Analysis: Defeat is victory for the far right in France’s elections

PARIS (AP) — The far right has become widespread in France.

That’s the landmark headline displayed by Marine Le Pen in the French presidential election. The fierce nationalist did not win on Sunday. But he moved a step closer, snatching a victory of sorts from his loss to re-elected President Emmanuel Macron.

With an unprecedented 41.5% of the vote, Le Pen’s politics of anti-foreign and anti-establishment discontent is now more entrenched than ever in France’s psyche, thought and political landscape.

Not since the Le Pen dynasty — first his father, Jean-Marie, and now his daughter Marine — began running for president in 1974 have so many French voters bought into his doctrine that a multicultural and multiracial France, a country with the words “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” inscribed on its public buildings, it would be richer, safer and in some ways more French if it were less open to foreigners and the outside world.

Had she become the first female president of France, her plan to fight Islamic terrorism would have included stripping part of France’s population, Muslim women, of part of their freedom. She wanted to ban them from wearing headscarves in public, hardly the same or fraternal. The same goes for her proposals to move French citizens to the front of the queues for jobs, benefits and housing.

For veiled voter Yasmina Aksas, Le Pen’s defeat was not a moment of celebration, not with such strong backing for her and ideas that “used to be limited to far-right militant groups” became increasingly acceptable in polite company.

“It’s still 40% of people who vote for Le Pen,” said the 19-year-old law student. “It’s not a win.”

Internationally, Le Pen wanted to start diluting France’s relations with the European Union, NATO and neighboring Germany, moves that would have been seismic for Europe’s peace architecture, amid Russia’s war in Ukraine.

In short, France escaped political, social and economic shock by not voting for Le Pen.

Or maybe he just delayed one, in case he decides to run again in 2027. That’s a long way off. Much could change. But Le Pen is not done yet.

“In this loss, I can’t help but feel a form of hope,” he said. “I will never abandon the French.”

Surpassing 40% of the votes makes Le Pen an illustrious and conventional company. Since General Charles de Gaulle beat François Mitterrand 55% to 45% in 1965, every defeated finalist has lost 40-something to 50-something.

With two exceptions, both called Le Pen.

Jean-Marie was beaten 82% to 18% by Jacques Chirac in 2002 and Marine lost 66% to 34% to Macron in 2017.

Voters used to consider it their civic duty to keep Le Pens’ score low, and saw a vote against it as a blow against racism and xenophobia. Fewer think that way now.

By championing cost-of-living issues, befriending the working class, changing the name of her party and distancing herself from her father, Le Pen broadened her appeal and made herself less frightening to ever-larger sections of the French electorate. Immigration is not the main concern for all her followers. Not everyone distrusts the EU, Muslims and foreigners. But Le Pen speaks to many who feel ignored and neglected by officials in Paris and Brussels.

And so, while Macron became the first French president in 20 years to win a second term, he too failed: he failed to achieve the goal he set for himself at the start of his presidency.

Five years ago, in his triumphant victory speech, Macron vowed to cut the ground from under Le Pen’s feet by assuaging the voter anger that she feeds off.

“I will do my best in the next five years so that there are no more reasons to vote for the extremes,” he said.

Yet France’s extremes are now doing better than ever, finding growing, enthusiastic and utterly unashamed audiences for far-right “us versus them” rhetoric.

In far-right parlance, “we” are largely white and Christian submerged by migration, impoverished by globalization, terrorized by Islamic fundamentalists, and losing their French identity to imported cultures, religions, and values.

“They” are all those they blame: the elites, the foreigners, the financiers, the EU, the Muslims, “the system”. Your list is long.

The market for his politics has become so large that in this election there were several varieties of extremism to choose from.

Eric Zemmour, a former riff-raff TV pundit who has been repeatedly convicted of hate speech, was fourth out of 12 candidates in the first round of voting on April 10. He argues racially that white French people are at risk of being replaced by non-Europeans. immigrants and their children. He sweetened France’s collaboration with its Nazi occupiers in World War II. During his campaign, he packed auditoriums with audiences for his anti-Islam, anti-immigration invective.

For Le Pen, it also had the advantage of making it look vanilla and palatable by comparison, which also partly explains why it did so well. Together, the extreme right obtained 32% of the votes in the first round.

Now Le Pen has taken another step against Macron in the second round.

It is not enough to come to power.

But closer than ever.

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AP journalist John Leicester has reported from France since 2002. Arno Pedram contributed.

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Follow AP coverage of the French election at https://apnews.com/hub/french-election-2022

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