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.
AJ Gleason argues that while Marine Le Pen’s efforts in her campaign for the 2022 French Presidential Election seem to pose a threat to France’s democracy, she will not be able to win. Since the most recent candidate debates and first round of elections, however, the nominee has proven to remain a strong contender in the race to the presidency.
Although France faces a threat with this upcoming election, the country has been able to preserve its guardrails of democracy up to this point, the author claims, by making a comparison to the United States’ political system. While not perfect, a multi-party system in France contrasts with the U.S.’ two party system which poses a threat to democracy. In a political world where competition is not always between the same two major parties, smaller and newer groups are given the chance to share their voices and opinions. In addition to a more diverse political perspective, a multi-party system allows for any group, no matter how old, powerful, or large, to win an election. Gleason adds that “Emmanuel Macron’s party, ‘La République En Marche!’, was founded in 2016, barely a year before his election.” Thus, this is one way France has been able to preserve its democratic guardrails.
The United States, on the other hand, struggles as their heavy reliance on their two-party system to preserve democracy has only led to further democratic erosion. Levitsky and Ziblatt argue that America’s party system is one of their two most important guardrails of democracy. Yet, in order for this to operate, democratic norms (i.e. the soft guardrails of democracy) must also be followed. The main norms are known as institutional forbearance and mutual tolerance. Institutional forbearance refers to restraining oneself from exercising a legal right that might go against already established norms of democratic practices, while mutual toleration refers to the tolerance of one’s political rivals to compete for and exercise their power so long as they continue to follow the constitution and previously established democratic norms. However, as this system has led to extreme polarization between the two parties, it has become increasingly more difficult for Americans to respect their rivals’ right to exercise power. Therefore, as these norms start to be broken, it becomes even easier, in turn, to further polarize the two parties. 
Democrats tend to dislike Republicans, and vice versa. This is because the United States’ ill-conceived system has caused both parties to believe and preach extremes that directly oppose each other. Levitsky and Ziblatt explain that the Center-Right has collapsed as parties are forced to pull support from the extremes of the political spectrum in order to gain any power. Because there really are only two options to choose from– independents exist but rarely make much of an impact– Republicans and Democrats pull away from each other even more. This polarization thus proves that the U.S. has a less successful system than France’s. 
Gleason then makes another comparison between the two countries as “France is a direct democracy,” while America relies on the Electoral College. The author explains that France’s system protects its democracy because it keeps authoritarians from obtaining power. In direct democracy, candidates are elected based on the actual number of votes they receive. Thus, if a populist, such as Marine Le Pen, were to run for office in France, they would truly have to obtain the greatest number of votes and not merely win over regions with large populations.
The United States’ Electoral College, however, almost invites authoritarians to enter the government. The author supports this argument with the example of the 2016 Presidential Election. Hillary Clinton was the original candidate projected to win, but as November approached, many began to fear that her authoritarian opponent might end up in the White House. Unfortunately, even though Senator Clinton won the popular vote of America, which would have won her the election in a direct democracy like France, Donald Trump was elected as he gained more points from the Electoral College. Muller explains that a populist rises to power through a democratic election and then, once in office, manipulates and weakens democratic practices, such as the electoral processes, the law, and Levitsky and Ziblatt’s soft guardrails of democracy (i.e. democratic norms). In addition, a populist appeals to emotions rather than logic in order to gain support. This tactic thus separates an authoritarian from a true leader.  The Mitylenean Debate highlights this difference as Thucydides appealed to logic for the future, while Cleon’s demagogic rhetoric appealed to emotion towards the present.  Trump therefore embodied both Müller’s definition of populism and Cleon’s demagoguery by his appeal to the anger and frustration of some Americans who felt the American Dream had passed them by.  He was able to do so because of the United States’ faults in not just their electoral practices, but in their two-party system as well. France thus has a much better hold on democracy as its practices allow many voices to enter the political world, and citizens’ actual votes determine the outcomes of elections.
Finally, Gleason explains that other factors, such as restrictions on campaign spending and airtime, have also contributed to a better protected democracy in France. However, this still cannot prevent Marine Le Pen from winning the presidential election. As the current runner-up, just behind President Macron, she has reached a crucial moment in the race. Compared to the United States, France’s democratic practices do have a higher chance of keeping out an authoritarian, but as she now sits so close to the win, a Le Pen administration is not impossible. In 2016, most Americans believed Donald Trump could never be elected President of the United States, and yet they were wrong. Thus, France might just find itself in the same situation in a few days.
 Levitsky, S. and Ziblatt, D. (2019). How Democracies Die. New York: Penguin Random House LLC.
 Müller, J.-W. (2017). What is Populism? University of Pennsylvania Press.
 Thucydides. (431 B.C.E). Chapter IX: Fourth and Fifth Years of the War – Revolt of Mitylene. In The History of the Peloponnesian War, The Third Book.
 Hochschild, A. R. (2016). Chapters 1, 9, and 15. In Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right. essay, The New Press.