Garvan Walshe is a former national and international security policy adviser to the Conservative Party. He now runs Brexit Analytica.
Hungary, 2010. Poland 2015. A re-run in Austria. England and Wales 2016. United States 2016.
The common factors: a complacent elite, cultural resentment, Russian meddling, cynical, disengaged young, people feeling the spoils of progress have passed them by. Illiberal populists, not without a whiff of racism, demanding change.
All are present in France, where Marine Le Pen has a greater chance than anyone since the 1930s of bringing the far right to power in Paris.
The polls predict a comfortable win for her opponent. But this far out, the polls also predicted Remain and Clinton victories. Pollsters, smarting from attacks on their credibility (“polls are for strippers” says Sarah Palin) defend their craft as providing snapshots, not forecasts. In this they are right. Apart from in Poland, where the now-governing Law and Justice were always ahead, the campaign changed minds. People who had never contemplated voting for Trump or Brexit liked what they saw.
In Britain and America, the group that political scientists politely call “low information” voters, and commentators refer to as the left-behind, has been central to that change. More likely to be working class, with little education, and now older than average, during the 20th Century they voted for the left. As industrial society faded away so did their links with socialism, and many seem to have sat out the last few elections, but right-wing populists have found a way to win them over. This group isn’t huge — it amounts to around one twentieth of the electorate — but it’s enough to swing a close referendum or seize the presidency despite a deficit of millions in the popular vote.
The insurgency’s themes: anger at a lost past; despair about a better future; resentment of immigration, Islam, cultural change and liberals who live in cities, seem well suited to Marine Le Pen. She’s softened her father’s hard edges (confronting him over his anti-Semitism) and even won the support, like Trump has, of Jews who’ve chosen to overlook their own history.
She has, in addition, the advantage being able to cast herself as the change candidate against a most astonishingly unpopular government. A recent survey put President Hollande’s popularity at as low as four per cent. She is ably assisted by Kremlin disinformation, and her National Front has got Russian financial support. As with Brexit and Trump, Facebook, that supreme instrument for transmitting anger directly to the individuals most likely to be enraged by it, will be her friend.
Against this she has notable weaknesses. Most importantly, she won’t get a run-off against Hollande. He is so unpopular he stands no chance of reaching the run-off in France’s two-round election system. He mightn’t even run at all.
The two possible challengers from the centre-right Republicans, Alain Juppé and Nicolas Sarkozy, plot different strategies to oppose him. Juppé, like Merkel, will stay planted firmly in the centre. Sarkozy is more like Hungary’s Viktor Orban: he will ape as much of the populists’ agenda as possible in order to deny Marine Le Pen space. Unlike Brexit and Trump, she can’t count on the support of the socially conservative part of the electorate, who will have their own man to turn to. She therefore needs to take far more support from the Left. If she can’t, she will be doomed to repeat the National Front’s disappointing performance in the regional elections of 2015 where voters combined to exclude them from power despite the Front winning more votes than any other party.
Finally, unlike Brexit campaigners, and even unlike Trump who has the pretensions of a caudillo, but hasn’t built a movement around him, she has a genuine fascist pedigree. The slogan “better the crook than the fascist” ensured her father’s defeat and, given Juppé’s and Sarkozy’s troubles with the law, would not be out of place next year.
Nevertheless, her distinctly French brand of Euroscepticism strikes chords. There the worry is not so much about the numbers of immigrants from Eastern Europe as the fact that they get to work in France while being enrolled in less onerous Eastern European social security systems. If British Eurosceptics wanted less labour market regulation, their French counterparts want more. Believe it or not, the “services directive” assumes outsize importance in the National Front’s campaign.
More familiar to British readers will be her critique of the Eurozone, which she insists is run for the benefit of Germany and against working people. Less familiar is the popular French solution — that Germany should pay more of the non-German Eurozone debt (perhaps as compensation for having a cheaper currency than would otherwise be the case?). Quite a few National Front voters find themselves in the reverse of Goldilocks’s position. Either more or less Europe would be acceptable; it’s only the current arrangements, which owe too much to “Anglo-Saxon capitalism”, that are just not right.
The stage is set for another toxic election campaign. A charismatic populist has fixed her sights on the extraordinary powers of the French presidency. Will she manage to knock over yet another pillar of the post-war liberal order? The odds must currently be against, as they were against Brexit or Trump, but Juppé, still the favourite, needs to come up with something that eluded the remain campaign and Hillary Clinton.
He could do worse than find some passion, and draw inspiration from the Marshal Foch on the Marne:
“Mon centre cède, ma droite recule, situation excellente, j’attaque.”
“My centre is giving way, my right is in retreat, situation excellent, I shall attack.”