The presidential candidate rails against immigrants, trashes NATO and the EU and cozies up to Vladimir Putin. No, it is not Donald Trump, but Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far right National Rally, who is perilously close to becoming the president of France in this Sunday’s runoff against the beleaguered incumbent, Emmanuel Macron.
Ms. Le Pen has done her best to soften her image and long ago severed ties with her father, the founder of her party’s predecessor, the National Front, who once described the Holocaust as a “detail” of history. But, make no mistake, her campaign is rife with anti-immigrant rubric symbolized by her unwavering pledge to ban the head scarf if she is elected. However, she has managed to convert herself to a true populist, harping on Macron’s well-deserved reputation as an arrogant elitist who has presided over a surge of inflation and economic malaise while posing as a statesman above the fray in his futile attempts to persuade Putin to back down from his invasion of Ukraine.
There is an uncanny resemblance between Le Pen’s campaign and Trump’s unlikely 2016 foray. Both appeared to stand no chance at the beginning, but they latched onto the politics of grievance and appealed to the innate prejudices of the vast middle of the electorate who saw their economic prospects dwindle for many reasons, but managed to simplify them to several easy symbols of blame: “globalism” and immigration.
Many of us want to continue to point to Trumpism as an aberration, hoping that the country will come to its senses. And indeed, Joe Biden’s 8 million popular vote advantage in 2020 gave credence to that view. But, the increasing unpopularity of Biden and the peculiarities of this country’s electoral college system make a Trump 2024 comeback more than a remote possibility. Not to mention the treacherous movement to install “Stop the Steal” proponents in key state and county positions that will bias the process in favor of Trump.
Just as Trump has mastered this politics of grievance, so it is with Le Pen. Her potential victory will depend on many on the left breaking the “dam” that has historically precluded the right’s ultimate ascension in France and either defecting to LePen or sitting it out over their disgust with Macron’s elitist tendencies. But many truly are fed up with high gas prices, Islamic terrorists, and the failures of the uniquely French notion of “laicite,” the rigid separation of church and state that demands that its citizens, including immigrants, adopt the country’s culture and traditions above all else if they are to be considered truly “French.” Meanwhile, most Muslim immigrants are forced into ghettoes, nicely labelled “banlieues,” with no educational or economic opportunities. So much for the equally revered notion of “egalite.”
Both the U.S. and France must face the fact that nationalistic tendencies in their countries are more than a passing fad and that growing numbers of their populations are truly enamored with both Trump and Le Pen and represent significant components of the electorates in their countries. The immediate concern on Sunday is that a Le Pen presidency will fracture the surprising unity of the West in their opposition to Putin’s war in Ukraine, but, in the long run, will severely test the relevance of the EU and the NATO alliance themselves.
While Le Pen has condemned the war and tried to distance herself from her fondness for Putin, she undoubtedly would oppose tougher sanctions in the name of protecting the French from undue sacrifice. Again, it all comes down to the price of oil and gas. But until we get serious about weaning ourselves from fossil fuels, Putin will continue to retain the upper hand. That should put a smile on Mr. Trump’s face as he contemplates the prospect of a two-headed monster, himself and Le Pen, as the faces of two of the West’s oldest and most steadfast democracies. My advice? Be afraid, be very afraid. If only The Fly were our only problem.