Even if Marine Le Pen Loses, French Nationalism Will Still Win
The 2017 French Presidential Elections are quickly approaching and Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right Front National (FN), leads in the polls. Like much of the western world, France has seen an upsurge in far-right, nationalistic sentiment. When comparing the 2017 race to French and European elections gone by, it is difficult to envision Le Pen’s path to the presidency. However, even if she is defeated, Le Pen’s far-right platform will remain a definitive political force in France for the foreseeable future.
The Situation in France
According to recent polls, Le Pen leads a handful of candidates with 26 percent favorability. Assuming polls hold steady, Marine Le Pen will win the first round of voting, scheduled for April 23, but will not accrue the majority required to win the election outright. Le Pen will have to compete in a run off election against the second most popular candidate.
This will not be the first time a Le Pen reaches the run off round of a presidential election. Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine Le Pen’s father, came second in the first round of votes to earn one of two places in the run off round of the 2002 election. In the first round of voting, Jean-Marie Le Pen earned 16.9 percent of the vote compared to the center-right Jacques Chirac’s 19.9 percent. In the run off, Le Pen lost in a landslide. Le Pen was barely able to improve his 16.9 percent share, while Chirac’s share of the vote soared to 82.2 percent. Chirac was scandal ridden and highly unpopular. However, his left wing opponents backed him in the second round, calling on the French public to “vote for the crook, not the fascist.” Chirac won because he was seen by a Le Pen-fearing coalition as the lesser of two evils.
It is important to note that Jean-Marie Le Pen was an underdog, whereas his daughter is expected to win the first round. It is therefore unlikely that Marine Le Pen’s fate will perfectly map that of her father. However, Le Pen’s defeat to an anti-right wing coalition in the run off still seems imminent. If results in Austria’s 2016 presidential election are anything to go by, even the most popular of right wing politicians can struggle to overcome a two-round electoral system.
Lessons from the Rest of Europe
Like France, Austria’s elections make use of the two-round system. In the run-up to Austria’s first round of voting, Norbert Hofer, a far-right nationalist, held a sizable lead over his competitor. The Austrian nationalist ended up winning the first round by 13.8 percent. However, after an annulled run off election that was too close to call, Hofer lost the rerun by 7.6 percent. Hofer’s lead going into, and coming out of, the first round of voting was considerably greater than the lead Le Pen currently enjoys. Hofer’s first round victory was not particularly shocking. However, even with his sizable first round victory, the Austrian nationalist was unable to overcome the the anti-right wing coalition that formed in the second round.
Over the last few years, there have been a slew of analyses discrediting the viability of a right-wing populist movement. Such predictions were almost invariably disproven. While a Le Pen victory might be unlikely, it would be hardly come as a total surprise considering the state of contemporary western politics. Regardless of whether Le Pen overcomes a prospective anti-FN voter-bloc in the second round, her style of right wing nationalism will demand a response from whomever holds power. In France and elsewhere, far-right mobilizations have now entered the political mainstream.
Though Hofer was unable to win the largely ceremonial presidency, the centrist-controlled Austrian Parliament has already begun to pander to the far-right. In January, the parliament passed laws that would require asylum seekers undergo an “integration year” during which they would be expected to learn German. Austria has also become the latest European country to ban Muslim women from wearing full-face veils in public spaces–a entirely symbolic move considering only about 150 women in Austria wear such veils.
In the UK, the center-right Conservative Party has similarly worked to appease nationalists. Former Prime Minister David Cameron made the decision to call a referendum on EU membership that was seen by observers as a way of appeasing the far-right UK Independence Party and the more conservative members of his own party. Cameron expected the referendum to fail and hoped the public’s support would neutralize his far-right opponents. His plan backfired. The public voted to leave and Cameron resigned. In spite of the fact that a majority of parliamentary conservatives wished to remain in the EU, Theresa May, the new conservative leader, claims she is firmly committed to imposing the type of hardline immigration policies demanded by British nationalists.
The Netherlands has a general election scheduled for March 15 and the center-right People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) is scrambling to maintain control of the government. Geert Wilders’ far-right Party for Freedom (PVV) leads in the polls. Though Wilders’ PVV will not win enough seats to form a government outright, his party is currently projected to win the greatest number of seats. Though Mark Rutt, Prime Minister and Leader of the VVD, has ruled out the possibility that his party would form a coalition government with the far-right PVV, he has been pandering to an increasingly nationalistic public. Last month, he ordered immigrants to “act ‘normal’, or go away.”
What Does this Mean for Far-Right Movements?
Far-right mobilizations have gained, and will likely continue to gain, power, irrespective of whether or not they win elections. Marine Le Pen’s run for the presidency could very well fall short, but her surge in popularity over the past few years is indicative of France’s entrenched far-right movement. Assuming Le Pen loses, the party that achieves power will not have done so by inspiring a united support base or platform. The party in power will reflect a disjointed majority that will collectively disagree with Le Pen but might not agree on that much else. A fragmented leadership will only favor the far-right. As France’s far-right continues to voice their concerns, those in power will be forced to respond. This response will never disarm the far-right if those delivering it are politically impotent and ideologically incoherent.