During the recent French presidential campaign, the far right candidate, Marine Le Pen, raised fears across Europe that France would drop out of the European Union, embrace fascism, and repudiate its long democratic history. She won only one-third of the votes, another defeat for right-wing populism in Europe, following the poor showing of Geert Wilders in the Netherlands and of the Alternative for Germany in recent provincial elections. Although extreme conservatives have begun to dismantle some of the foundations of democracy in Hungary and Poland, so-called “populism” has not done well in western Europe.
The French election has been widely discussed as a unique situation, where the leaders of traditional political parties were tainted with personal scandals, making way for newcomers, like the overwhelming winner Emmanuel Macron, who had never held elective office. But I am struck by the similarity on key issues among the beliefs of French voters who supported Le Pen and supporters of Trump in the US.
Similar population groups supported Le Pen and Trump. Both are more popular among the less educated. Like Trump voters, Le Pen supporters are much more likely to have a negative view of Muslims, and to believe that refugees will take jobs, increase terrorism, and be criminals.
An obvious parallel is anxiety about immigration, not just illegal immigrants or refugees, but all immigrants. An American National Election Studies survey found that Trump got 74 percent of the vote among those who believe generally that “the number of immigrants” should be decreased. Le Pen promised a “moratorium” on immigration “as soon as I take office”. A Le Pen supporter said about immigrants: “It’s like whiteflies. They are just everywhere, everywhere. There are some who are good, but then there are others. And now they have more rights than we do.” The idea that immigrants get better treatment from government than citizens was also widespread among Trump voters.
Another similarity is disappointment in the economic consequences of globalization and the free market, shifting working-class voters to the right. Le Pen has strong support from former leftist working-class voters now unhappy with the economy. A CNN reporter who went to a depressed French mining town found Le Pen voters: “There’s a real sense of abandonment here by those at the very top, from the main political parties.” Trump did especially well in the so-called rust belt, a term also used to describe areas that supported Le Pen.
“Make America Great Again” was Trump’s theme song. The young man who runs the National Front youth movement in eastern France, said, “What attracts young people to Marine Le Pen is her promise to restore French grandeur. We will not only have a better economy, but she will make us proud to be French again.”
Racism is a fundamental feature of the far right in France and the US, although that is consistently denied by its supporters. Although Marine Le Pen has avoided the kind of antisemitic rhetoric and Holocaust denial that her father, the founder of her party, freely employed, the National Front is still run by people who celebrate Hitler and laugh at Auschwitz.
One woman who planned to vote for Le Pen called her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, “a Hitler-like figure”. But she likes his daughter and so would vote for his party. Another woman said, “We didn't vote for Jean-Marie Le Pen because he scared us. His ideas were too fascist, too racist.” Now when similar ideas are expressed by his daughter, she is supportive.
A French political commentator said just before the election: “People are mad at unemployment. People are afraid of terrorism. And Marine Le Pen says look, ‘Marine Le Pen will do it all. I'm Superwoman.’” That uncannily echoes Trump’s frequent assertions that he alone could fix America and his supporters’ belief that he can.
The dangers that extreme nationalists pose to democratic institutions are not to be taken lightly. The assumption that the world is moving toward more democracy, seemingly confirmed by the end of the Soviet Union, has been shaken in the past few years by the growth of popular movements which promote racist nationalism over international cooperation, which push back against the expansion of full civil rights to minorities, and which attack the workings of a free press and an independent judiciary.
Voters for Marine Le Pen, like many voters for Brexit and for Trump, are disillusioned not just with their current government, but with their entire political system. They are so interested in finding some political “outsider”, that they are willing to believe impossible political promises. They close their eyes to deep personal failings of candidates who say some things that they want to hear. They either embrace the subtle, and not so subtle, signs of racism and authoritarianism, or they pretend they don’t exist. Feeling abandoned by their political systems, they accept the hatred poured onto outsiders by their candidates.
The drift of some French voters to the extreme right is part of an international movement in the supposedly advanced democracies. Trump’s victory was not merely an American event, but part of a Western trend away from conventional anti-racism, conventional economic policies, conventional rule by a self-reproducing political elite.
Keeping democracy strong will not be easy in the 21st century.
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, May 16, 2017