Since 2017, Marine le Pen has been laying the foundations for her next attempt at heading L’Elysée Palace. Her success in both local representative elections and EU Parliamentary elections following the party’s name change seemed to indicate a turning of the tides for the far right politician, worrying French liberals of her potential success in the next presidential race. Now, in 2022, with the first round of the election just a few months away (April 10th, 2022), polling shows Le Pen closer to Macron than at this point in 2017. But still, she is expected to lose.
All European countries in the 21st century have experienced autocratic attempts to some degree, some more successful than others. From Viktor Orbán in Hungary to Andrzej Duda in Poland, the rise in right-wing nationalism is cause for concern. France is no exception to this trend, yet they have still managed to keep their head above water. This is thanks to several features of both the French government’s structure, as well as how their elections are conducted and moderated. Many of these features contrast those of the US political system, and comparison affords an opportunity to see how effective France’s methods have been.
Unlike the US, with two main political parties and little chance for Independents, France has a multiparty system, where new, independent parties are not prevented from running and winning (Emmanuel Macron’s party, “La République En Marche!”, was founded in 2016, barely a year before his election). Because of this, Marine le Pen has been less able to take advantage of deep partisan loyalty, and the increase in affiliated voter turnout that it brings, despite the party’s comparatively long history – a phenomenon Jonathan Rauch discusses in his National Affairs article, “Rethinking Polarization”.
Another consequence of this for Marine, particularly in this election, is that the conservative vote will be split between herself and the other two frontrunners, besides Macron, whose parties are also conservative leaning. Meanwhile, Macron will be able to collect the liberal votes.
Also restricting Marine is how French elections are decided. France is a direct democracy, meaning their elections are decided by gross ballot numbers, rather than through our infamous electoral college. As we have seen in the US, this has seen Le Pen’s American right-wing counterpart (Trump) great success, as it permits stealth authoritarianism through legal loopholes and manipulations. Without an electoral college equivalent and the authoritarian risk it poses, Le Pen and other extremists before her have been unable to reach the French presidency – arguably an example of one of the benefits of a direct democracy.
Most unlike the US, France has incredibly strict campaign laws, including a spending limit (**gasp**) determined by an independent committee. These regulations are taken very seriously; in 2021, Nicholas Sarkozy was convicted and sentenced for illegally financing his 2012 re-election campaign. This could not be more different from the US, where candidates spent a total of $4.1 billion during the 24 months of the 2019-2020 election cycle, according to the FEC. Not only does this prevent foreign interference in elections, but it also prevents stealth authoritarianism – a concept expanded on in Varol’s Stealth Authoritarianism.
Additionally, in France each presidential candidate’s airtime, both in interviews and advertisements, is tightly regulated, to ensure equality in exposure. Through limiting the role that money plays in politics, both in advertising and lobbying, France has been able to prevent well-funded populists from dominating the field.
France’s ability to restrain the far-right’s presence in politics is even more impressive in light of Marine le Pen’s raw talent as a populist politician. Unlike Macron’s party, “En Marche”, “Le Rassemblement National” (known as “Le Front National” until her decision to rechristen the party in 2018) has a much longer history, having been founded in 1972 by Marine’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen. Her father’s anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, and xenophobic rhetoric left a deep stain on the party’s reputation, one which Marine has worked hard to stamp out, arguably to great success. Through renaming the party, changing its rhetoric, and making herself the new face of it, Marine le Pen’s strategy of, “dédiabolisation” (there’s no great translation, but means “de-demonisation”) has made the RN a mainstream party. Its new legitimacy has made the party more palatable to French voters, and you can see how her candidacies could’ve been much more effective in a weaker democracy.
Despite Marine le Pen’s competency and best efforts, France and its election laws have kept right-wing extremism out of the French presidency. In being a direct democracy, and strictly policing campaigns, they have been able to limit the consequences of populism affecting governance. In our current global political climate, where so many countries are facing the devastating effects of authoritarianism and democratic erosion, we can look to France as an example of effective autocratic gatekeeping.