When French voters take to the polls Sunday to choose between incumbent President Emmanuel Macron and his opponent Marine Le Pen, they will be participating in an election unlike any before. For the first time in the history of this nation, a candidate from the extreme right has a real chance at winning the presidency.
“It would be by a small margin, but there is a chance,” said Vincent Martigny, professor of political science at the University of Nice.
Macron is still tipped to win, with a 55-45 advantage in the latest polling, but there are several factors that could tighten the gap, including turnout and how the 7.7 million people who cast ballots for far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the first round of the election choose to vote in the runoff. But even before Sunday’s vote, one outcome is already clear: Extremism in France has made a powerful showing.
Le Pen’s name has long been synonymous with hard-line, nationalistic stances on Islam, security, migration, asylum-seekers and other policies that champion what she calls the traditional “French identity.” In a debate with Macron Wednesday night, Le Pen linked crime and immigration; warned that France was “facing barbarism” and “growing savage”; and said she would ban headscarves in public places, tighten immigration and asylum laws, and adopt a French-first policy that would prioritize citizens in the distribution of public assistance.
The poll numbers mean that nearly half the voting public is willing to cast a ballot for someone on the far right. That is a significant increase from the last faceoff between these two candidates in 2017, when Macron was elected president with 66.1 percent of the vote. Le Pen garnered only 33.9 percent.
And that begs the question: If such a large percentage of voters are comfortable with the proposals and discourse of the extreme right, are they still considered extreme? For many in this nation, ideas that not long ago would have been unspeakable in public are now accepted as a matter of course.
Jean Galen, a property developer in southwestern France, said he voted for Macron in 2017 but now sees him as a dangerous narcissist with authoritarian tendencies. To stop Macron, Galen plans to cast his ballot for Le Pen on Sunday. While he disagrees with her on many issues, he sees her as the lesser of two evils and argued that extremism is relative. “What is extreme at one time is moderate at another,” he told Grid.
As an example, Galen pointed to Le Pen’s concept of “national priority,” her proposal to give French citizens preference in getting public housing, jobs and other social aid. Galen doesn’t like the policy, but as he said, “it was once considered extremist but no longer is.”
That, said Paula Diehl, professor of political science at the University of Kiel in Germany, is a key take-away from the current campaign: “Right-wing extremist ideas of identity have become normalized in France.”
The “Great Replacement Theory”
Nowhere is the bleeding of extremism into the French mainstream more evident than with the so-called Great Replacement Theory, the racist belief that a conspiracy exists to replace white Christians in Europe with nonwhite and non-Christian immigrants, largely Muslims from continental Africa. The theory was put forward by French author Renaud Camus, including in his 2011 book “The Great Replacement.” His theory has been taken up by white nationalist groups in other countries, including the United States.
Once considered so out of bounds that even Le Pen wouldn’t utter the phrase, it is now within the realm of acceptability. In the run-up to the first round of the election, the candidate for the mainstream right party, Valérie Pécresse, invoked the idea at a campaign rally, saying that France could still avoid a “great replacement” and calling on her supporters to “rise up” to stop it. She said later she had been taken out of context.
While Pécresse was called out in the press and social media for using the term, the idea itself is now in the French mainstream: A poll conducted last October found that 67 percent of the French public was worried that immigration could lead to the extinction of white Christians in the country. That, Diehl told Grid, represents a significant shift. “It would not have been possible to talk about that with such openness five years ago,” she said. “The word ‘replacement’ would not have been possible.”
Even Macron has extended a hand to hard-liners on the issue. After campaigning in 2017 on a platform that pledged better integration of newcomers and praising then-German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s policy of welcoming hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees, Macron began promising stronger borders and put forward a controversial anti-separatism law that was criticized for stigmatizing the Muslim community. “In order not to lose voters, he has accepted, in some terms, some of the ideas of the extreme right,” Diehl said. “He is pitting [national] unity against diversity.”
