In an early chapter of Michel Houllebecq’s best-selling novel Soumission, the laconic, alienated but professionally successful narrator (François, an expert on the 19th-century Catholic writer Huysmans) explains his lack of interest in French contemporary politics. “A center-left candidate is elected, and governs for one or two terms depending on his degree of charisma; for obscure reasons he is never elected to a third term. The populace tires of the candidate and more generally of the center-left, and one observes the phenomenon of alternance démocratique, and the electors bring the center-right to power, for one or two terms depending on the individual candidate. Oddly enough, the Western countries were extremely proud of this system which was in effect nothing more than the sharing of power between two rival gangs, and occasionally started wars to impose it on countries which didn’t share their enthusiasm.”
As readers of the novel or its reviews are aware, this system was soon to be upended in France—yielding an election in which the much-reviled nationalist-populist, right-wing National Front presidential candidate faced off against a politically agile and globally ambitious Muslim, the son of an immigrant grocer and a graduate of the top French administrative and political school, who had bested his center-left rival in the French version of the primary election. Such a disruption was inevitable, as Houellebecq’s narrator points out in one of his sociological asides, as the demographic and social system which served as the foundation of alternance démocratique was gradually rotting away at its foundations. The patriarchy of previous generations, for all its constraints on individual autonomy, had at least the benefit of being able to reproduce itself, yielding families, which reproduced children and created new families, which reproduced families, for century after century. Post-1968 France, not so much.
France is probably still an election cycle or two away from the political scenarios sketched out in Soumission. But one element of the Houllebecq scenario has already come to pass, at least in part. The Front National has become the largest and most interesting element in the political conversation. A visitor to Paris is struck almost immediately by the fact that virtually all the political commentary seems to be about Marine Le Pen and the party she inherited from her father and is trying to transform. Both because the National Front has a past as an extremist party, and because it threatens the alternance democratique as sketched out by Houellebecq, nine-tenths of the commentary falls on a continuum between the mildly hostile and the rabidly negative. Nonetheless, the party—a marginal political group 40 years ago—has grown. In the first round of last week’s departmental elections—local elections for positions about which very few people understand the actual responsibilities—the National Front produced a very respectable 25 percent score, exceeded by the center-right coalition party of former president Nicholas Sarkozy but comfortably ahead of the ruling socialists. The vote total equaled the FN’s score in the European legislative elections last year, which was considered a major breakthrough. Four years ago, the FN scored 15 percent in the local elections, so the FN can point to a clear and seemingly unambiguous rise towards major party status.
This is the legacy of Marine Le Pen, since 2011 the FN’s president. She is in her mid-40s, twice divorced, three kids, attractive and charismatic with a straightforward manner. She has the look of a woman who may have partied more than studied in her youth, with the husky voice of someone who has smoked her share of cigarettes. She possesses some odd political talents. A regular and quite justified complaint made by the FN is that the center-right only talks about immigration as an issue during the run-up to elections; in power (and Sarkozy or his predecessors have been in power a lot in the past 30 years) the center-right does absolutely nothing to address an issue which, in the opinion of some, has the potential to bring to an end France as an historic and cultural entity. The most recent campaign was no exception: suddenly, days before the election, French TV screens filled with Sarkozy-aligned candidates demanding, in a transparently anti-Muslim gesture, the end to the serving of pork-free meals in school cafeterias. Several years ago, when Marine Le Pen was in the process of emerging as the major public figure of the FN, a TV interviewer asked her about a similar rise in Sarkozyite anti-immigrant rhetoric. She paused, smiled into the camera, and broke into an effective rendition the song “It’s Only Words” by the late and much beloved Franco-Egyptian torch singer Dalida.
Unlike Sarkozy’s, Marine Le Pen’s party has never had the power to change the immigration system, but she is able to address the subject with insight and tact. A few days before the departmental vote she went on the TV program Toutes Les France, hosted by Ahmed El Keyy. She arrived in a large studio set up as a living room, where about 20 college or graduate-school age students awaited her.The students, presumably chosen as representative of a multicultural French future which Marine Le Pen rejects, were by my estimation about three quarters of color. Madame Le Pen had walked into the lion’s den. One fully expected the session to disintegrate—as it would with any American politician—into a mouthing of defensive and politically correct platitudes. A young black woman, an engineering student, asked her what kind of place did her version of France have for her. Marine replied, first of all, by asking “Are you French?”—and when the reply was affirmative, said that was wonderful and it was great she was becoming an engineer, and she wanted to protect French jobs and French culture. Alright, but then came the follow-up. Marine’s party opposes birthright citizenship, whereby children born in France automatically receive French citizenship. And the host raised the fact that the FN has historically opposed immigration, and if Marine’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, had any say over the matter in the 1990s the parents of this young engineer of Senegalese background wouldn’t have been permitted to immigrate to France. That rhetorical game is now a near-constant in French politics—how do Marine’s views differ from her father’s? Can she be cornered into repudiating her father? Scholars at top universities have written book-length semiotic analyses exploring whether the language of Marine’s FN is really different or only appears to be. (The conclusion is a bit of both, but Marine has avoided any actual repudiation of her father.) In any case, for the candidate it seemed a potentially tricky moment.
