Is Marine Le Pen Really France’s Donald Trump?

Another nationalist is in line for the presidency. Professor Cécile Alduy examines the field.

Cécile Alduy
Cécile Alduy is a professor of French studies at Stanford University.

Cécile Alduy

One of the more chilling aspects of the rise of Donald Trump is that he is not unique: He seems only vaguely better or worse than a number of other demagogues currently in power or running for office. Populism, xenophobia, and bigotry have exploded across Europe, but they have taken special prominence in France, which is scheduled to hold a presidential election in April to replace the unpopular Socialist administration of François Hollande. (Because no candidate is likely to approach 50 percent, there will probably be a runoff two weeks later.)

The reason the contest feels so momentous is that Marine Le Pen, the candidate of the right-wing National Front, is likely to be one of the two finalists. Le Pen is not only an admirer of Trump, and simpatico with right-wing populist movements worldwide, but she also wants to see France leave the European Union and take a much tougher line on Muslims and immigrants. (Her father, Jean-Marie, founded the party back in 1972 and ran repeatedly for president before being expelled from the party in 2015.) Le Pen’s opponent in the runoff was likely to have been the right-wing former prime minister François Fillon, who also takes a much tougher line on foreigners (as long as they aren’t named Vladimir Putin). But a financial scandal has now opened up space for Emmanuel Macron, a former minister in Hollande’s government who left to form his own party. The Socialists, meanwhile, nominated Benoît Hamon, who has criticized Hollande from the left.

To discuss the current French political scene, and how it might affect American and global affairs, I spoke by phone this week with Cécile Alduy, a professor of French studies at Stanford University and an expert on French politics. She is also the author of a book on Marine Le Pen. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed what Le Pen and Trump don’t have in common, the ways French politics have changed in the past two decades, and whether Trump’s victory will help or hurt the far right in France.

Isaac Chotiner: We hear a lot about Le Pen’s similarities to Trump. How are they different?

Cécile Alduy: Ideologically, they are very similar, but one difference is communication style. Trump has made his brand about political incorrectness and going against all the ethical, moral, and even linguistic taboos that used to reign in the political world. So we see misogyny, racism, you name it.

However, Marine Le Pen is trying to polish the rhetorical and communications style of the National Front. Her father used to be like Trump, causing media buzz by saying something outrageous or anti-Semitic. Marine Le Pen has ironed out the rhetorical style of the National Front and wants to look presidential. The big difference in France is that because we are a two-round system, you really do need to conquer the vote of over 50 percent of the people who are going to go to the polls. If you are an antagonistic figure, you will always have this ceiling in the second round. She really wants to seem softer spoken, even though her platform has not changed.

No “grab them by the pussy” from Le Pen, then?

No, no. She leaves the media-grabbing comments to her underlings, to reassure her base.

What makes Le Pen unique more generally as a far-right figure?

She has embraced the core republican values of French society, specifically secularism and women’s rights. We are used to a far right that is extremely conservative socially—against abortion and in favor of the death penalty—and she has arrived at the head of the National Front and almost taken a socially liberal posture, saying that she is the best defense of these things against Islam. It is not unique in Europe, because in the Netherlands Geert Wilders is doing the same. But what makes it interesting is that it is much more difficult for her opponents, because she is using their vocabulary and arsenal.

Trump briefly tried a version of this after the Orlando, Florida, massacre, saying he would protect women and gay people from Islamic extremists, but he hasn’t done as much of that.

The pussy-grabbing comments made that less credible. The other thing is that the National Front has been around for 40 years. It predates the populism going around Europe right now. It has been one of the most stable far-right parties in Europe.

Le Pen was obviously thrilled by Trump’s win, but do you think the opposite of momentum might occur, that people might be scared now?

The fact that Trump was elected gives her momentum, because her base is galvanized and hopeful and it makes her winning seem possible. It proves the unlikely can happen. It can mobilize her troops, and what is important in elections is getting people to go to the polls.

But on the other hand you are right: It raises huge fears around the question, What would a Le Pen presidency be? Questions are being asked more concretely about what she would do. She just published her political platform, and it is extremely vague, even on her core ideas around immigration. She doesn’t say what she is going to do. Is she going to deport people? It’s extremely vague, and this is because she has to juggle two things: taking advantage of Trump to legitimate her cause and placating the fears raised by the Trump presidency every single day, when executive orders are taken. Everyone is getting a little more interested in France and mobilized based on what happened.

