taking over leadership of the National Front from her father, Le Pen has sought to conceal the party’s most extreme edges. In 2015, she seized on remarks he made about the Holocaust and about saving the “white world” to expel him from the party that he had led for four decades. Although it’s impossible to draw a clean line between an unbridled Jean-Marie and a more polished Marine given the latter’s own radical right positions and remarks on the Holocaust, she has been successful in fashioning an image of distance and getting the broader political class to act accordingly2 — a dynamic that brings to mind the back and forth between bomb-thrower Trump and his more restrained stretches that characterized the 2016 campaign.
Le Pen would need a majority — at some point
After winning the Republican nomination, Trump expanded his base of support beyond his 45 percent of GOP primary voters and won the presidency without shedding the aspects of his candidacy that upended traditional expectations of campaign behavior or of GOP orthodoxy. He was able to do so in part because of the pressures of the American two-party system. He reached the general election as the nominee of a party that about half the U.S. electorate has experience voting for, and he had six months to activate Republican voters’ partisan loyalties after wrapping up the nomination. Jean-Marie Le Pen did not enjoy such luxuries during the 2002 presidential election’s two-week runoff period, and Marine Le Pen would not enjoy them if she makes this year’s runoff — although she may end up facing a candidate who was recently charged with embezzlement.
France elects its president through a two-round general election. Unless a candidate wins a majority in the typically crowded first round, which in recent cycles has featured 10 to 16 candidates, the two candidates who receive the most votes move on to a runoff.
This means that a candidate must receive more than 50 percent of the vote to be elected, something that has happened in less than half of the U.S. presidential elections over the past 25 years. It also means that the final stage of a presidential election in France can feature a candidate who lacks the broad appeal to win a majority; a candidate may have a solid enough base of support to make it into the top two but then struggle to attract additional voters between the first round and the runoff.
These electoral rules have stymied the National Front in the past. In 2002, Jean-Marie Le Pen lost the runoff to President Jacques Chirac 82 percent to 18 percent, barely improving on his first-round showing. Similar dynamics have kept the National Front from winning local offices. Take the recent regional elections, which took place a month after the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris. The National Front was hoping to win control of a French region for the first time, and although it reached historic highs in the first round, it hit a wall a week later when voters coalesced around the party’s runoff opponents. Le Pen herself, running in a northern region, scored a decisive victory in the first round; her 41 percent far outpaced the conservative party’s 25 percent and the incumbent Socialist Party’s 18 percent. But she stagnated in the runoff, losing 58 percent to 42 percent. Other regions that the National Front hoped to win saw the same pattern; in Alsace (in the east), the National Front got 36 percent in both rounds.3
Will history repeat itself in the upcoming presidential election? Public polling has long shown Le Pen to be in the lead or close to the lead in the first round of voting, with about 23 percent to 26 percent. That would leave her with significant ground to make up in the runoff.
Twenty-five percent has been enough to place Le Pen in polls’ top two because of the fragmentation of the rest of the field, which features four other major candidates. From left to right (in ideology): Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who represents a coalition of left-wing parties (Unsubmissive France)4; Benoît Hamon of the ruling Socialist Party; Emmanuel Macron, who served as President François Hollande’s economy minister but is running as a centrist independent5; and François Fillon of the conservative party The Republicans.
But the first round of voting remains highly uncertain. Even at his nadir, Fillon remained within striking distance of a top-two finish, and in the campaign’s final weeks, Mélenchon has benefited from the consolidation of left-leaning voters at Hamon’s expense. As of the writing of this article, any runoff combination featuring these four candidates — Fillon, Le Pen, Macron and Mélenchon — is plausible.
Where would all of this leave Le Pen if she makes the runoff? In recent runoff polls, she trails Macron by an average of 25 percentage points; she trails the scandal-plagued Fillon by narrower margins, for an average of 15 percentage points. Fewer surveys have tested a runoff between Le Pen and the surging Mélenchon; in the most recent, Mélenchon held leads between those of Macron and those of Fillon.
These polls suggest that Le Pen is in familiar territory, without enough support in head-to-head matches to best her most likely opponents in a runoff. On the other hand, even in her worst showings, Le Pen is polling above 35 percent. That alone represents a considerable gain over any of her party’s past results (neither she nor her father has ever received more than 18 percent in a presidential election). And it hints that she has the potential to improve on her first-round results in a way that her party has failed to do to this point.
If Le Pen advances to the second round, there will be two big questions. First, what will Fillon’s center-right supporters do if the other runoff spot goes to Macron or Mélenchon, candidates further to the left than they are?6 Second, if Fillon coalesces enough of the center-right to make it to the runoff to face Le Pen, to what extent will his scandal affect the share of left-leaning voters who might otherwise back him to block Le Pen?
The National Front’s longevity
Besides this immediate matter of Le Pen’s electoral chances, it’s important to recognize that the National Front is not a sudden intruder in the French political landscape — nor should its success at advancing its ideas be measured solely based on whether its candidates are winning elections.
The National Front’s gradual ascent since the 1980s has infused nationalist rhetoric and anti-immigration agitation into French politics. Much like we saw recently in the Netherlands, the far-right’s priorities have reshaped the broader discourse in France. The ideological porosity between the center-right and the far-right grew under conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy, who was in power from 2007 to 2012. Sarkozy created a Ministry of Immigration and National Identity and declared that “we have too many foreigners on our territory” during a re-election campaign that veered far enough into Le Pen’s territory to leave prominent members of Sarkozy’s party openly seething.
Fillon, the center-right’s standard-bearer this year, has emulated Sarkozy’s hardline positioning by making the protection of French identity a core campaign theme. His campaign book, titled “Defeating Islamic Totalitarianism,” warns that the “bloody invasion of Islamism into our daily life could pave the way for a Third World War.” “There is not a religious problem in France,” he said during his primary campaign. “There is a problem linked to Islam.” And in February, when Macron called colonialism a “crime against humanity,” Fillon denounced him for exhibiting “hatred of our history.” Fillon had defended French colonialism before. “France is not guilty of having wanted to share its culture with the peoples of Africa,” he said in August.
The center-left has also been influenced by anti-immigration sentiment, as well as by pressure from the right to curtail civil liberties on behalf of bolstering security. Hollande, Sarkozy’s Socialist successor, provoked a bitter split within his party in 2015 when he proposed an idea that was championed by the far-right — a constitutional amendment legalizing citizenship-stripping for dual nationals convicted of acts of terrorism. In 2016, Hollande’s then-prime minister, Manuel Valls, spoke out in favor of local bans on full-body swimsuits worn by some Muslim women. He was assailed over it during the center-left’s presidential primary by eventual nominee Hamon. Hollande and his Cabinet have also kept in place for more than 16 months the state of emergency that was first declared in the wake of the 2015 terrorist attacks. This has considerably expanded police powers and enabled thousands of warrantless searches and hundreds of administrative house arrests, reportedly including those of climate activists who were planning protests during the 2015 Paris climate summit.
In the United States, Trump didn’t have to win the general election to shift the boundaries of mainstream U.S. politics. The stridency and norm-breaking nature of his primary campaign ensured that his legacy would linger, much like Jean-Marie Le Pen’s legacy did despite his 64-percentage-point loss in the 2002 runoff. In that sense, studying the rise of the National Front to understand the rise of Trump and its repercussions may be more useful than the other way around.