Democratic ideals were first introduced to France during the time of the French Revolution, in 1789. Since then, France has come a long way, and is currently referred to as an example of a strong democracy. However, there are now forces in France that threaten democratic ideals and seem to encourage its government backsliding to pre-Revolution times. Marine Le Pen, a populist politician coming from the extreme right, has become one of the figures in France that threatens repression of democracy.
Le Pen’s loss in the French election in 2017 is a much-needed win for moderates, centrism, and democracy.
Her father founded the Front National, Le Pen’s party, in 1972 and she took it over when she expelled him from the party in 2015. This was an attempt to distance herself from her father’s extreme, controversial, anti-semitic views. For years, France’s more mainstream parties have tried to denounce the Front National, saying that its leaders were racist, xenophobic, and dangerous to democracy in the country. Le Pen, true to the ideals others accused her party of, ran on an anti-immigration campaign, similar to Donald Trump in the U.S. 2016 election. The frightening thing about Le Pen is that she tries to hide her wishes and plans for democratic backsliding under wraps. Instead of saying outrageous claims to gain momentum like her father or Trump, Le Pen intentionally tries to appear less intense on her platform than she actually would be if elected into office.
Marine Le Pen’s populist ways have shone through on multiple ocassions when she advocates for French protectionism. She wants France to leave NATO, a strong military alliance, even though she realizes that France would have to raise its own spending on defense. However, with the recent attacks in Paris, France in 2015, she must realize that pulling out of NATO is not the correct decision. If she still supports this view, it doesn’t seem like she supports a safe, healthy democracy. Furthermore, she supports Brexit and desires for France to follow in those footsteps, resulting in a so-called “Frexit”. When she claims to represent the majority of the people, it seems she is forgetting that 48% of the British electorate was actually opposed to taking the United Kingdom out of the EU. It would most likely be the same case in France, and if elected she would still push for this to happen. This is a large hint that she would be a danger to democracy because she would only represent the wishes of a small portion of the population. She has also expressed her distaste for international trade just like Donald Trump, actually stating in an NPR interview that “free trade is dead”.
Le Pen is heavily anti-establishment and pits groups of people against each other, which is always a very dangerous threat to democracy. Furthermore, her strategy of pitting the elites against the working class did not help her win in this case. Le Pen grew up in one of France’s richest districts, so it is understandable that many poor or working class people didn’t trust her to advocate on their behalf. Many French citizens believe that their living conditions have been declining in the past few years and Le Pen tried to pin that on the establishment, but her past fortunes and growing up with a prejudiced politician as a father did not help her case.
So, what would have happened if Le Pen had won the French election? France would most likely exit from the European Union, creating even more chaos in that sector of the world. Immigration laws would tighten their clenching jaws. As a result, many people illegally living in France would be deported, like Syrian refugees who are only trying to escape the conflict in their home country. People who speak French would be prioritized over all others, because every populist leader has a smaller group of citizens he or she claims is worthy of representation. Her father’s intense xenophobia has no doubt influenced Marine, and as abolishing free trade would be one of the ways in which she could isolate France from people of other backgrounds and control the economy of the state with a tightened grip.
The most concerning aspect of this election is how a candidate like Le Pen was able to win almost 40% of the vote in a mature democracy such as France. This is mostly because citizens were discontent with their living situations and hungry for any kind of radical change. When this situation occurs in democracies, it is vital that more centrist candidates run for office in the next elections to try and deter extreme politicians from gaining more power. It is worth considering the fact that if Le Pen had won the election, France may have experienced gradual democratic backsliding. She and other politicians like her must be stopped at all costs to avoid more countries sliding back into authoritarian control.
*Photo from http://freshtraveldestinations.com/the-eiffel-tower-paris-france/
Hi Mona! Your post was a really interesting read and I agree with a lot of the points you’ve made. In the last few years after you’ve posted this, the populist movement in France has been on the rise, with Valérie Pécresse joining Le Pen in her reminiscence of Donald Trump and his comments. You’re right that the French people have been upset with the quality of life and state of the country, which I believe is a really powerful form of fuel for the populist movement. I also definitely agree that Le Pen and other populists have managed to be much more quiet about their eroding movements and it hasn’t been publicized nearly as much as in other places (such as the United States). This of course makes it all the more dangerous for France’s democracy.