Has Marine Le Pen Been Trumped?

Not a single French region fell to the National Front, but its momentum remains strong and the establishment remains worried.

12.14.15 1:47 PM ET

PARIS — So, Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Front party, which placed first in six of 13 French regions last week, failed to win the second round in a single one this week. 

But there’s no joy in the mainstream French political establishment, or in the mainstream French media that worked hard to defeat Le Pen and her candidates, because the mainstream is still flowing in her direction, and everyone knows it.

Indeed, traditional politicians here regard Le Pen with something like the same horror that the American mainstream regards Donald Trump, and for some of the same reasons. Seen as sly, anti-immigrant, implicitly racist populists, both are portrayed in the political language of Europe as “fascists.” But there are limits to the analogy.

The National Front, whose platform would do away with open European borders, the euro currency, and indeed “Europe” itself, has become not just a third party in the multi-party French system, it has become the third party. And when presidential elections roll around about 18 months from now, there is every chance that Le Pen will make it into the sudden-death second-round run-off.

In these regional elections, members of the Socialist Party of President François Hollande, who is wildly unpopular, were relieved they held on to five regions in mainland France, while those of the center-right Les Républicains, led for the moment by ex-President Nicolas Sarkozy, were embarrassed by his repeated claims before the voting this month that the party would sweep the regions.

In fact, in the two critical races that the Front seemed sure to win a week ago—Marine Le Pen was a candidate in one, her 27-year-old niece, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, in the other—the only thing that stopped the Le Pen onslaught was a decision by the Socialists to pull their candidates out altogether and ask them to vote for Les Républicains.

The same sort of ploy was used in 2002, when Marine Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie, the old demagogue, gadfly, and Jew-baiter of the far right, made it into the second round of the presidential elections. Then, 80 percent of the electorate turned out to vote him down and give the affable conservative incumbent, Jacques Chirac, a second term.

But on Sunday the ad hoc united front in the two key races garnered less than 60 percent of the vote in the two key regions, and the illusion that there is what the French call a “glass ceiling” that prevents the National Front from winning more than 50 percent of the ballots looks ever more ephemeral. In the first round in Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie, Le Pen had racked up more than 40 percent of the vote, her Républicain opponent, Xavier Bertrand, only 25 percent. In this last round, she had a solid 42 percent against the combined Socialist and Républicain vote.

No wonder Bertrand was chastened after his victory on Sunday night. “History will remember that it’s here that we stopped the progress of the National Front,” he declared without apparent enthusiasm, “but the results of this evening oblige us to stay humble.”

Since the National Front’s stunning results in the first round of elections on Dec. 6, it’s become commonplace to liken Le Pen to Donald Trump because of her party’s traditional hostility to immigrants, because she has been boosted by fears arising from the attacks in Paris, and because the idea of her winning the presidency strikes many as so shocking.

Then Trump’s xenophobic declaration that all Muslims should be prevented from entering the United States struck many as the perfect point for comparison. (Indeed, “Donald Trump is Now America’s Marine Le Pen,” a column in The New Yorker, was the talk of Paris last week.)

But Le Pen disdains any analogy with Trump, and indeed it is misleading.

As Pierre Guerlain, a professor of American civilization writing for the blog of the liberal weekly L’Obs pointed out, both Trump and Marine Le Pen exploit the public desire for “simplisme” in the face of a complicated, threatening world; both use immigrants as scapegoats; and both mesmerize the press with “provocations, outrageous language, rejection of what they call the politically correct.”

With Trump as with the National Front, Guerlain writes, we find the same language of demagoguery with “accents of racism and ‘fascistoïdes,’” a wonderfully sinister-sounding word, evocative of disease, that might be translated as fascist-like.

But as Guerlain points out, Trump is really much more like Le Pen père than Le Pen fille. Like Jean-Marie Le Pen, Trump is a “media savvy buffoon,” “a sort of free-floating egocentric electron.” And the most likely consequence of his candidacy will be the ruination of the Republican Party’s chances for the White House.

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Marine Le Pen, on the other hand, has a clear strategy to take power that she has developed over the course of several years now, toning down or ruling out her father’s excesses, and despite the apparent setback of the regional elections she’s still going strong.

In a testy interview on the news channel BFMTV after the Trump comparison cropped up in the American press, one could see perfectly how Le Pen plays her cards as a nationalist from start to finish:

First, she shrugged. Then she said, “I’m French, I am not American,” setting up a shot at ex-President Sarkozy, who used to enjoy being called “Sarkozy l’américain.”

But what about Trump’s call to ban Muslims from entering U.S. territory (at least temporarily)? interviewer Jean-Jacques Bourdin insisted.

“Seriously, have you ever heard me say something like that?”

“No,” says Bourdin.

Voila!” says Le Pen.

Bourdin says everybody in America has reacted to the Trump statement, won’t she?

“Monsieur Bourdin, I am not American. Me, I’m not Nicolas Sarkozy, OK? I am not American. I am French. I defend in France all the French, whatever their origin, whatever their religion.”

That may not be enough to convince those French of Arab and Muslim backgrounds that Marine Le Pen is on their side, but it is enough to help convince a growing number of voters—far more than the Front ever had before—that this Le Pen is not fascistoïde. And in theses perilous times, despite Sunday’s setback, that may be all she needs to keep her momentum going.