Marine repeated that she was delighted that this young woman was French, was planning to have here a career as engineer. And then—offered the chance to separate herself from her father’s views—she refused. It would not be terrible, she continued, addressing the young woman, if you were an engineer in the country of your parents, Senegal, which also needs engineers. Indeed that might be a good thing. And in fact, she opposes the policy of Sarkozy and others to skim off the intelligentsia of the various former French colonies and bring it to France—it probably does more harm than good to world economic development. That process is part of the mondialisation sauvage–savage globalization; it sounds better in French—which she and her party strongly oppose.
Of course, regardless of whether or not it would be better for more people if engineers of Senegalese background made their careers in Senegal, smart young people of color graduating from good French schools and working in France is not what makes immigration a major French concern. The worry is the far larger number of second- and-third generation immigrants who are not well integrated into middle-class careers. One can point to any number of dramatic indicators: the weeks of rioting and car burning which erupted in the suburbs surrounding Paris 10 years ago; the population of the French prison system; the murders of Jewish students in Toulouse last year, the Charlie Hebdo assassinations and the killings at the kosher supermarket. These all have combined aspects of a religious conflict with militant Islam and elements of a growing underclass problem—the fact that it can be both at the same time expands it exponentially, making it far more challenging than anything Americans now face.
One can take the subway from Paris to the Basilica of Saint Denis, a magnificent and vast cathedral constructed in the Middle Ages, an awe-inspiring monument to peak Christendom, a place where dozens of French kings, princes, and princesses are buried. A quarter mile from the church you are in the streets of Saint-Denis, once part of the Red Belt and a communist stronghold, now an impoverished Third Worldish urban zone. I walked the length of the main market street at three in the afternoon, and it felt not threatening, though I probably was the only white person. Two hours later, a considerably greater number of of idle and tough looking young men were hanging around. Much is made of the contrast between Texas and Mexico, the much storied border between the developed and undeveloped world, but Texas and Mexico and New Mexico and Arizona are essentially part of the same civilization. Walk the three football fields from the Saint Denis Basilica to the streets of the town, and, quite simply, you cross from a monument of one civilization to a new world that is completely different.
The National Front has made immigration a key issue since the birth of the party. It has long been a question whether the origins of the National Front disqualify it, or should disqualify it, from a role in French political life. The FN was created from a coalition of various right-wing currents in French life in the ’60s, all which had been on the losing side of major conflicts. At the FN’s birth one can find neofascists, political descendants of the proponents of Petainism (a sensibility which comprised, in 1942 or thereabouts, a rather large percentage of Frenchmen) and of collaboration. One could also find those who rebelled, sometimes violently, against De Gaulle’s negotiation of independence for Algeria—whose sense of betrayal by the general was intensified in many cases because of their previous reverence for him. You could find many hardline anti-communists, opponents of détente and frank admirers of Pinochet and Franco. Jean-Marie Le Pen, a rakish, charismatic, former Poujadist deputy, operated comfortably in these milieus and was able forge them into a semi-serious political party and make it into a vehicle for his own political career. The senior Le Pen’s discourse was populist and often racialist; his anti-Semitic remarks, sporadic, probably calculated, and usually ambiguous, have been well documented. Jean-Marie Le Pen was able to run several moderately successful presidential campaigns, achieving a status as France’s principal right-wing tribune, but he could never, ever be president of France or part of a governing coalition.
