Marine Le Pen, the far-right candidate in France’s presidential race, called Sunday’s election a “choice of civilization.” Almost two-thirds of voters heeded those words and cast their ballot for the only civilized option: her 39-year-old rival, centrist Emmanuel Macron.
The result comes as a relief to liberals on both sides of the Atlantic, who badly needed a win after the one-two punch of Brexit and Donald Trump. Le Pen’s defeat puts the kibosh on her campaign promises to halt legal immigration, crack down on Muslims and advance “Frexit.”
But we might not always have Paris.
Le Pen tallied a record level of support for her National Front – doubling the percentage of votes the faction received last time it made it to the run-off against Jaques Chirac in 2002. In the first round last month, Le Pen’s FN also dispatched two once-powerful parties: left-wing Socialists and the right-wing Republicans.
During her campaign, Le Pen also made in-roads with important constituencies – Jews, gay men and lesbians, the working class and women – previously reluctant to support a party with roots in the Nazi-backed Vichy regime. Four decades ago, the FN routinely failed to make ballot requirements. It is now getting close to its long-held aspiration to become the “premier parti de France.”
Despite warnings from the left, France has not fallen under the thrall of some ancient racist or anti-Semitic ideology. The FN is arguably a different party than the one Le Pen inherited from its founder — her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen.
He denied the Holocaust, began campaign rallies with Catholic Mass and lobbed insults at the country’s minorities. She promised to serve as “the best shield” for French Jews, presented as a femme libre and avoided overt racist language. She even purged her old man from the party with a moxie that would make King Lear’s daughters blush.
Le Pen’s campaign message castigated economic globalism and radical Islam as the “two totalitarianisms.” She cautioned at a February rally in Lyon that “each works for the disappearance of our nation, France as we live it, as we love it.”
In her Trump-like campaign narrative, immigrants — invited to the country by “elites” in a dubious quest to stimulate growth and profits — menaced France’s survival by displacing native workers, refusing to assimilate and carrying out lethal terror attacks.
She countered this hellish vision with a powerful image of solidarity for ethnic French: “There is nothing for us more beautiful than France, nothing bigger than France, nothing more useful in the world than France…. We want each Frenchman, in his hopes or difficulties, to be able to feel supported by an attentive and benevolent national community and state.”
This resonated strongly in the country’s northern rust belt, where Le Pen garnered the greatest percentage of votes. The loss of factory work and the concentration of opportunity within the largest urban centers has turned residents into some of the FN’s most enthusiastic backers.
Le Pen would not have brought social peace and economic growth to France. Ditching the European Union and returning to the franc as a currency would have likely thrown the country into a severe recession. With stagnant birth rates and a huge foreign-born population, the nation requires immigration to support its social model and might not be able to stop the flow if it tried. Le Pen’s vitriol against Muslims would have pushed many to radicalism and some to terror.
Her attitudes on immigration and radical Islam demonstrate a historical amnesia. France colonized the North African countries from which most of its Muslim newcomers descend. The conflict between these immigrants and the state traces to imperialism and a long-running xenophobia that still contribute to anti-Arab and anti-Muslim discrimination.
It’s also worth mentioning that Le Pen is no friend to the women and gay voters she lured in. Her party opposes abortion rights and same-sex marriage. She is chummy with the world’s leading persecutor of feminists and queer people: Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Macron, a wealthy banker, will lead a France afflicted by zero growth, high unemployment and long-simmering social divisions. He and other left-of-center politicians face difficult, seemingly impossible challenges ahead of them to keep Le Pen in check. Get rid of onerous taxes and regulation to encourage growth while maintaining the country’s popular but costly safety net. Fight terrorism while pushing for greater social acceptance of immigrants. Adapt the idea of fraternité to an increasingly diverse and multicultural society.
France led the world into the Age Of Enlightenment. Its success would show fellow nations how to triumph over a far-right that attaches bigotry to a left-wing economic message. But its failure might spell darkness for Western democracies.
Daniel J. Solomon is the former Assistant to the Editor/News Writer at the Forward. Originally from Queens, he attended Harvard as an undergraduate, where he wrote his senior thesis on French-Jewish intellectual history. He is excited to have returned to New York after his time in Massachusetts. Daniel’s passions include folk music, cycling, and pointed argument.