Why is the far right winning ground in France?

The Signal

Why is the far right winning ground in France? Marc Weitzmann on how fear and national trauma are shaping the politics of the Fifth Republic.
Rodrigo Kugnharski
Rodrigo Kugnharski
In a victory speech under the Eiffel Tower, Emmanuel Macron acknowledged that many of the votes cast for him in the French presidential election—concluded this past week—were really votes against his opponent, Marine Le Pen. Macron, a pro–European Union centrist now generally unpopular after five years in office, won a convincing 58 percent of the vote—to the relief of liberal-democratic elites throughout the West, given the pre-election surge in public support for Le Pen, a Euro-skeptical, anti-immigrant populist, who ended up taking 41 percent of the vote. The result may appear decisive, but it brought the far right closer to the French presidency than at any time since World War II; it did this with strong support from younger and working-class voters; and it positioned Le Pen’s party to compete meaningfully in parliamentary elections this June. What’s happening in France?
Marc Weitzmann is a French journalist and the author of Hate: The Rising Tide of Anti-Semitism in France (and What It Means for Us). According to Weitzmann, “most of the French electorate is far-right today,” as the traditionally mainstream parties of the center-left and center-right continue to collapse. With this political transformation ongoing, Weitzmann says, Le Pen and her movement are benefiting from a number of trends distinctive to France—an overlapping set of anxieties about French society and its place in the world, the trauma of terrorism, and struggles with immigration and Islamism that the country’s social and political leadership have failed successfully to address. Yet Weitzmann also senses the French right exploiting a kind of identity crisis for Western liberalism—a global force that may be resilient, as Macron’s re-election and the response to the War in Ukraine suggest, but still seems adrift and under attack from all sides.
Graham Vyse: Le Pen has claimed a victory in defeat, telling her supporters that “the ideas we represent have reached new heights.” Which ideas is she referring to?
Marc Weitzmann: I don’t think she represented any precise ideas. In fact, part of her success came from vagueness about what she intended to do. It’s clear she’s trying to embody populism on the right, just as Jean-Luc Mélenchon is trying to embody populism on the left. They share a lot in common. [Mélenchon, a leftist candidate, won 22 percent of the vote in the first of the election’s two rounds. Éric Zemmour, a far-right candidate even more extreme than Le Pen, won 7 percent. Only Macron and Le Pen advanced to the second round.]
Le Pen advocates for distancing France from the European Union; promoting a nationalistic, protectionist economy; and advancing an anti-elitist vision of politics, media, and culture. As we saw in her debate with Macron, though, she doesn’t get into specifics. Part of Zemmour’s success came from sounding more precise, if also obsessed, by issues like immigration. He was the only one to be outspoken on the danger of Islamism, which had been neglected by most politicians in the country.
Vyse: Why did Le Pen win nearly 3 million more votes this year than in her last run for president in 2017?
Weitzmann: It’s quite complex. In one sense, this year’s victory was a stunning success for Macron. He did better than François Mitterrand did in 1981 and 1988. He did better than Nicolas Sarkozy or François Hollande did later. At the same time, if you were to add together Le Pen’s electorate, Mélenchon’s electorate, those who abstained from voting, and all the little parties on the extreme right or extreme left, you’d realize that more than 60 percent of the electorate in this country voted for an anti-liberal, pro-Putin candidate. That means the majority of voters voted against democracy and the parliamentary regime.
Meanwhile, Macron isn’t a great leader. He’s a technocrat. It seems like the choice in liberal democracies today is between these happy technocrats—with their administrative regulation of our daily lives through technology and economics—and these embittered, rebellious sociopaths. There’s nothing in between.
Vyse: When you refer to that 60 percent of voters, you’re referring to the results of the first round of voting, before it came down to Macron versus Le Pen in the second. Mélenchon, who you mention, earned 22 percent of the vote in round one, just shy of Le Pen’s 23 percent. What was his appeal?
Weitzmann: Mélenchon is the heir to the French left’s Cold War politics. France was the Western country where the Communist Party was strongest in the Cold War era. Gaullism and communism were the country’s two political pillars, both advocating a strong central state. Whereas Gaullists were running the economy, communists were running the culture. Communist rhetoric never really left France; neither did a certain attraction to Russia. These go hand-in-hand with anti-Americanism.
Today, there’s an extreme left in France that’s at once similar to and different from American “wokeism.” Their rhetoric is similar—the new French leftists speak of “equity” and talk about white, patriarchal domination and so forth—but they’re different from U.S. wokeists because their electoral base is mostly Muslim and comes from Muslim countries. In a bizarre twist, Mélenchon—who was originally close to the secular communists and Charlie Hebdo—managed to make a weird alliance with far-left Muslims, who are anything but secular. Now he represents a strange mix of white, far-left bourgeois-bohemians; people in Muslim suburbs fighting for their religion; and some working-class supporters who aren’t voting for Le Pen.
Harrison Moore
Harrison Moore
More from Marc Weitzman at The Signal:
In the ’80s, the French working class began to lose its voice in French politics. After the Socialists came to power, the left gave up on the working class. We saw the rise of the gauche caviar or the “caviar left.” Money, technocracy, and public relations took over. The socialist left was at the vanguard of that. There was a theory that the left needed to give up on the working class and bet everything it had on other young people, people of color, women, and gays. Meanwhile, the working class was in shambles—totally neglected and politically orphaned. The National Front [Le Pen’s party, since renamed National Rally] began to rise and attract working-class support, partially because of immigration and the state of suburban life. The left always refused to acknowledge any kind of problems related to migrants or Muslim culture, but such problems arose on a daily basis in the poor, working-class suburbs, and it wasn’t racist to say so.”
There’s a post-fascist culture, so Le Pen can’t exactly be a fascist leader in the old-fashioned sense. She’s more of a populist like Viktor Orbán in Hungary. That said, some of the people around her are anti-Semites and nostalgic for Nazism. … The whole political landscape is in reconstruction—or final destruction, depending on how you look at it. The traditional, liberal right—the party of Valérie Pécresse—split in two. Some will join Macron. Some will join Le Pen. Will Le Pen be able to build up her party? Or will someone from the traditional right replace her? It’s too soon to know. A lot will depend on the parliamentary elections in June.”
In less than a decade, we’ve seen this country’s two main political parties reduced to nothing. The [center-left] Socialist Party, which was once the leading party, now represents less than 2 percent of the electorate. The traditional, liberal right is in shambles. This is a bit as if America’s Democratic Party and Republican Party had disappeared and all that remained were the wokeists and Donald Trump. Macron is all that remains of the broad center in France, but he’s a new, technocratic centrist—not the kind of politician we’re used to.”

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