With the first round of voting in France’s presidential election marked another step in the emergence of a new political world in the Western democracies. While the leaders of France's traditional right- and left-wing parties were routed, the two frontrunners, Emmanuel Macron, a centrist newcomer, and Marine Le Pen, the standard-bearer of the right-wing National Front, will face each other in the May 7 runoff election.
The French establishment is confidently recalling the 2002 presidential election when Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, finished ahead of all the left-wing candidates. In the run-off, French leftists held their noses and voted for Jacques Chirac, the embodiment of complacent French conservatism. Chirac won with 80 percent of the vote.
But France has changed much in 15 years, and the old certitudes may no longer apply. The first round results demonstrated how and why, in four different ways.
1. All Politics Is Global
In the 1980s, House Speaker Tip O’Neill was famous for his aphorism, “All politics is local.” Le Pen certainly played to local French values, advocating a ban on all legal immigration and protectionist economic policies to insulate French producers from international competition. But the French campaign also showed that in the internet age, all politics is global, too.
Russian President Vladimir Putin was more open in his support. When Le Pen visited Moscow in March, she was received as if she had already won. Olga Bychkova, deputy chief editor of the independent radio station Echo of Moscow, said the reception accorded Le Pen in Russia was impressive.
"She first had meetings with the leaders of the Duma [Russia’s parliament], then she was taken to an exhibit devoted to France at the Kremlin, then she met with Putin,” Bychkova told the Daily Beast. “That is a kind of program Moscow organizes for state leaders.”
Le Pen’s international agenda dovetails with Putin's. If elected, she has said she will seek to withdraw France from the European Union, the basis for a continental economy that dwarfs Russia's. Le Pen has doubts about NATO, which is music to Putin’s ears, especially now that President Trump has discovered the value of the Euro-American military alliance he once called "obsolete."
Meanwhile, former President Barack Obama, while staying out of American politics, inserted himself into the French elections with a well-publicized phone call in which he wished Macron “all the best.”
Likewise, officials from the European Union and Germany have abandoned the tradition of not interfering (at least publicly) in national elections and endorsed Macron.
2. Vindication for Bannon
The French vote is a vindication for Steve Bannon, the White House adviser who has fallen out of favor with the president, perhaps because he was getting too much press attention.
As a policymaker, Bannon has proven inept. He and his staff produced the president’s first travel ban on immigrants from Muslim-majority countries. The incompetently draftedmeasure was immediately repudiated by the courts and had to be rewritten. His gambit to get himself onto the National Security Council was thwarted by national security adviser H.R. McMaster. And his dream of a massive infrastructure jobs programs is receding into 2018, as Trump pursues higher priorities, namely the repeal of Obamacare and tax reform.
But Le Pen’s strong showing affirms Bannon’s strengths as a political strategist. The former Breitbart publisher has long argued that European politics is not a contest between the left (which favors a strong government and social solidarity) versus the right (which favors strong markets and social competition) but between populists, who favor local and anti-liberal values, versus elitists, who favor cosmopolitan and liberal (or neo-liberal) values.
“If the most important political divide, in France as almost everywhere else, was once over the size of the state," says Anne Applebaum of the Washington Post, “the new political divide is not really about economics at all. It is about different visions of the identity of France itself. “
Bannon has long predicted and welcomed the rise of white Christian identity politics. He publicized Le Pen’s visit to Trump Tower in January. He has nurtured the administration’s ties to the right-wing populist parties of Europe through his Special Initiatives Group. George Lombardi, the Trump supporter who arranged Le Pen’s visit, described himself to Politico as a liaison between Trump and far-right parties in Europe. “I’m in contact with just about everybody,” he told Politico.
Le Pen is Bannon’s kind of candidate. The two share a revulsion of immigrants, especially Muslims, and a resolve to preserve what Bannon calls the “underlying principles of the Judeo-Christian West."
The fact that pollsters say Le Pen will lose in the final round, just as her father did, does not refute Bannon’s analysis. Rather, it confirms the trend he has long foreseen.
3. Europe's Old Order Is Dying
Established political parties of left and right are seeing an erosion of support everywhere, but France’s case is especially profound. Regardless of who wins the French presidency, the French establishment has been even more decisively defeated than the American establishment was defeated by Trump. After all, Hillary Clinton won 52 percent of the vote. By contrast, the two candidates of the French establishment received less than 30 percent of the votes cast.
The real story, says the German newsweekly Spiegel Online, “isn't just that an elite system is coming to an end, a system that no longer seems suitable for current and future challenges. At times, it has also seemed as if a different, fundamental concern is even more pressing, namely that of whether the French political system is even capable of performing the tasks assigned to it anymore.”
“This is a frightening question, one that until recently, seldom got raised in highly developed democracies. But today it is a crucial factor in some of the world's largest, oldest democracies: in Britain, in the U.S. and now in France. In newspaper editorials and talk shows, the French are discussing whether their country's institutions have maneuvered themselves into a pre-revolutionary plight as a result of the continued incompetence of public officials. They wonder whether today's state is in fact more similar to the monarchy of old—to the rotten Ancien Régime shortly before the French Revolution.”
4. Le Pen Can Win
After the Brexit vote last June and Trump’s victory in November, French pundits are reluctant to proclaim Macron a shoo-in, even though he is running up to 25 points ahead of Le Pen in some polls. Macron, a talented politician at 39, has demonstrated the political dexterity of Tony Blair or Barack Obama in fashioning a centrist political persona, and it may carry him to victory.
But Macron, who once worked for the Rothschild banking empire, can also be cast as an elitist par excellence, an ideal target for populist revolutionaries. As Fox News notes:
"Le Pen’s opponents will now circle the wagons and throw their support behind Macron. That might be enough to send him to the Élysée Palace. Then again, Le Pen supporters, like those of Trump, have demonstrated a loyalty and enthusiasm that none of the other candidates can claim."
Le Monde, France's leading newspaper, notes that Le Pen’s National Front exceeded 20 percent of the votes for the first time. She received a record 7.6 million votes, 2.8 million more than her father won in the first round of the 2002 election.
Le Pen's appeal, like that of Trump, is strongest in rural areas and among less-educated voters, but she also demonstrated strength among young people, who face a tough job market and uninspiring leaders. The most left-wing candidate in the race, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, ran on a nationalist slogan ("Unsubmissive France") not unlike Le Pen's.
As the Post's Applebaum observes, "There is a part of the old left, including those who voted for the Trotskyist, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who sympathize with her objections to trade, bankers and international business; there is a part of the old right, including those who voted for François Fillon, who prefer her ostentatious endorsement of 'traditional values.'"
Le Monde says that Le Pen’s success marks the second time in 15 years that “a nationalist and xenophobic party, manipulated by a cynical, businesslike family clan" has reached the final round of presidential elections, proof that the French political system is expiring.
If Le Pen wins on May 7, it will be the death of the idea of European unity, born in the ashes of World War II.