At first glance, France’s upcoming presidential election looks a bit like an arty reenactment of the one we just lived through in the U.S. The leading candidate is a reactionary white nationalist bent on dismantling international institutions and cracking down sharply on immigration, especially by Muslims. An embattled member of the political Establishment is fighting to overcome a nepotism scandal as a center-left party searches for a positive message. On the left, a socialist is proposing a radical agenda to fix inequality and protect the rights and interests of the working class. A talented woman who worked her way to the top of her party in spite of a loudmouth male relative is now vying for the title of first female president, but many feminists doubt that a win for her would be one for all women.
In certain respects, France is actually having the race the U.S. wishes it could have, but never could, owing to the two-party system and the dominance of baby boomers in our politics, among other issues. If the U.S. election were a contest between mainstream conservatism (Jeb!), center-left liberalism (Clinton), right-wing nationalism (Trump), and democratic socialism (Sanders), France’s is much the same, except in the French version of the film the characters are younger, better looking, and more compelling. The election is shaking up the political Establishment, with fresh faces outperforming career politicians and traditional parties being forced to reckon with new political realities. Yes, far-right National Front candidate Marine Le Pen is currently leading in the polls, but it’s only with about 25 percent in a four-way race. And whereas our system enabled Trump to win on a technicality with a minority of the vote, the structure of the French election makes it harder (though by no means impossible) for a divisive candidate like Le Pen to take the presidency.
To say that the characters in this story are more compelling is, first of all, to note that Marine Le Pen is much smarter than Donald Trump, and a genuine ideologue rather than a shouty manifestation of white, male boomer resentment. Like Trump, she has benefited from worker displacement, terrorism, and the backlash against “political correctness”; indeed, her populist crusade against globalization and Islamism is essentially Trumpism with a higher-than-seventh-grade reading level. Of course, her greater competence makes her that much more dangerous if she wins: Le Pen has pledged to pull France out of NATO and the E.U., to abolish the euro and reintroduce the franc, among other radical and potentially destabilizing ideas. She, too, is buddies with Russian President Vladimir Putin (naturally). A Le Pen victory in May could well precipitate the collapse of the European project.
If Bill Clinton was a liability for Hillary last year, Jean-Marie Le Pen — Marine’s father and the founder of the National Front — is an even bigger albatross around his daughter’s neck. On Monday, the elder Le Pen was charged with inciting religious hatred over an alleged anti-Semitic pun — and it was far from his first offense. Coming just days after Marine Le Pen stoked outrage among French Jews by saying that she would force Franco-Israelis to give up one of their nationalities, the indictment may remind voters of the ugly antecedents of her reactionary nationalism.
On the other side of the political spectrum, France’s Socialist Party has shifted leftward, just like America’s Democrats seem to be in the process of doing. Benoît Hamon, who defeated former prime minister Manuel Valls in the second round of the party’s primary, has been described as the Bernie Sanders of France, but the 49-year-old’s platform is much more in tune with the newest, boldest, and most innovative ideas of the left: The guy wants to tax robots to fund a universal basic income, invest massive sums in renewable energy, legalize pot, and reduce the workweek to 35 hours even as mainstream politicians insist it must increase. Hamon’s candidacy got an infusion of star power on Saturday when the left-wing economist Thomas Piketty, author of Capital in the 21st Century and a leading critic of inequality, joined his campaign team.
Unfortunately for the Socialists, Hamon still looks likely to come in fourth in the first round on April 23, meaning he probably won’t be president — but he has ousted the “neoliberals” from the Socialist Party, reoriented its platform, and gets to preach basic income and radical green politics in a general election, which is a hell of a lot further than the American left got last year.
Until recently Le Pen’s likeliest rival in the second round, which takes place on May 7, was François Fillon, the nominee of the center-right Republicans (a rebranding of former president Nicolas Sarkozy’s party). Fillon is a Mitt Romney type: A paternally handsome former prime minister who thinks gay marriage and abortion are unseemly but won’t bother trying to re-outlaw them as president because he’ll be too busy cutting taxes on the wealthy, raising the retirement age, and firing civil servants. Polls show Fillon beating Le Pen in a head-to-head matchup roughly 60-40.
Alas, Fillon’s future was thrown into doubt a few weeks ago when state financial prosecutors revealed that they were investigating him for possible misuse of public funds after a newspaper published claims that his wife, Penelope, was paid half a million euros of government money for a job she never did. Fillon has apologized for hiring his family members but he maintains that the job his wife was hired to do was real and has refused to drop out of the race.
The new star of the film is 39-year-old Emmanuel Macron, an investment banker turned senior adviser and later economy minister under the incumbent Socialist president François Hollande. A political outsider who has never held elected office, Macron eschewed the Establishment parties and launched his own movement with a youthful and energetic brand (En Marche!, or Let’s Go!). A defender of both market capitalism and the welfare state, Macron has narrowly eclipsed Fillon in the polls in recent weeks and is now looking like the most likely challenger to Le Pen in round two, where head-to-head polls show him beating her by a slightly wider margin than Fillon. He is the Obama-like character America didn’t get this time around: the good-natured left-liberal wunderkind who believes good government is possible and is eager to roll up his sleeves and start solving problems.
Though polls show Le Pen ultimately losing, they also suggested Brexit wouldn’t pass and that Hillary Clinton would become the leader of the free world. Such a rapidly escalating series of implausible outcomes — first Brexit, then Trump — invites a narrative that suggests Le Pen’s inevitability. The polls could be wrong again. A successful attack by terrorists on Paris like the one authorities foiled just days ago could refocus the race on security and make Le Pen’s “France first” ideology more palatable to the electorate. The great and terrible thing about democracy, however, is that no outcome is inevitable: When Election Day comes, the French have a choice.