On April 23rd 2017, what many French people and analysts abroad feared happened: the far-right, with 21.3% of the votes, was a round close to the presidency. But why were people so scared of Marine Le Pen, leader of the Front National (FN), coming to power? Most of them were fundamentally opposed to her far-right agenda, but many were also terrified that she would be a threat to France’s democracy. But could have Marine Le Pen really been an authoritarian leader had she been elected? Could her presidency truly hurt democracy? I argue that Marine Le Pen was an authoritarian candidate but that the French democracy is too strong to be substantially weakened.
In How Democracies Die, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt ‘‘developed a set of four behavioral warning signs that can help us know an authoritarian when we see one.’’ According to them, an antidemocratic politician 1. rejects, or is weakly committed to, the democratic rules of the game, 2. denies the legitimacy of political opponents, 3. tolerates or encourages violence, 4. indicates a willingness to curtail the civil liberties of opponents, including the media.
While Le Pen doesn’t publicly reject democracy, few modern authoritarian leaders do. Instead, according to Levitsky and Ziblatt, candidates that show authoritarian behavior can either “reject the Constitution or express a willingness to violate it, suggest a need for antidemocratic measures, such as […] violating or suspending the Constitution, banning certain organizations, or restricting certain basic civil or political rights.’’ Marine Le Pen does all of the above.
Indeed, one of her main campaign promise was to revise the Constitution. She wanted to include the concept of “national priority,” which would allow the prioritization of French citizens over non-citizens in sectors such as employment, housing, and social welfare. According to jurist Dominique Rousseau, this proposal is in complete opposition to the concept of French democracy as the principle of equality is written in the Constitution. The latter prohibits the fostering of discrimination against race, opinions, religions, and origin, which is just what this amendment to the constitution would do. Indeed, one of the measures highlighted by the FN during the campaign was to have an additional tax for companies that hire non-French citizens. Additionally, her promise to forbid people from wearing a kippah or headscarf in the public space is unconstitutional too, as it does not respect the right to freedom of conscience.
The far-right candidate additionally promised a change in the Constitution that would allow referendums for any laws (they are currently restricted to a limited kind of laws). This would mean that a law could be passed without the approval of the House. Such a measure could prove to be extremely dangerous for France. Indeed, it has been proven that ‘‘although mass responses to extremist appeals matter, what matters more is whether political elites, and especially parties, serve as filters.’’ Without democracy’s gatekeepers voting laws, Le Pen could potentially erode democracy. While this would be an extremely difficult and unlikely process without an institutional coup, it would still be possible.
Lastly, leaving the European Union like Le Pen has promised would also mean leaving the European Court of Human Rights and other similar institutions, which is against the current Constitution.
Another characteristic of authoritarian behavior is tolerating or encouraging violence by, among others, ‘‘refusing to unambiguously condemn and punish violence by their supporters or praising (or refusing to condemn) acts of political violence.’’ It is well known that some FN supporters have ties with violent gangs and other neo-nazis groupuscules. And there are endless instances of Marine Le Pen and Front National politicians refusing to condemn violence.
One such example was Marine Le Pen’s refusal to condemn the rape of a young black man by the police, saying ‘’my principle is that I always support the police forces.’’ Her dad, known to be more extremist than her had stated that the Norwegian Government’s laxity surrounding immigration was way worse than the terrorists attacks perpetrated by a right-wing extremist that killed 77 people. He was also condemned for vindication of crime against humanity after having denied the horrors of the Holocaust. Her dad was the founder and President of Marine Le Pen’s party, le Front National. The 2017 candidate was herself condemned for slander on many occasions.
The last way to detect authoritarian behavior is the readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents, including the media, by threatening to take legal action against critics in rival parties, civil society, or the media.
Marine Le Pen has always had a tumultuous relationship with the media. She banned some liberal news outlets from attending her meetings, violently removing them if they tried to enter. Similarly to Donald Trump, she has repeatedly portrayed the media as the enemy, an untrustworthy elite that lied to the mass. She attacked many of them in justice for defamation or libel. She has also taken legal action against other politicians, losing most of the lawsuits.
Using Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s criterias, we can conclude that Marine Le Pen has many characteristics of a potentially authoritarian candidate. But if elected, could she have turned France into a Frankenstate? As observed above, it would be extremely difficult for her to change the Constitution and override the opinion of the Assembly through referendums. However, article 49.3 of the French Constitution allows the Prime Minister to pass a law without consulting the house. Nonetheless, this article limits the number of times this can be done, and makes the Prime Minister responsible to the legislative power, making it a dangerous political move.
Another subtle way to control the state would be to keep on extending the State of Emergency. Such dispositions grant “exceptional powers” to the President, allow authorities to “decide administrative searches and seizures, day and night, without judiciary oversight,’’ prohibit peaceful public assembly, create curfews and other such measures. The State of Emergency was in place from 2015 to 2017 and has been replaced by similar, though less extreme, permanent laws. It is likely that Marine Le Pen, playing on the French’s fear of terrorist attacks, might have enforced the State of Emergency indefinitely, using it to legitimate high control of the population, especially non-citizens.
Marine Le Pen checks many boxes of an authoritarian candidate, especially in her desire to change the constitution and implement unconstitutional laws. However, it is unlikely that she would have been able to transform France into a Frankenstate without a constitutional coup as the country’s institutions strongly protect its citizens’ rights. She might have been able to induce some democratic backsliding using the State of Emergency and article 49.3 of the constitution, but the French’s rights would not have experienced substantial threats. It is important, though, to understand why such a high proportion of the French population were ready for a tougher head of the State. Some argue that the main reason was the repeated terrorist attacks preceding the 2017 elections, which increased racism as well as a need and want for strong security policies. Interestingly enough, Pippa Norris argues that ‘‘behaviorally, the most serious contemporary threats to Western liberal democracies arise from twin forces that each, in different ways, seek to undermine the regime: sporadic and random terrorist attacks on domestic soil, which damage feelings of security, and the rise of populist-authoritarian forces.’’ These two characteristics have been prominent in the years leading to the 2017 election, but it looks like the French democracy is resistant to its threats.
Levitsky, Steven, and Daniel Ziblatt. How Democracies Die. Crown Publishing, 2018.
Pippa Norris. Is Western Democracy Backsliding? Diagnosing The Risks. Journal of Democracy. 2017.
Révision de la Constitution : “Le projet de Marine Le Pen est de sortir de la République.” https://www.francetvinfo.fr/politique/marine-le-pen/revision-de-la-constitution-le-projet-de-marine-le-pen-est-de-sortir-de-la-republique_2134935.html
Photo by Blandine Le Cain “Meeting 1er May 2012 Front National” (Flickr), Creative Commons Zero license.