In the April 10 first round of presidential voting – the two-candidate runoff is Sunday – Marine Le Pen finished second to President Emmanuel Macron. In third and fourth place, respectively, were the ferociously left-wing Jean-Luc Mélenchon and, on the right, Eric Zemmour, a media performer whose high-octane xenophobia helped Le Pen by making her seem comparatively decorous. These “Three Moscowteers,” as they have been called, are anti-European Union, anti-NATO, anti-American extremists who praised Vladimir Putin until that became awkward. (Zemmour on Putin: “The last bastion against the hurricane of the politically correct which, starting in America, has destroyed all the traditional structures of family, religion and nation.”)
These three won 52 percent of the first-round vote. Adding the votes for lesser left or right zanies brings the extremist vote to at least 57 percent. In the first round, Le Pen handily defeated Macron 56 percent to 44 percent among voters 18 to 24. Today, 39 percent of voters think Le Pen is a plausible president, up from 21 percent in 2017.
Le Pen, who has called NATO a “warmongering organization,” opposed sanctions on Russia when it seized Crimea. She vows to withdraw French forces – the most formidable among the 27 nations of the European Union – from NATO’s integrated command. In 2017, Le Pen said, “The policies that I represent are the policies that are represented by Mr. Trump. They’re represented by Mr. Putin. ” A Le Pen victory Sunday would embolden Putin, and Putin’s admirer brooding on his Palm Beach Elba.
The Le Pen slogan “Give the French back their country” resonates among millions who subscribe to the belief that they are victims of a “replacement” by immigrants. She wants to end birthright citizenship, and to deny naturalization of children born in France to foreign-born parents. Population pessimism is a facet of Le Pen’s politics of cultural despair. Muslim immigrants have a high birthrate; The “birth dearth” among native French women of childbearing age is well below the replacement level of 2.1 children.
Le Pen and others speak of saving “eternal France” from the dilution, and perhaps the disappearance, of “Christian culture.” That ship has, however, sailed. Church attendance is about 10 percent. Between 1961 and 2012, the percentage of French Catholics saying they went to Mass every Sunday declined from 38 to 7, and probably has declined further. Between 1980 and 2005, the percentage of children born to unmarried women rose from 11.4 to more than 50.
Macron was 39 when in 2017 he became the youngest president in French history, and the nation’s youngest head of state since Napoleon at age 30 in 1799. What Macron lacked in seasoning he has made up for with abundant self-approval. When his popularity underwent the second-quickest plunge in French presidential history, one of his advisers, asked what mistakes the government had made, answered loftily: “We were probably too intelligent, too subtle.” By making neither mistake, the adviser provided a distillation of Macronism, and an example of the vanity from which many Le Pen supporters are recoiling.
But, then, the loathing of the French left and right for one another is as French as the brief, blood-soaked Paris Commune (March 18 to May 28, 1871). Historian Modris Eksteins tells (in “Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age”) what happened in the 1870-1871 Franco-Prussian War when Otto von Bismarck’s army triumphed, and recriminations in Paris over the humiliating defeat set the left and right to butchering one another: “More people were killed in one week of street fighting in May 1871 than in the whole of the Jacobin terror, and more of the city was damaged than in any war before or after.”
In a perpetually changing world, the limitless capacity of France’s political facts’ mutual detestation is a constant. In 2019, when a few wealthy people offered to help finance the restoration of fire-damaged Notre Dame cathedral, this became for many an occasion not for gratitude but for regretting the existence of the wealthy.
“Liberté, galité, fraternité”? Many of the French are opposed to the first if it diminishes the second, which makes the third elusive. So, Sunday’s election is as unpredictable as it certainly will be consequential.