Marine Le Pen’s ambition is to overcome that. The rhetoric of the party has changed: gone are any racially tinged or anti-Semitic remarks. About a dozen of the 7,000 candidates the FN ran for the departmentals were compelled by the party to withdraw—often for expressions of the kind of juvenile racism or homophobia that crops up with relative frequency in the Facebook postings of low-level Republican officials in the U.S. The French liberal press did a major investigative sweep of all the FN candidates’ social media presence, and they of course found some crude banana jokes or remarks conflating homosexuality with bestiality—but overall it seemed somewhat surprising how little of it there was. This is now a much bigger party than Jean-Marie Le Pen’s, one that runs candidates for every elective office in France and is extremely reliant on people who have not been professional politicians. But its overall extremism level seems, at least impressionistically, a good deal lower than the Tea Party’s.
So if the FN no longer promotes a racially tinged nationalist populism what does it stand for? Essentially, the FN has become the party which questions French integration into Europe and opposes an Anglo-Saxon dominated global marketplace in which France which has lost control of its own economic destiny. Marine Le Pen’s most important speeches have targeted what she calls mondialisation sauvage, or sometimes totalitarianism mondialiste. The bête noir of the FN is ultra-liberalism (in the European sense), an unrestrained capitalism which destroys everything in its path—families, communities, nations. She denounces the G8, the G20, the IMF; she opposes the “ultra-liberal diktats of the high priests of the EU.” She calls for economic patriotism, adding if economic patriotism doesn’t please the EU, we will do without the EU. She has promised to put France’s adhesion to the European currency to a referendum. More generally, though, the FN has been muted on foreign-policy questions, her party has opposed foreign intervention in Afghanistan and Syria, and is far less anti-Russian than the other major parties.
In other words, under Marine Le Pen, the FN has embraced opposition to economic globalization as its major theme, relegating everything else to secondary or tertiary positions. While the FN of her father was fully in favor of free enterprise, she is not. It is perhaps not surprising that many of the FN’s new pockets of support comes from depressed industrial regions that once voted communist. The voters of the National Front may have more in common with the voters of the various left socialist parties than they yet realize.
This emphasis on the global economy has coincided with the thoroughgoing de-racialization of the FN’s political agitation. The shift was foreshadowed several years ago, when Marine Le Pen served as the director of strategy of her father’s last presidential campaign, in 2007: one Marine-inspired poster showed a young French/North African woman, dressed in tight jeans, a little exposed skin of an outthrust hip, flashing a thumbs down sign: “Nationality, Assimilation, Upward Mobility, Laicism: the (establishments of the) Left/Right have BROKEN THEM ALL.” The thoroughly assimilated beurette becomes for Marine Le Pen’s National Front a stand-in for Marianne, the feminine symbol of La Republique, which the left-right globalist establishment is in the process of destroying.
Another French political tradition the new FN has partially succeeded in appropriating is Gaullism. The irony in this is beyond obvious: Jean-Marie Le Pen’s Front National had connections both to Petainists and to the French right-wing elements that considered de Gaulle a traitor over Algeria and tried to have him killed.
But nearly 45 years after de Gaulle’s death, what party in France does approximate a modern version of what the general might have stood for? The nominal heritors of Gaullism, the center-right parties of UMP, represent essentially France’s winners, its businessmen and those who are comfortable enough with globalism, with an increasingly European rather than a French identity, the Davos men and women who make up the ruling class in much of the capitalist West. And they do have a certain claim to de Gaulle. But there was much to de Gaulle that was also reactionary, extremely prickly about Anglo-Saxon power, fiercely protective of French sovereignty. Would de Gaulle, who called for a “Europe of nation-states,” have embraced the euro? Would de Gaulle be lining up under Washington’s leadership to impose sanctions on Russia? On Iran? It is far from obvious that he would. Marine Le Pen’s claim that the FN has become France’s Gaullist party is not absurd on its face.
The new, nearly mainstream Front National remains a very young party–still trying very hard to attract capable, highly educated people to its ranks. Marine Le Pen can go head to head in debate with anyone in France and hold her own; so can any of a dozen or so new National Front figures she has recruited or attracted to the party within the past five years. But one senses this is still an organization with a weak bench: on TV on election night, the FN seemed sometimes to be represented by very young people, somewhat fearful of saying the wrong thing, who were overshadowed by the more experienced and telegenic personalities of the center-right and center-left.
That said, the FN’s upside potential is truly vast. Marine Le Pen’s National Front is far and away the largest party in a major country to challenge the Washington-dominated, neoliberal, globalist consensus. It is easily the largest anti-immigration party to emerge in the West, and one which is clearly striving, with not inconsiderable success, to navigate the narrow shoal between national self-preservation and racism. For the first time in many years, political events in France merit close observation, for Marine Le Pen’s success, hardly foreordained, but hardly impossible, could rewrite the history of a decadent West.
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.