‘The Bomb.” “An Earthquake.” “The Shock.” Newspaper headlines vied with one another to convey the unprecedented news, while their readers, ranging from the right to left, conservatives to progressives, shook their heads in disbelief. Quite suddenly, a candidate whom few had taken seriously, whose speeches were veined with violence, and whose plan to make the nation great again boiled down to booting out immigrants and building up walls was one of two candidates for the nation’s highest office.
“Zut alors,” muttered the country’s politicians.
Sound familiar? it happened 14 years ago in France. Jean-Marie Le Pen, the leader of the extreme right-wing Front National, reached the second round of France’s presidential election in the spring of 2002. His face-off against the incumbent, Jacques Chirac, galvanized not just France, but much of Europe, where the specter of an authoritarian and xenophobic government still has a powerful historical resonance. It was an unprecedented situation.
In 2002, one of the few growth sectors in the French economy was the study of “declinism.” The nation’s presence in global and cultural affairs was waning, lines of unemployed workers were waxing, and questions of national identity grew increasingly vexing. As social divisions deepened, France seemed to be dividing between what sociologists called the “metropole” and the “periphery.” The worldly and well-educated inhabitants of Paris and Toulouse, Lyon and Grenoble were surfing the great waves of technological and commercial changes. Left behind in the tidal pools of globalization, however, were the less worldly and less educated classes. While the metropole furnished the rank and file of the mainstream parties, the forgotten periphery sought simple answers and a strong leader.
The role was tailor-made for Jean-Marie Le Pen. Infamous for his dismissal of the Holocaust as “a detail of history,” Le Pen’s anti-Semitic bile was, in fact, ecumenical: French Muslims of North African origin no less than French Jews were his target. For Le Pen, the former had become the source of France’s economic and social ills. Depicting these immigrants and their children as invaders, Le Pen was hauled several times into court for inciting racial hatred. But he did not relent, warning that once the Muslim population grew from 5 million to 25 million, “they will be calling the shots while we will walk past them with our heads bowed.”
In the first round of the presidential election, Le Pen’s campaign slogan, “Two million unemployed workers equal two million immigrants,” catapulted him past the Socialist candidate, Lionel Jospin, into second place. In retrospect, this should not have been a surprise. With the Socialists controlling the legislative branch, Jospin had served under the conservative Chirac as prime minister. But this period of political “co-habitation” succeeded only in deepening public cynicism. Chirac was under investigation for cooking the books during his time as mayor of Paris, while Jospin’s government had failed to balance the books. Convinced that cohabitation was French for political paralysis, many “metropolitans,” persuaded that a second round run-off between Chirac and Jospin was inevitable, did not bother to vote in the first round.
But the inevitable did not happen. Workers whose jobs were increasingly threatened and whose country was increasingly unfamiliar rallied to Le Pen’s banner. Socialist voters from the metropoles were stunned but also galvanized. In a banner headline, the leftist newspaper Libération urged its readers: “Vote for the crook, not the fascist!”
Vote for the crook they did: Chirac won the second round with more than 80 percent of the vote. The so-called republican front — a rampart formed by the right and left against a candidate who threatened France’s revolutionary heritage — had seemed to save the day.
In so many respects, Le Pen’s political rise and public words resemble Donald Trump’s. More through instinct than intellect, both men seized upon the disenchantment of an entire swath of voters who face grim economic futures. Le Pen’s illiberal economic proposals — retreat from Europe’s integrated market, reestablishment of the franc, and reinforcement of tariff barriers — rehearsed Trump’s own prescriptions for the American economy. Likewise, Le Pen exploited post-9/11 fears just as Trump has with the recent rash of terrorist attacks. When we recall the Frenchman’s claim that immigrants are “a mortal threat to civil peace in France,” his promise of a policy of “zero immigration,” and his vow to deport 3 million immigrants already in the country, Le Donald seems little more than the American remake of Le Pen.
Violence is the greatest common denominator to both campaigns. According to one study, Le Pen et les mots (Le Pen and Language), the depiction and invocation of violence ran through more than 70 percent of Le Pen’s public remarks. In his portrayal of a nation betrayed by its professional elites and besieged by its Muslim immigrants, Le Pen warned that France was “endangered” and urged his supporters to “rise up and kick out the traitors.” These words had special resonance with Le Pen: A paratrooper during the Algerian war of independence — where, according to Le Monde newspaper, he participated in the widespread use of torture — Le Pen melded misogyny and malice. Just one year after his failed presidential bid, Le Pen lost his seat in the European Parliament when he was found guilty of assaulting the Socialist Annette Peulvast-Bergeal.
What came after the votes were counted is also instructive. Le Pen’s failed presidential campaign mattered less than the successes that followed. Under Marine Le Pen, the current leader and Le Pen’s estranged daughter, the Front National has changed dramatically. She transformed what was once a motley rabble into a disciplined party. She has purged the Front National of its anti-Semitic and thuggish elements — though she still channels its anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim animus — and built a party that has fielded candidates at every level of elective office across the country. From municipal through regional to European elections, the Front National has consistently finished ahead of the Socialists and neck-and-neck with the conservatives. Tellingly, her attitude toward Trump differs markedly from her father’s. Cécile Alduy, a professor at Stanford and author of “Marine Le Pen in her own words,” notes that while the father has endorsed Trump’s candidacy, the daughter “has been mum on the topic, which is toxic for her.” In an e-mail exchange, Alduy speculates this may be part of an effort to look and sound presidential, in advance of a future bid for office.
Marine Le Pen’s transformation of the Front National has turned France into a three-party system for the first time since the demise of the Communist party in the 1980s. And a three-party system it looks to remain. Front National voters no longer simply vote against, they also vote for. They are for the party’s platform of economic protectionism, for the reinforcement of national borders, and for “zero immigration.” In a word, they are for giving the Front National a greater role and voice in the system. They are not merely clinging bitterly to their brioches and bouillabaisse.
If Trump does face Hillary Clinton in the November election, and he is decisively defeated, it will spell the end to his political career. Like his French counterpart, he will continue to bluster and bully, but to little avail. Should there be, however, an American politician as determined and disciplined as Marine Le Pen, Trump’s run may signal the beginning of the movement. The periphery, and those who seek to galvanize its anger, is not limited to our sister republic across the pond.
Robert Zaretsky is a professor at the University of Houston and is author most recently of “Boswell’s Enlightenment.”