No matter what happens in Sunday’s French presidential election, voters there will be making history.
The race for France's top job has come down to a head-to-head competition between Marine Le Pen, a far-right populist, an Emmanuel Macron, an arch-centrist defined by his pro-EU and pro-immigrant stances. Neither of them represent the two parties — the center-left Socialists and center-right Republicans — that have traditionally dominated French politics. The parties, discredited by incompetence and scandal, have instead been overtaken by one formerly fringe party and one entirely new one. It’s as if the Democrats and Republicans were out of contention in the last week of a presidential election.
“In a country in which the center-left and center-right alternation was no less entrenched than in the United States… this is a complete radical break,” Yascha Mounk, a lecturer at Harvard who studies Western democracy, tells me. “It’s important not to underplay that.”
But in a certain sense, the dynamic speaks to broader divisions with France itself — and within the rest of Europe.
After decades of rising immigration rates and devolving sovereignty to the EU, combined with the more immediate shocks of the Great Recession and the refugee crisis, some French voters have come to question the basic premises of their political system. Does France want to continue to push for an open, connected Europe it helped build? Or would it be better shutting its door, to immigration and Europe alike?
Voters who prefer the latter answer have their champion in Le Pen. And Macron, a centrist former investment banker, is a near-perfect distillation of the pro-Europe consensus. One observer of their Wednesday evening debate wrote that "Macron seems genuinely to not have a nationalist bone in his body."
The center is likely to hold. French polls, which were highly accurate in the first round of the election, have him winning by roughly 20 points. That’s a far, far higher margin than what you saw before the surprise Brexit and Trump victories; even if Le Pen over-performs significantly, she would still have to climb a daunting hill to make up the difference.
But even a 20-point lead isn’t a guarantee. And even if Le Pen loses, the fact that she’s gotten this far tells us a lot about the ways that France, and Europe more broadly, is changing in the modern era: shifting from a relatively stable debate over the welfare state to a deeper fight over the very nature of European identity.
How we got to this absolutely stunning election
The story of how we got here — to a total upending of the French political order — starts in 1972. That year, Marine’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, founded the National Front.
Le Pen’s goal was to build a vehicle for far-right politics in the post-Nazi era. Its essential theory was that while language about white racial superiority had been discredited, fear of difference in general had not. He capitalized on fears about immigration, which had been growing at an unprecedented rate after the war, particularly immigration from nonwhite, primarily Muslim countries like Algeria.
"Tomorrow the immigrants will move in with you, eat your soup, and they will sleep with your wife, your daughter, or your son," Le Pen famously warned in 1984. His party went on to win 11 percent of the French national vote that year, its breakthrough performance.
Despite this, however, the Front had long been consigned to the fringes of French politics. Jean-Marie, who had repeatedly questioned the existence of Nazi gas chambers, was too toxic for most French voters. When Le Pen made it to the presidential runoff in 2002, the French public was stunned and furious. After mass protests, he was defeated by Republican Jacques Chirac by a whopping 82-18 margin.
Marine took over from her father in 2011, and immediately set about softening the Front’s image by downplaying its xenophobia and historical anti-Semitism. She purged party members seen as too tied to her father, (somewhat) moderated its rhetoric on immigrants, and sold her party as the champion of the French working class against corrupt elites in Paris and Brussels. She built up a base, in particular, in the country’s Northeast and South.
According to Cas Mudde, a professor at the University of Georgia who studies the far right, the Northeast of France is the “Rust Belt” of France: “former blue-collar areas that used to be pretty wealthy and are now kind of in decay. They have reasonably high immigration and a lot of social problems.”
Mudde added that a lot of French citizens who had formerly lived in Algeria moved to Southern France after the North African country won its independence — and brought a prejudiced worldview back with them. “A lot of the [white] French who settled in Algeria, after independence, moved to the South of France, and obviously came with a lot of baggage,” he said. “They were very right-wing ... and obviously very xenophobic, particularly toward North Africans.”
In the most recent election, in 2012, this had not been enough for Le Pen to defeat either of the major parties in the first round and make it to the runoff. But in between then and now, the two major parties screwed up massively. Incumbent Socialist President François Hollande managed to alienate basically everyone (his approval rating is at about 4 percent), screwing over his successor Benoît Hamon. Republican candidate François Fillon got indicted by French prosecutors for funneling government money to his wife and children.
