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France’s New Age of Protectionism

The younger Le Pen has an uncanny knack for gaging the social fears of the French populous
By The News · 20 of February 2017 09:19:17
Marine Le Pen, French National Front (FN) political party leader and candidate for French 2017 presidential election, speaks during a news conference after her meeting with Lebanon's President Michel Aoun at the presidential palace in Baabda, Marine Le Pen, French National Front (FN) political party leader and candidate for French 2017 presidential election, speaks during a news conference after her meeting with Lebanon's President Michel Aoun at the presidential palace in Baabda, Lebanon, February 20, 2017. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir, photo: Reuters/Mohamed Azakir

First came Brexit, with a nationalist-minded UK electorate declaring its economic and political independence from a bureaucrat-heavy Brussels.

Then there was the election of President Donald J. Trump, where U.S. voters made it clear that they had had enough inner-Beltway elitism and liberal policies that they felt the interests of foreign nationals prioritized over those of Middle America’s blue-collar working classes.

And, now, the French are on the verge of creating their own populist heroine, with the surging popularity of far-right Front National (FN) leader Marine Le Pen, who is running for president on a brazen anti-European Union, anti-immigrant platform.

In her unabashed political manifesto, announced earlier this month in Lyon, Le Pen made no bones about the fact that she was ready to follow suit behind the United Kingdom with her own brand of Frexit, and that she (and her supporters) could draw direct parallels between the influx of migrants and a surge in terrorism on French soil.

The no-holds-barred 48-year-old daughter of FN founder and disgraced maverick politician Jean-Marie Le Pen (who she conveniently ousted from the Front National last year in her insatiable quest for power) has an uncanny knack for gaging (and exploiting) the social fears of the French populous.

The recent scandal involving François Fillon (who allegedly forked out nearly $1 million in public payroll funds to his wife and children), has pretty much fizzled the central-right Les Républicains party’s once-secure chances of nabbing victory, now making Le Pen the conservative candidate par excellence in the eyes of many discontented French voters.

The anger against Fillon’s nepotistic corruption has not only placed Le Pen in the frontrunner slot for the April 23 elections, but it has also helped to fuel the smoldering embers of nationalism and protectionism in France, fed by a mounting resentment against immigrants.

Like the working class rural outsiders who dethroned what they perceived as a jaded, do-nothing establishment elite in London and Washington, the French rural masses have been itching for a new, populous-based alternative, and they see Le Pen as their political Jeanne d’Arc, leading the charge against the Old Order autocracy.

So far, Le Pen has been eager to milk the Maid of Orléans image, projecting herself as a highly moral candidate with impeccable political ethics (although her Front National party faces its own no-show employment scandal in the European Parliament).

Taking a cue from Trump, Le Pen has presented herself as a champion of France’s disenfranchised middle class, promising a 144-item laundry list of actions she would take once in office, including an immediate withdrawal from the eurozone, holding a referendum on EU membership, slapping taxes on imports and on job contracts for foreigners, lowering the retirement age and increasing welfare benefits, all while lowering the national income tax and cutting back on government graft.

Le Pen’s tug-at-the-hearts-of-the-masses manifesto also creates a blueprint for reserving certain services now available to all residents — including public healthcare and free education — exclusively for French citizens.

She has likewise promised to hire an additional 15,000 police officers and to curb migration by dispensing with border-free transit, and to pull out of NATO’s integrated command.

Whether or not Le Pen would — if elected — be able to deliver on all these ambitious undertakings remains to be seen, since her manifesto was big on promises but small on details as to how she would implement them.

But at the heart of Le Pen’s campaign is the FN’s signature anti-immigration theme, and, as things stand now, that leitmotif seems to be resonating with her base of disgruntled French voters.

We will have to wait until April to see if Le Pen’s appeal reflects just a passing fad in the country’s topsy-turvy political pageantry or a permanent trend in the ever-evolving French gubernatorial landscape.

Thérèse Margolis can be reached at therese.margolis@gmail.com.