During the past three years, the grin on Marine Le Pen’s face has grown wider and wider.
The leader of the French far-right National Front did better and better in each new election.
She could even exult about her party winning the majority of French seats in the European Parliament elections in 2014.
On Sunday evening, her grin suddenly froze. The Front did not emerge from the first round of local elections in France as the strongest party, as had been widely expected.
Pollsters who were predicting that Ms. Le Pen might win the French presidency in 2017 are now revising their assessment. The far-rightists seem to be bumping up against the limits of their popularity.
The Front National’s influence is real and exceeds its electoral results.
Even if this should prove to be the case, the National Front would have pushed that limit further than most other far-right parties in Europe. A quarter of French voters support the party. And no one can guarantee that the French have permanently stopped the ascent of a party led by a small family clique and co-financed by Vladimir Putin. Perhaps this is only a momentary interruption.
Ms. Le Pen knows the danger if the hype about the party’s inexorable surge ends. The party owes its forward momentum to a fairy tale: There’s no risk involved for voters who support a moderate National Front in elections. The party appeals to “the people” because it has turned away from the “tiny clique of democratic parties on the payroll of the Brussels dictatorship.”
That momentum threatens to come to a standstill. For that reason, Ms. Le Pen is indignantly accusing the “system parties” of a conspiracy and claiming that France’s prime minister, Manuel Valls, conducted a “dirty, repugnant campaign” against the National Front.
No one knows whether Ms. Le Pen has reached her limits. But it’s possible to identify what would need to happen to block her further rise.
The first thing is a tough confrontation instead of the embarrassed looking the other way that has crept in. In this electoral campaign Mr. Valls and, even more so, his minister for economic affairs, Emmanuel Macron, have begun to face the National Front head on. Instead of pointing to the party’s racist roots, which scarcely stirs even indignation in the French any longer, they listed the destructive consequences that the party’s proposals would have on the country.
Its economic policies are an attack on prosperity, nourished by resentment and delusions of grandeur. The party’s leaders seek to persuade the French into the conviction that they can close their borders, withdraw from the euro, initiate an economic war against countries like China, raise the minimum wage massively, overwhelm companies with new taxes ― and thereby create growth and full employment.
Mr. Valls and Mr. Macron calmly and concretely demonstrated that this would be economic suicide, and neither Ms. Le Pen nor her head ideologist had an answer. One wonders why the employers’ association MEDEF, which launches weekly attacks on the government, doesn’t take aim at the National Front as well.
The second requirement for hammering the far-rightists is a stronger opposition. Since 2012, the conservative Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP) has been an ineffectual opponent to the government after having torn itself apart.
Last year, Nicolas Sarkozy once again took over the party’s leadership. The former president neither offered a convincing program nor ended the internecine warfare. But at least things are now somewhat more peaceful, and the UMP leaders are now raking not only each other over the coals, but also the National Front and the government.
That is an approach that can hopefully be strengthened. The National Front would thereby be robbed of the chance to present itself as the only opposition to the government.
The third requirement consists of a recognition by other Europeans of the danger posed by the Nationa Front. Media members report extensively about the party, but most German politicians still consider it to be a bugaboo blown out of proportion by French president François Hollande and Mr. Valls in order to avoid pushing through sufficient economic reforms and austerity measures. This assessment is a tragic mistake.
The National Front’s influence is real and exceeds its electoral results. It has become an ideological magnet that diverts the course of moderate parties. The left is susceptible to its hostility toward the European Union. The greater the party’s strength, the greater the danger of an uprising of economic illiterates, Europe-haters and those who reject a France that’s open to the world.
The French are not inclined to accept instruction from outsiders. But they will listen to persuasive arguments from friends.
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