Western conservatives and free-market liberals appear to be losing their ideological and moral bearings when it comes to French politics in this dramatic election year.
Ross Douthat breathlessly wrote on The New York Times' opinion pages last month that because the extreme-right Front National (FN) leader Marine Le Pen was so much more polished than Donald Trump she 'might deserve to win' the presidential race held in two stages starting on Sunday, with the run-off on 7 May. And this week The Australian’s Adam Creighton did a Down Under Douthat, declaring 'if I were French I would vote for Marine Le Pen'. To not do so would be 'to endorse the rule of self-serving elites' who have apparently driven the country to wrack and ruin and are even culpable for ISIS’s attacks on the cradle of the Enlightenment.
Fortunately for the French, Creighton isn't yet a citizen so he won't be casting a ballot for his unlikely heroine in this weekend’s tightly-run contest. Four candidates are still considered contenders to make it to the deciding second round: independent liberal centrist Emmanuel Macron; Le Pen; the hardline right-wing Catholic conservative Francois Fillon; and the radical Left’s former Trotskyist Jean-Luc Melenchon.
Even if Creighton wanted to act upon his admiration by requesting French nationality, Marine Presidente would refuse him citizenship. She is armed with an anti-immigrant policy far more radical than anything Donald Trump could ever dream up. This week at a Paris rally punctuated by violent protests and chants of 'We are chez nous' and her own calls for 'France for the French', Le Pen vowed before a sea of mostly white faces that she would resist 'planetary submersion' by migrants. In practical terms that would involve closing all French borders, immediately suspending all immigration, both 'illegal' and legal, whether for work, family reasons, or asylum. Muslim or not Muslim, that means no entry.
And contrary to the assertion that Le Pen must be backed because she represents a slap in the face for the 'political and economic elites', Le Pen is the elite. A quintessential insider from the French 'system', she is the daughter of a wealthy lawyer who grew up among privilege in the fancy Paris suburb of Saint Cloud at papa's rambling manor on a large estate. Later she studied at one of Paris’s best law schools. The 48 year-old is an heiress not only to her father Jean-Marie Le Pen's multi-million dollar fortune but also to his ideological legacy, the Front National party he co-founded with the neo-fascist New Order movement in 1972.
The FN is fully established on the French political scene, and Le Pen’s claim that she is the anti-system candidate has at least in France started to become a bit of a joke. The Le Pens have been prominent in French politics since the 1980s when her father began baiting Jews on national television and winning votes from the left by spreading fear of immigrants amid rising unemployment. In 2002 he bumped Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin from the first round of the election but lost the presidency to Jacques Chirac, who scored a crushing 82% victory. Since 2004 Marine Le Pen has been a Member of the European Parliament. Following on from her father, whose FN crown she inherited in 2011, she has presided over an alleged rort of the EU political financing system, diverting hundreds of thousands of euros of public funds meant for parliamentary staff to pay multiple party employees. Still, she is refusing to attend court hearings with investigating judges.
If Douthat and Creighton speak fluent French and watched the lively presidential debates they would have seen a bona fide non-elite candidate, factory worker Philippe Poutou, tackling Le Pen on her hypocrisy and defiance of the judiciary. Le Pen has cited parliamentary immunity to justify her no-shows in the 'fake jobs' investigation. 'There is no immunity for the working class', Poutou said to Le Pen in an electric moment that went viral with the French, tired of corrupt politicians.
Fixed on exiting the euro (although she now promises a referendum) and destroying the EU and NATO in favour of alliances with autocrats and dictators from Moscow to Damascus, Le Pen will not save France from bankruptcy, as some of her fans claim. The details of her economic platform matter deeply. Just ask the 25 Nobel Prize-winning economists, including Robert Shiller, Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen, who signed a letter in Le Monde on Tuesday denouncing Le Pen’s 'protectionist and isolationist' approach to Europe (they could have added far-left candidate Melenchon to their hit list).
Le Pen has vowed to renationalise some French industries and punish companies that shift production outside her precious Gallic frontiers. The bad news for business big and small, and consumers, doesn’t end there. Le Pen has no project to shake up the labour market like the true economic and social liberal in the French race, Emmanuel Macron, who has already put a dent in France’s persistently high unemployment rate by introducing the first reforms in living memory to the country’s stringent labour code. She’s not touching the 35-hour week, and yesterday promised outright to be the candidate of 'protection' of what Creighton calls the 'bloated' French state system of entitlements. In fact, Le Pen has only gotten herself within a whisker of the French presidency because she dumped her father's free-market approach to economics in favour of populist 'anti-globalist' white working class sloganeering that more resembles her far-left nemesis Melenchon than a meeting of the Adam Smith society.
Paying back the 'elites' in Paris, Brussels and international banking cannot be an excuse for legitimising Le Pen's dangerous and illiberal ethno-nationalist categorisation of French citizens and residents into two classes: the 'white' French who can trace their lineage back to Gallic soil for centuries, and those millions of French of migrant origin who were either born abroad or have parents and grandparents from countries and cultures from around the globe, who will see their rights scaled back or abolished. FN's long-standing policy, known as the 'national priority' or 'preference', would privilege French citizens (not dual nationals) in employment, housing and education. Le Pen has promised to put a tax on the salaries of all foreigners working in France, and this week she announced a moratorium on all legal immigration to France, which as Le Monde pointed out in its editorial would bar all students, business people, health workers, scientists, academics with working visas or residency from returning to France if they happened to go home to their countries and tried to return.
A skittish Le Pen is smelling defeat while Macron maintains his lead in the polls and Melenchon and Fillon encircle her on the left and right. Le Pen has hastily abandoned her surface renovation, known as 'dediabolisation' or 'dedemonisation', designed to distance herself from her father's toxic legacy of bigotry. Last week she denied France had any responsibility in the round-up by French soldiers of 13,000 Jews in at the Vel D’Hiv outside central Paris in July 1942. On Sunday she claimed, falsely, that with a Macron victory it would be 'Islamism on the move'. Yesterday she said 'Behind mass immigration, there is terrorism', equating all immigrants with terrorists. Is this really the 'disruption' pundits should be hoping for?
Just because France has problems (although it also has a high birth rate, stellar transport infrastructure, world-leading health system, top universities, some of the world’s biggest companies, and a young educated population) doesn’t mean Le Pen is the solution. Yes, French politicians, especially at the local level, have tolerated the growth of separatist Salafist communities, some of which have produced outsized numbers of jihadists. But France had a wake-up call after the wave of terror strikes in 2015 and 2016. The 'elites' are much more alert to the threat and making great strides in tackling it.
It can also not be ignored that France been targeted by an imported Islamist ideology that has caught the proudly secular nation by surprise. No longer. France’s Muslims are standing up against the idea that they are a community of either terrorists, radicals or political spoilers bent on dragging down French values of liberty, equality, fraternity and 'laicite' (secularism). They are not supporting Le Pen’s radical alter ego Melenchon in great numbers, or other left-wing candidates who promise more of the same complicit communitarian politics. As the former Charlie Hebdo journalist Zineb El Rhazoui, France’s most protected woman, who lives in hiding under 24-hour guard like France’s Salman Rushdie, told me in New York this month, Le Pen and Islamist radicals are both far-right in their own way, 'because both want to define Muslims as a community, not as individuals'. And both sides of the extremist coin want special rights for their religious and ethnic groupings, in a complete travesty of the French republic's grounding in equality and human rights. Let's not wish for a Le Pen victory.
Photo by Flickr user Blandine Le Cain.