Will the French Election Deliver Europe's Latest Populist Backlash?

An unlikely far-right victory could be a bigger deal than Brexit.
April 10, 2017, 12:44pm

Far-right candidate for the presidential election Marine Le Pen visits the foire du trone in Paris on April 7, 2017 (Photo by Lionel Urman/SIPA USA/PA Images)

Populism is everywhere, or at least that's how it feels. Over the past year a succession of Western democracies have been rocked by populist revolts that have railed against liberal elites and claimed to speak for "the people". Brexit and the election of Donald Trump are the obvious examples, but there are others.


In recent months populist nationalists came close to capturing the presidential office in Austria and finished second at national elections in the Netherlands, a country that used to be heralded for its liberal outlook. Take a look at the current state of opinion across Europe and there are other ominous signs. In Sweden – another historically liberal nation – in 2017, no less than six separate polls have put the Sweden Democrats, a party rooted in white supremacism, in first place. Meanwhile, in Italy, the Five Star Movement, which wants a referendum on the euro single currency, is topping the polls. And in Austria, where legislative elections are fast approaching, the populist Freedom Party is also in first place.

Now, all eyes are turning to France, where the forthcoming presidential election threatens to give way to the next populist backlash in the west. Specifically, political observers are watching Marine Le Pen, leader of the populist nationalist Front National (National Front) – a hard right party that was founded in 1972 and has since sought to mobilise public opposition to immigration, Islam, the EU and domestic elites in Paris.

Marine Le Pen is hoping to eclipse the past performances of her father, Jean-Marie, from whom she took over in 2011. So far, the evidence suggests she will. In most of the polls of the first round Le Pen has attracted around 25 percent of the vote, or one in four voters. She is drawing much of her support from the working-class, rural workers, the south coast, industrial north and French youth (Le Pen's vote is comparatively weak among pensioners). And remember that the first round effectively offers French voters a "free hit" – an opportunity to make a protest before turning their minds to the more consequential second round.


Not only is the 48-year-old Le Pen hoping to capture the presidency, but she also wants to pull France out of the euro single currency, hold a referendum on EU membership, clamp down on migrants and refugees, and push back against what she calls "Islamic fundamentalism". It is because of her stance on the euro currency and the EU that, if Le Pen were elected, there would almost certainly be a major run on the euro currency, as voters rushed to withdraw their savings and investors ran from France as quickly as possible. This would trigger a crisis of unprecedented proportions in the French banking sector, which could quite plausibly culminate in the dissolution of the entire Eurozone area. This would not be like Brexit – France is a core EU member state.

Look under the bonnet and there are signs that the Le Pen vote is strong. Consistently, Le Pen's voters have been the most likely of all to tell pollsters that they are "certain about their choice" and the least likely to say they "might change their mind". Look, for example, at the latest survey by ifop. In this survey, 83 percent of Le Pen's voters said they were sure about their choice, compared to 76 percent for Francois Fillon and a worryingly low 63 percent for Emmanuel Macron. The fact that around one in three of Macron's voters openly say they might change their mind should be ringing alarm bells in his campaign's HQ.

WATCH: Marine Le Pen is winning over France's working class in the same way Trump soared to victory.

What makes these numbers interesting is that there was a similar dynamic at the 2016 vote for Brexit. Consistently, it was Leave voters who were the most likely to say they were committed to their choice. There is no doubt that Marine Le Pen has a smaller reservoir of potential voters, but it appears likely that she will mobilise a strong vote along the way, which in turn will position her party well for future elections.

Those who are working to stop Le Pen and mobilise a broader fightback among Europe's progressives are rallying behind Emmanuel Macron, a 39-year-old former banker and minister in the unpopular incumbent government. He has started his own party called En Marche! (Forward!) and presents himself as a progressive centrist who, on many issues, is "neither right nor left". Think of a young Tony Blair. Some claim that Macron's programme is vague and uninspiring, but he also has widespread support across the landscape; in recent polls he's been vying with Le Pen for first place.


To defeat Le Pen in round two – assuming she gets this far – Macron will be hoping to win over large numbers of voters who either supported Fillon or one of the two traditional left-wing candidates who are currently ranked fourth and fifth in most polls, Jean-Luc Mélenchon (whose numbers are improving) and Benoît Hamon. Combined, this opens up several avenues to victory for Macron.

Le Pen, meanwhile, is hoping to frame Macron as the "living breathing embodiment" of the financial elite – an ex-banker who cannot understand the everyday lives of French workers and who represents everything that is wrong with what she calls "savage globalisation". Le Pen talks of putting French workers first and fining companies that hire foreign nationals. To defeat Macron she will be hoping to win over large numbers of Fillon's centre-right voters. She'll also hope that lots of voters on the left-wing find little comfort in Macron's more economically liberal programme, so stay at home.

But it is in the second round where Le Pen will encounter real problems. So far, when the French have been presented with a binary choice of Le Pen or Macron she has never surpassed 41 percent of the vote and has typically been held back in the mid-to-high thirties. This is because of two things. First, there is currently little evidence that Le Pen is capable of putting together the kind of coalition that she will need to cross the 50 percent line. Only around three in ten of conservatives on the centre-right say they will switch to Le Pen, while hardly any voters on the left will do so. Unless these voters are lying, this imposes a ceiling on the Le Pen vote. Some say that a terrorist attack might work in her favour, but if you go back to the attacks in Paris and look at Le Pen's support then there is actually very little evidence that she benefitted at all.

Second, these trends reflect another awkward reality for Le Pen – that despite spending six years trying to "detox" her divisive party, she is still incredibly toxic among the wider public. According to one reputable barometer of public opinion, 64 percent of the population distrust Le Pen and 68 percent reject the idea that she has what it takes to be president. Another survey undertaken last month likewise suggested that almost 60 percent still view Le Pen and her party as a threat to French democracy. That might help to explain the parallel finding that over half of all voters say they would never consider voting for her. Consider this evidence in the whole and it is difficult to identify a route to victory for the Le Pen family.

Still, make no mistake: Le Pen's campaign to try and upend French politics comes at the worst possible time for the EU. Since 2008, Brussels has been bombarded by multiple crises. Few of us would want the "to do" list that currently sits on the desks of decision-makers in Brussels. It includes a lingering financial crisis in Greece, a creaking banking sector in Italy, a pan-European refugee crisis that could escalate with another hot summer, sluggish economic growth, a lack of jobs in the Eurozone area (particularly for young Europeans), the fraught Brexit negotiations and the challenge from populism. Should Le Pen fail in her quest to capture the presidential palace then Europe will breathe a quick collective sigh of relief before facing up to the next challenge.