The French election, Marine Le Pen and the rise of populism

By Alex Bregman

The French election is just the latest example of populism that is sweeping the globe.

Need a quick primer? Pas de problem!

On one extreme, there’s Marine Le Pen. No candidate has been more cheered or feared, primarily because of her roots. Her father, Jean Marie Le Pen, founded her party, the National Front, and ran for president five times on an explicitly racist platform. He called concentration camps a “detail” of history and — regarding a Jewish critic — said, “next time we’ll put him in an oven.”

His daughter has tried to rebrand the party. This year’s Le Pen campaign logos simply say “Marine.” And the elder Le Pen has been expelled from the party.

Her candidacy appeals to French voters worried about terrorism and France’s Muslim population, which is now the largest in Western Europe. They’re also concerned about the economy. France’s unemployment rate is double that of the U.S.

Le Pen is a fierce opponent of Islamic fundamentalism, and also favors limits on more moderate expressions of religious faith and practice, like a ban on headscarves in public places. Expel illegal immigrants. Tighten borders and reduce legal immigration. Renegotiate trade deals and try to retreat from globalization — all of which sounds a lot like President Trump.

The similarities don’t end there. Both Trump and Le Pen have a soft spot for Vladimir Putin (though Trump’s relationship with Putin seems to have taken a recent nosedive over Syria). On “60 Minutes” Anderson Cooper asked Le Pen: “You don’t think Vladimir Putin, though, is a killer, is a — is a — a threat to France, to others in this region?” Her answer: “No, I don’t believe it is so. Nothing Vladimir Putin has done would make me reach that conclusion.” Some believe Le Pen has been influenced by a multimillion-dollar loan for her party from a Russian bank. One report says that the Russians even plan to launch a cyberoffensive to help the National Front.

One of Le Pen’s main competitors is Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a 65-year-old socialist often described as the French Bernie Sanders. One of his big ideas: a 100% tax on all income above 400,000 euros.

Another is Emmanuel Macron, a 39-year-old centrist and former investment banker, who seems to provide a ray of hope for France’s beleaguered establishment.

There are others running as well, but these are the candidates who appear to have the best chance of advancing to a runoff in May.

While most pundits still believe Le Pen will ultimately lose, the pundits have been wrong before, and the French might ultimately opt for their version of Brexit.

All eyes will be on France to see if it too will be swept up in the populist wave that’s rising around the world. So when it comes to the French elections, at least you can say, now I get it.