Why France Is So Vulnerable to Extremism

Photo: Marie Magnin/Hans Lucas/Redux

Sometime last year, I began to wonder if I had missed the news of a regime change in France. Papers touted a fear of “woke” extremists. The government was pushing laws against headscarves and arguing for the need to promulgate “republican values” in schools and civic associations. Centrist Emmanuel Macron had easily defeated his far-right opponent Marine Le Pen in 2017. But France seemed to be driven by political trends that were further and further right.

In the American popular imagination, France is the country of labor strikes and cigarette-smoking anarchists. In reality, the country’s politics are imprinted by religious and social conservatism. That has become particularly clear in this year’s presidential election, which will be decided on Sunday. Once again, Le Pen — who has made a fight against Islam and immigration among her signature platforms — is up against Macron; unlike in 2017, the race is now close. Polls from before the first round of the election showed a neck and neck contest; since the race narrowed to two candidates, Macron has pulled to a roughly ten-point advantage, still a far cry from his 32-plus-point victory five years ago.

France may be uniquely vulnerable among western European countries to Le Pen–style populism. Part of the reason is structural: Unlike Germany and other neighbors, France’s national elections are winner takes all, so a candidate who may represent only a quarter of the French will end up dictating much of its politics. The more disconcerting reason is the mainstreaming of extreme ideas on immigration and Islam amid a culture war that Le Pen and her cohort have won decisively. In an effort to appease the ascendant far right, Macron’s government has taken up some of these ideas as their own. They’ve managed to “normalize” the far right better than it could itself.

Le Pen has also developed as a politician over the years. She inherited her party and her position from her father, Jean-Marie, a convicted Holocaust denialist and infamous far-fight figure. But in the last few years, she has attempted a rebrand, changing the name of her party from National Front to National Rally, softening her image by speaking about her childhood and (lack of) romantic life, and releasing pictures of herself with cats. In her campaign material, she pushes forth the idea that she would be France’s first woman president. Her self-proclaimed “dédiabolisation” or “detoxification” had an unwitting helper in the campaign: Éric Zemmour, the candidate to her right. An incendiary media personality who has been convicted of hate speech three times in recent years. Zemmour never had much of a shot getting past the first round of the election. But the relentless noise around his campaign had the effect of helping Le Pen push her supposedly moderate image.

Her core proposals haven’t changed much, though. She does not insult Muslims directly, as Zemmour might. But she has argued for a ban on the headscarf in the public sphere, which she calls a “uniform imposed by Islamists.” Her presidential manifesto argues for a reform of the constitution that would prevent non-French people from working government jobs or obtaining any kind of social help or hospital care. She has sought to present herself as distant from illiberal leaders like Vladimir Putin and Victor Orbàn, but her campaigns have taken out loans from Russian and Hungarian banks. Though she claims to no longer support France’s exit from the European Union, she wants the E.U. to gradually evolve into an “alliance” in which each state would no longer be bound by European rules. Last week, she said that after the war in Ukraine, she hoped for a “rapprochement” between NATO and Russia.

Many of her ideas, especially on the domestic front, are already well integrated into French political thought. A series of terror attacks, the most serious of which took place in the mid-2010s, prompted wrenching national discussions about French identity and Islam. The climate of anxiety also provided an opening for media personalities and politicians who made fearmongering part of their platform, a tactic that has hardly abated. It’s not uncommon to turn on the television or open a newspaper and see headlines that read like parodies of Fox News: “Êtes-vous ‘woke’?” (“Are you ‘woke’?”).

Macron, noticing which way the winds were blowing, turned to the right. His government spent years working on a bill to counter Islamic separatism that passed last summer. Some of the bill’s proposals could be seen as a credible response to the attacks. But the bill also began shading into an attack on Islam itself. “Our country is sick, sick with separatism, primarily Islamist separatism, that gangrene of our national unity,” said the interior minister. To accompany the bill, the government also put together a national discussion that was diffused online on “secularism” that was widely seen as covertly discussing Muslims. “‘Islamophobia’ is a word that kills,” said one participant, a political commentator who regularly repeats the sentiment in the media.

It’s rare to hear others in the public sphere counter such claims. A representative of the center-right party Les Républicains has called for a “French Guantanamo” against terrorism. Last fall, the Green Party candidate Yannick Jadot defended an end to ritual killings for halal or kosher meat on the grounds of animal welfare, before backtracking. While the leftist candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon campaigned hard to include religious and ethnic minorities in his platform, the candidate, who finished in a surprisingly strong third place in the first round, has long espoused nativist ideas. The Socialist Party candidate Anne Hidalgo defended multiculturalism in her campaign, but even her party had already been criticized for its heavy-handed response to the terrorist attacks that rocked France in 2015. In any case, she came in with less than 2 percent of the vote.

Helping these ideas bloom is a widespread sense of economic injustice in France. Many of Le Pen’s voters would not point to her nativist platforms as the basis for their support. Instead, they would likely cite a steep cost of living, gasoline, and goods — the same problems that drove the Yellow Vest movement in 2018, now fueled by the pandemic and inflation. Macron, a lifelong technocrat who worked in investment banking before entering politics, has pushed through economic reforms that have lowered unemployment and raised the quality of life for many French people, but their results have been unequal, a dynamic compounded by France’s extreme centralization. Le Pen has used this to her advantage by running a very localized campaign in which she has foregrounded the cost of living, especially among rural voters. She has been able to play up a contrast to Macron, who is seen as the “president of the rich,” beholden to Paris and far removed from the daily concerns of the French. While he campaigned only reluctantly, perhaps initially overconfident in his poll numbers, she has been visiting small towns that are most likely to feel cut off from French centers of power.

Le Pen is still likely to lose the election, but she has succeeded in taking advantage of every factor that predisposes the French to extremism right now. Earlier this month, about 23,000 people hit the streets to protest against her and what she represents. 20 years ago, demonstrations against her father drew a million people in Paris alone. No matter what happens on Sunday, France’s far-right era is well on its way.

Why France Is So Vulnerable to Extremism