Le Pen’s Lessons for Americans
Voters headed to the polls over the weekend for the second round of the French presidential election. The incumbent, Emmanuel Macron, won with a comfortable 58-42 margin. His nationalist opponent, Marine Le Pen, struck out again, having failed to best Macron in 2017. Add the 2002 ballot-box thumping of her father, Jean-Marie, and that means someone named Le Pen has lost three of five presidential elections since the dawn of the 21st century.
You can almost hear the sighs of relief rising from the swampiest precincts of D.C. and Brussels. For weeks, the prestige press sounded the alarms about the threat to democracy (read: liberalism) posed by a Le Pen takeover of the Élysée. The editors of Financial Times were almost out of nasty adjectives to append next to her name. A cartoon in the paper showed Le Pen “closing” France’s door, cutting off sunshine (the only thing the outside world offers, of course).
Le Pen’s major rightist rival, Éric Zemmour, blames her for fumbling a winnable contest. Fact is, a majority of voters picked a dissident candidate of some sort or other in the first round, whether Le Pen, Zemmour, or the left-populist Jean-Luc Mélenchon. By “dissident,” I mean opposed to the mix of green-ism, cultural progressivism, and economic neoliberalism that forms the ruling class’s ideology. Yet precisely that mix triumphed again in the second round.
How bad is the bad news for opposition forces in France? Pretty bad, I suppose. Given the imperial nature of the French presidency, Macron will get five more years to do a lot of things many in the Le Pen-Zemmour-Mélenchon majority won’t appreciate—above all, pressing ahead with ever-greater integration in the European Union and the erosion of French sovereignty over France’s economy, borders, law, and culture.
It is worth considering what lessons the latest French result holds for populists elsewhere, especially the United States. In doing so, we of course have to be careful, since no two countries are exactly alike, and some conditions are unique to France. Nevertheless, a few broad conclusions may be drawn:
1. Liberalism is resilient, its agents devious. I say this as much for my own benefit as for anyone else’s. In 2017-18, when I made my Cortésian break with liberalism, it was in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s and Brexit’s victory, when the populist movement appeared invulnerable. The more the too-online libs raged, the more it confirmed our strength. All along, however, the establishment was marshaling all its powers to ensure no deviation from the neoliberal agenda would take hold. I witnessed this firsthand in my own small world of conservative intellectuals, and writ large in the underhanded efforts to undo the outcome of the 2016 election and the Brexit vote.
In France and Europe, the establishment’s discipline in containing populism is so overt, it is almost taken for granted. It was the French who invented the cordon sanitaire, after all. In 2015, when I interviewed Marine Le Pen for the Wall Street Journal, she told me how, before publishing any story, French reporters and editors always ask themselves, “Will this story help the National Front?” (If the answer was yes, the story got buried or played down.) This time around, the European Union conveniently announced an investigation of Le Pen for allegedly misusing E.U. funds days ahead of the vote. The lesson, then, is that populists need to be a lot sharper and more sober in seeking office, and then in governing. Because when it comes to this kind of anti-systemic politics, we aren’t dealing with normal partisan give and take—but almost a kind of cold domestic warfare.
2. Personal charisma is indispensable. Speaking of that Journal interview, I have to report that while Le Pen has a commanding presence, she ultimately lacks that intangible it factor on which hangs the fate of most politicians. She isn’t a great debater and sometimes gets tripped up by hostile reporters. It is true that some of her charisma issues would remain insurmountable even if she tried to be charming; a certain type of French Catholic voter will never vote for someone with that last name, which evokes her father’s odious reputation. But life, including political life, isn’t fair, and therein lies the lesson: Some of America’s current crop of populists and would-be populists also lack that it factor and can best serve the movement from within the halls of the Senate. Others have it in abundance: namely, Donald J. Trump and Ron DeSantis.
3. Class matters, and so does culture. As Nathan Pinkoski noted in an intelligent Compact column after the first round, Zemmour’s 2022 campaign faded because he paid too little attention to bread-and-butter, working-class issues. With Zemmour, it was all about restoring lost French cultural greatness threatened by uncontrolled immigration. Le Pen, however, went almost too far in the other direction in her bid, toning down issues of social cohesion in favor of the (very real) cost-of-living crisis. A successful populist campaign must address both: to target the cultural insanities of the liberal elite, without losing sight of the economic domination that goes hand-in-hand with cultural progressivism.
So how bad is Le Pen’s loss for the global populist movement? The short answer is: Meh. A Le Pen win would have been a really nice surprise and a powerful blow to the liberal establishment. But keep in mind that Le Pen managed to squeeze Macron’s margin by 8 percentage points, compared to the 2017 results. Last time around, three out of ten French voters made what was once considered an unthinkable choice. This time, four out of ten did that. Growth matters.