This Sunday, France will choose its next president. The election is an even bigger deal than usual. It has major implications for the future of Europe and the power of far-right politics across the world.
So what’s going on over there?
France is in something of a mess. Outgoing president Francois Hollande is so unpopular he didn’t even try to run for a second term.
Unemployment—especially youth and long-term unemployment—remains high nearly a decade after the financial crisis. After multiple terrorist attacks, the government has put in place a perpetual state of emergency that gives security services very broad powers and has drawn condemnation from human rights groups. French Muslims face routine discrimination.
If this combination of economic stagnation, fear, surveillance, and racism seems somewhat familiar to you...it should! France is going through the same ruptures as countries across the West, including America. The first round of the elections was even more disruptive than the 2016 U.S. primaries, with both candidates from the two major parties eliminated.
And the choice French voters have before them may also seem familiar.
The two people who are running to tackle all this are very different from each other. Their one similarity is that neither of them is representing the two main parties that have traded power in France for decades.
In one corner is Emmanuel Macron, a former investment banker and economy minister from the outgoing Socialist government. In that job, he helped push through a highly controversial overhaul of France’s famously strong labor laws. He then quit to form his own centrist party, En Marche, and run for president.
Macron insists that he is “neither right nor left.” He’s tracked right on the economy—supporting globalization and calling for steep public sector job cuts, corporate tax cuts, and austere budget plans—but he’s also spoken against the targeting of Muslims, denounced France’s colonial past, and pledged a new round of public investment. Oh, and he’s also married to his former high school teacher who is 25 years his senior.
Macron has been endorsed by virtually every other mainstream party. He even secured a last-minute endorsement from Barack Obama. The reason? His opponent, Marine Le Pen.
In recent years, Le Pen has embarked on a huge, very successful attempt to make her party seem less fascist. Though she has vowed to repeal gay marriage, she’s reached out to the LGBTQ community, saying she will protect it from Muslim fanatics. She’s portrayed herself as a defender of women and the welfare state, and denounced globalization and the European Union. She even kicked her father out of the party because he kept popping up and denying the Holocaust.
But make no mistake: Le Pen is still a fascist. Her closest advisers are Nazi sympathizers. She speaks about Muslims and immigrants as a virtual fifth column in France, and has exploited the country’s security issues with classic authoritarian brio. She recently indulged in a bit of Holocaust revisionism that crept quite close to outright denial.
Even so, her rebranding has paid off dramatically. Jean Marie Le Pen shocked France when he made it into the second round of the 2002 presidential elections. He wound up receiving a mere 18 percent of the vote.
Marine Le Pen is expected to get at least twice that figure. She has been normalized. Many of her political opponents, while they still denounce her as a danger, raced to match her positions.
So, to recap: we have a centrist darling of the establishment, urging some reform but still pledging broad fidelity to the status quo, facing a far-right, anti-immigrant populist promising to restore France to its former glory. In a sign of how high the stakes are, the debate between Macron and Le Pen this week was seen as unusually brutal.
Does any of this sound like something you recognize?
Yes, it sometimes seem like France is fighting its own Hillary vs. Trump battle. But the situation is both less and more immediately serious than America’s.
It’s less serious because, unlike Trump, Le Pen seems like she’s headed for a heavy defeat. Poll after poll shows her around 20 points behind Macron, and, though many polls have famously been wrong in the past few years, they would have to be apocalyptically wrong for her to win.
But it’s more serious because, also unlike Trump, Le Pen is a veteran politician who was literally raised on fascism. She’s been working on this project for decades. She knows exactly what she wants to do. If she wins, look out.
And even if she doesn’t win, there’s no room for complacency. Many are worried that, if Macron is elected and fails to improve people’s lives, he will be seen as yet another continuation of the neoliberalism that has caused such resentment and alienation across the West—and that this will leave Le Pen in prime position to finally win power at the next election in 2022. It’s anyone’s guess if Macron is up to that task.