On April 10th, 2022, France held the first round of its presidential elections with a surprising result. Emmanuel Macron, the current president of France, emerged in the lead with 27.8% of the votes. However, rather unexpectedly, Marine Le Pen of the National Rally party was a few percentage points behind with 23.2% of the vote. Macron and Le Pen will compete for the presidency in the second round on April 24th. This close margin between the two candidates is a marked change from the 2017 election where Macron won by more than 30 points in the runoff election. What explains this increase in popularity for Le Pen? And what threat does the far right leader pose to democracy in France and Europe as a whole?
Marine Le Pen represents a threat to French democracy as she has campaigned on a far right, populist platform for years. A clear characteristic of populist leaders is that they use exclusionary identity politics. This inherently represents a threat to democracy as democracy necessitates pluralism. In the case of France, this is observed through Le Pen and the far right’s Islamophobic attacks on Muslims in France. Despite the fact that 8.8% of France’s population are Muslim, they are frequently singled out and criticized for not properly assimilating. Le Pen and her party have argued that they pose a threat to “traditional France.” This is an undemocratic undermining of their rights as French citizens, as they are subjected to prejudice and restrictive laws. This scapegoating has allowed Le Pen to take increasingly severe stances on immigration, undermining the authority of the EU on the matter.
Le Pen’s recent presidential campaign has normalized the far right in France, assisting with her electoral success. The party has rejected the label of “far right” arguing instead they are nationalists to appeal to a greater number of people. Additionally, Le Pen has softened her rhetoric to bring in more voters, despite not having shifted her policy stances. She campaigned by emphasizing economic issues that resonated with a wide array of voters. Through this campaign, though, the widespread acceptance of far right ideas and rhetoric could be observed with an increasing number of people. She is particularly popular with working class people who felt that they have been left behind by France’s elites, a common characteristic of populist campaigns. Macron, on the other hand, did very little campaigning and suffered for it. The president shook up the political landscape when he was elected in 2017, however, he no longer has the novelty that helped him secure victory five years ago. This weakening of the French party system makes it more susceptible to democratic erosion than stronger party systems in other countries.
It is important to note that Le Pen not only represents a threat to French democracy, but to democracy in Europe as a whole. While the French parliament could possibly check any harm Le Pen poses to democracy domestically, the French president historically has a large amount of power over foreign affairs. Her anti-European Union record is a cause for concern for many supporters of the EU. Though she no longer is calling for a French exit from the EU, if elected, she has proposed the reestablishment of border controls, prioritizing French citizens for particular benefits, superseding European law with French law, and reducing funding to Brussels. All of these policies would seriously harm the stability and longevity of the EU and its democratic ideals. Proponents of the EU also worry that Le Pen would ally herself with the governments in Hungary and Poland and support them in challenging the democratic norms of the EU. There additionally remains the possibility that her far right populism would inspire similar movements in Italy and Spain where far right factions have recently begun to gain momentum.
As one of the leading forces in the EU, the normalization of far right populism in France has consequences that echo outside of its borders and into European politics as a whole. The EU has struggled with democratic backsliding in its member states, and for one of the largest players in the EU to be leaning towards the far right is a cause for concern regarding the stability of the EU. Domestically, minorities, and Muslims in particular, have greatly suffered throughout Le Pen’s far right, populist campaign. Her recent electoral successes indicate a troubling trend in French politics of the mainstreaming of far right and anti-democratic rhetoric. It will be important to monitor how well she does in the upcoming runoff election on April 24th, as it will have serious implications for both French and European democracy.