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Even As She Loses, Le Pen Has Normalised The Far-Right

05/05/2017 16:24 BST | Updated 05/05/2017 16:24 BST
JOEL SAGET via Getty Images

After months of international attention, the French will put news cycles out of their misery by finally electing a new president. After a bruising first round, the choice has narrowed down to two candidates: the young centrist Emmanuel Macron and the flame of the far-right, Marine Le Pen. While the polls predict a comfortable Macron victory, situation on the ground does not reflect a truly widespread mobilisation against the danger of a far-right president.

It hasn't always been like this. In 2002, when divisions on the left facilitated Le Pen senior's ascent into the second round against the then incumbent conservative president Jacques Chirac, every actor from the far-left to the centre-right united in calling for a blockade against the far-right. It worked. High voter turnout delivered an unprecedented Chirac victory with over 80% of the vote, while Jean-Marie Le Pen failed to increase his vote-share from the first round.

Fifteen years later, a comparable scenario did not lead to the emergence of the same anti-fascist coalition against Le Pen junior. On the Right, while the beaten conservative candidate François Fillon did endorse Macron, a fair number of his Catholic voters will shift their support to Le Pen. Simultaneously, about half of the men and women who had opted for the Euro-sceptic candidate Nicolas Dupont-Aignan in the first round will probably rally behind the far-right candidate.

It is on the Left, however, that the unravelling of the anti-fascist consensus seems most acute. While in 2002, Mayday protesters marched under banners calling to 'block one's nose' and vote for the lesser evil in the form of Chirac, this year the syndicates did not unite for a call to vote against the far-right.

Even more tellingly, the left-wing candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who received 19.6% of the votes on the first round, may have warned against voting for Le Pen, but came short of actually endorsing her rival. Subsequently, the latest polls found that only 35% of Mélenchon's activists will vote for Macron, while around 48% of his voters will do the same.

While many - especially on the Left - will say this reflects the lack of enthusiasm with Macron's programme, none of the left-wing voters who voted Chirac with a blocked nose in 2002 did so with any sense of excitement. More importantly, the second round of the French presidential election has never been a moment for a vote of enthusiasm. The two-round system has always offered voters the opportunity to express their desires in the first round, while using the second as a compromise to vote for the lesser evil. French voters have always known this system and operated within its confines. What has changed since 2002, however, is the disappearance of the sense of urgency around blocking a Le Pen presidency.

To some extent, this is not surprising after years of incessant discussion of Le Pen as a viable candidate. While Le Pen father took everyone by surprise in 2002, his daughter has had enough time to establish herself as a thoroughly expected - if not acceptable - choice.

Over the last decade, she has led a project of 'dédiabolisation', or detoxification of the party brand. Under her leadership, overt racism has been controlled in favour of a discussion of the more palatable terms of 'immigration' and 'national preference'. She has combined this with the seemingly winning formula of populism, as she portrayed herself as the champion of 'ordinary people' against the corrupt establishment. To seal the deal, her Front national is not a new, rogue party anymore, but an established 40-year old organisation with its share of corruption affairs. If this is not a ticket into the French mainstream, it is impossible to say what it.

More importantly, however, this normalisation of the Front national has only become possible through the dilution of anti-fascist sentiment in France. The old Front national of Jean-Marie Le Pen represented direct continuity to the old far-right: Vichy collaborators and torturers from the Algerian War of Independence. As both these events drift away from living memory, their hold as cautionary tales has become less immediate, particularly on younger generations.

This process is - in all likelihood - not the harbinger of a Le Pen victory on Sunday. Macron still leads the polls with a sturdy margin of around 20%. Of the 60% who said they would vote for the centrist, 91% claimed they were certain of their choice. Nonetheless, a likely Le Pen share of over 30% of the vote will mark Marine's success in going further than her father ever did. Convincing voters of other parties to cast their ballot for her, the leader of the Front national has demonstrated the success of her detoxification project.

Ultimately, even as Sunday's ballot may in all likelihood reject a Le Pen presidency, it will reaffirm the normalisation of the European far-right. As this is a genie that will not retreat so easily back to its bottle, it is time for those who believe in parliamentary democracy to get used to fighting the far-right in a world where references to fascism and calls to stand up to it no longer hold.