This, together with a refugee crisis and a spate of terrorist attacks, put Le Pen at the top of the first-round polls. But it also created room for a centrist candidate — someone who could represent the consensus against Le Pen’s radical revisionism.
Macron fit the bill. A banker-turned-politician who served as the economics minister in Hollande’s government between 2014 and 2016, he basically had down-the-middle views on economics (by French standards). He distinguished himself, instead, by mounting a spirited and charismatic defense of welcoming immigrants and French participation in the EU. At his final rally before the runoff, he literally held up an EU flag while speaking. He came in first place in the runoff, beating Le Pen on the back of support from urban and educated voters.
Traditionally, French presidential elections were contests between the center-left and center-right economic vision. But in the Macron-Le Pen race, the core contrast wasn’t on economics — Le Pen is much further left there than you might think, generally believing that France should maintain a high levels of welfare state but prevent immigrants from accessing it, and also had little in the way of detailed policy proposals.
Instead, this election has become a referendum on French identity. Who is France for, really?
What the election means
In an effort to separate herself from her party’s historical baggage, Le Pen resigned from her leadership of the FN after the runoff. No one really fell for it: Many in France still see her as a far-right candidate representing a far-right party.
As such, the establishment candidates who lost in the 11-candidate first round immediately endorsed Macron in the second. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a far-left populist who placed a surprisingly strong fourth in round one, is the only leading figure from the 2017 race not to back Macron openly.
All of these candidates did so, explicitly, as a way of keeping the reviled Front consigned to the margins of French politics. And indeed, it appears that French voters want it that way — the poll averages have shown a remarkably stable and large Macron lead throughout the race:
It’s not that a Le Pen win is inconceivable. It’s just the chance is, as Mudde puts it, “incredibly low, mainly theoretical.”
Since a Macron victory would be a victory, more or less, for France’s status quo — one that likely wouldn’t produce a ton of radical legislative change — it’s easy to see this as a drama-free election. But that’s not quite right.
For one thing, a Le Pen victory would be a shock to the European order that would make Brexit look tame. France was the driving force behind the creation of the European Union, and aside from Germany has long been its most important economy. France electing an outright anti-EU politician could do incredible damage to the European project. French establishment figures frame it in apocalyptic terms.
“I never thought that in my lifetime I could believe that the European Union will be threatened, but it is threatened,” Gérard Araud, France’s Ambassador to the US, said in a late April appearance on NPR. “The far-right is not a usual political party. It's something totally a question of society, a question of civilization.”
So even if the odds of a Le Pen victory are low, the stakes are so high that it’s hard not to be a little nervous.
Moreover, the election isn’t relevant only in terms of who wins. Mudde argues that the amount of support that Le Pen gets, will be “crucial” to her future in French politics.
Basically, how she does determines how much control she has over the more hardline factions inside her party. If she loses by a wide margin, you can expect the more outright xenophobes and anti-Semites in the Front to start challenging Le Pen’s “mainstreaming” strategy. In essence, a far-right party could lurch even further to the right.
“It is not so much about the presidency of France, which she knows is out of reach, but for the presidency of the FN,” he tells me. “If she gets 40 percent or more, she has shown that her strategy of de-demonization, controversial among hardliners within the party, works and she has a serious chance at winning in 2022. If If she gets less, her internal position will weaken. I would assume she will be fine as long as she gets above 30 percent, but no longer almighty.”
More broadly, the election should hammer home just how risky it is that far-right populists like Le Pen have become a regular part of European elections across the continent. While these parties have mostly underperformed in recent elections, the fact that they’re continually coming close raises real questions about systemic risk on the continent.
“[Imagine] you have a plane, and that plane is supposed to have an accident once every 20 years, but then you find that out of the last 10 trips there’s been a [near-miss] incident five times,” Mounk says. “One way of reading is to say, ‘Well, it’s landed safely each of these times,’ and not worry. Another way of reading this is to say, ‘Well look, there should be very, very few incidents — and now we’re having those all of the time.’”
The French election isn’t a bellwether for all of Europe’s far-right; it’s just one data point among several, including the defeat of Austria’s far-right presidential candidate in December and Dutch firebrand Geert Wilders’s underperformance in a parliamentary election earlier this year. But given France’s size, power, and historical importance in Europe, the election will be an especially important data point — and one that people will be watching closely even if there end up being no surprises in who ends up winning.