In 2002, Le Pen’s father Jean-Marie made the runoff but garnered less than 20 percent of the vote. What has changed between 2002 and now, where Marine Le Pen seems to be in a stronger position?

The most important change is that in 2002, the fact that Jean-Marie Le Pen got to the second round was a huge surprise, because we were in a two-party system where usually the right and left competed in the second round. Now, in 2017, it has been at least five years since we have been in a three-party system, with the National Front above the other parties since 2014 in the first round of elections. That’s a huge shift in the makeup of the election, because of the competition to be in the second round.

And now we have Macron running in a fourth party, and he is likely to make the second round, right?

That is a totally new phenomenon: a huge surprise and another change. At the same time, he was a minister and special adviser to Hollande. What is happening is that Macron is taking a position on the economically liberal left that wants to go in the direction of globalization and Europe and reforming the job market to make it easier to hire and fire people. On the other hand, you have the traditional Socialist left concerned with workers and the environment foremost.

What has changed in French society that has allowed for these changes?

One big trend, and it’s not just in France, is that we have reached a point of utter exasperation and frustration with governing parties and what some people call the establishment, just as in Brexit and the election of Trump. Movements that were marginal or protest movements have now become places where citizens turn to express their frustration, and they are now ready to give them power to try something new. We have seen that in the primaries in France. Every single person who five years ago would have been the legitimate candidate has been ousted, to the point that Hollande couldn’t even run. Macron and Le Pen fit into the trend of being leaders trying to offer an alternative.

Macron is trying to offer an alternative, but it also seems like he is running as a liberal technocrat, if you look at his opinions, which may not be the most popular position to be in now, right?

He’s not running like that. He is totally embedded with the last government. He was a very important minister. But he runs as a newcomer outside of the parties, without strings attached to unions or lobbies, as this new and energetic person who wants to give back the floor to the people. He presents his movement as a grassroots movement, going door to door asking people what they wanted. It’s way more top-down than it is advertised as, but he is presenting an image as a newcomer disrupting the way politics goes.

But are his solutions just warmed-over centrism?

Well, there is that, but what is working really in his campaign is the image he is projecting of energy and empowerment. His message is not the measures, but a vision and plan. It is very global. It is called En Marche!: “walking together,” if you wish. We haven’t really seen his propositions. We understand he is a liberal both socially and economically. He is trying to navigate between the left and the right, offering some protection to workers, including extending unemployment benefits to people who are independent workers or quitting their jobs, and offering more flexibility in the job market to companies. So he is going both directions. It is about the spirit of initiative and freedom and empowerment of the people.

It sounds vacuous.

It’s a marketing strategy. There have been some studies of the language he uses. He uses the kind of language that companies use. It’s a motivational speaker mixed with managerial techniques for how to mobilize workers in a project-oriented environment.

If Macron makes the runoff with Le Pen, is there a fear that Socialist voters will desert Macron for Le Pen?

There are some polls right now that say that between 15–20 percent of people whose choice would be the left candidate could turn to Le Pen in the second round. However, this is not exactly new. Even in 2012 you had some transfers of vote between the left and the far right, specifically in the North, which is suffering like the Rust Belt in America. But Le Pen is extremely polarizing. There is still this spirit of republican unity in France, as was evident in the 2015 regional elections. Le Pen’s party was ahead in some elections, but the Socialists rallied around the conservative right candidate, saying that we need to keep the National Front away from power. Le Pen is the only candidate who is so hated. Seventy percent of voters have a bad opinion of her.

This feels like a replay of a bad movie. Do you not think she can win?

It depends on how bad the attacks on Macron are, and whether Fillon withdraws. This election cycle has been insane in terms of surprises. The fact that Fillon might withdraw when a month ago he was considered the likely next president shows what can happen. But if it happened today, she would lose.

I suppose that if there had been a runoff here where Trump needed 50 percent, he wouldn’t have won either.

We do have a popular vote in France. It’s a matter of percentage points.

That seems so rational.

Yeah. I am also American. I have American citizenship as well. [Laughs] I thought, Geez, couldn’t you have a better electoral system?