The press is a factor as well. Public debate in France has shifted to the right, fueled in part by the creation of a Rupert Murdoch-style populist media empire by conservative billionaire Vincent Bolloré. “A large number of TV shows give a wider space to extremist ideas, thinking that the people want that,” Martigny told Grid.
To some extent, they do want that. A recent poll found that 60 percent now believe there are too many “foreigners” in France; 71 percent are worried about immigration’s impact on the country. Le Pen herself has led the way in arguing that the traditional French “identity” is what matters most, even if the policies that flow from that principle are discriminatory. Diehl added that as they are repeated across French media, extremist ideas are losing their shock value. “In the beginning, they create unease, but with time, if they continue to circulate among different media, they can become normal, in the sense that you get used to it,” Diehl said. “When you get used to something, you start accepting it, and that begins the process of normalization. Once you normalize an idea, such as ‘you have to protect the French national identity,’ then it is very difficult to change it on the political landscape.”
A kinder, gentler extremist
Since her loss in 2017, Le Pen has been on what the French refer to as a “de-demonization” mission, an effort to make herself appear softer and more palatable to a wider audience. On the campaign trail, she backed away from some of her more extremist stances, began wearing pastel-colored suits, adopted a warm and maternal persona and — a new touch — was photographed with her cats.
Le Pen’s newfound image extends to the way she presents her hard-line policies. “She uses neutral language,” said Emilien Houard-Vial, who teaches political science at the Sciences Po university. “For example, she speaks of immigration and not of immigrants, so she is not attacking people, but a phenomenon.”
And that resonates with some voters. “She is for everyone, even Muslims,” said Le Pen supporter Matthias Zammit, a 39-year-old former military police officer who lost his job during the covid pandemic. He pointed to the French territory of Mayotte, which has the lowest GDP in France, is 97 percent Muslim and is where Le Pen returned her best results in the first round of the election. “She’s against clandestine immigration. It’s against the law,” he said.
Even before she set about softening her own image, Le Pen undertook making over her party, expelling her father, the openly extremist politician Jean-Marie Le Pen, who founded the party in 1972, and rebranding it with a new name and steering it away from her father’s overt racism and antisemitism. “Her strategy was to take the party away from the idea that it was a right-wing radical party against democracy,” Diehl said.
While the ideology remains the same, Le Pen has repackaged much of her platform as populism. Le Pen today appears less as a hate-spewing firebrand and more the politician selling a salt-of-the-earth image while highlighting the widely held perception that Macron is “the president of the rich.” Analysts say this has had the twin effects of sounding less radical and helping Le Pen pick off working-class voters, people who used to be on the left of the political spectrum but now feel left behind by globalization and forgotten by the Socialist Party. It’s an echo of the appeal of Trumpism in the United States.
And as with Donald Trump and the American media, Le Pen’s populism has helped her garner newspaper ink and airtime. “Populism is based on scandal, on breaking taboos, uses simple language, is very emotional, is goal-oriented,” said Diehl. “These are all elements privileged by mass media to get the attention of the audience.”
Her core beliefs, though, remain the same — and that was clearly evident in Wednesday night’s debate. She repeatedly invoked themes of French identity, saying she wanted the country to be a global power, not just a European power, and that she wanted to end the right of people born in France to automatically be granted citizenship, known as the “right of soil.” She wrapped up the debate saying her program would “protect our social model, prioritize localism over globalization and give French nationals precedence in our own country.”
France’s drift to the right is perhaps best understood in conversations with voters. “For me, it’s not extreme, it’s traditional,” said 50-year-old Marie Duchet, a real estate agent from Lille. She supported the extreme-right candidate Eric Zemmour, who was eliminated in the first round. Duchet told Grid that for her, the loss of tradition is evident in the fact that many second- and third-generation French no longer bother to learn about the country and its richness. They don’t know its history, its cultural figures, its literature or even its landscapes. This, too, is a gentler version of the extremist theme, not explicitly anti-immigrant but longing for a nostalgic idea of her country. “There is a vision of France, its identity, its culture,” she said. “If you want to be French, you have to play the game.”
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.