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The rise of the far-right in France

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

For more on what's driving this shift to the right in French politics, we turn to Vincent Martigny. He's a political science professor at the University of Nice. Thank you for being here.

VINCE MARTIGNY: Yeah, thanks for inviting.

FADEL: So, professor, Emmanuel Macron beat Marine Le Pen by more than 30 points in the 2017 presidential runoff. Now in the first round of voting, only a few percentage points separate them. What's changed about national sentiment in France and where voters are?

MARTIGNY: I don't know if there's something that changed on national sentiment, but clearly, something has changed for Emmanuel Macron himself.

FADEL: Yeah.

MARTIGNY: In 2017, he presented novelty, like a young candidate and 40, a new face for France, somebody who would appear as, let's say, cleaning the whole political space from the old politician and embodying a new form, a new way of doing politics. Five years later, well, he's been a president, so he has a - let's say, a series of action of successes but also failures. And his image has been crystallizing in the last five years. And today, you have this feeling of novelty - on the contrary, the feeling that Emmanuel Macron entered politics by saying that left and right didn't matter, but he clearly appeared as a center-right candidate, which was for the disappointment of a large part of the working class, for example, who would be more voting for the left historically, for example.

FADEL: So the results are more about how people are feeling about Macron right now?

MARTIGNY: Well, that's the problem. Five years ago, there was a, let's say, plebiscite for Macron because they believed that Marine Le Pen was a danger. And today, there's a double - what we call in political science double polarization. That's to say that people are very polarized around Marine Le Pen still but also very much polarized around Macron. Many people, as your correspondent in Paris said, really much resents Emmanuel Macron for being a president of the upper class, a president of the rich or a president of the right. And these voters from the traditional left who decided to vote for Jean-Luc Melenchon, the third candidate from the left in the first round, may abstain or, worse, vote for Marine Le Pen.

FADEL: Let's talk about the polarization you mentioned. The weekend's vote seems to indicate French voters have drifted to the extreme on both sides between Le Pen and Eric Zemmour on the far right and Jean-Luc Melenchon, the far-left candidate who came in third. French voters cast more than 50% of ballots for more extreme candidates, shall we say. Why?

MARTIGNY: Well, I think that's partly an illusion, to be honest.

FADEL: OK.

MARTIGNY: It's true that Marine Le Pen is consolidating a pool of the extreme right that represents one-third of the electorate. It was already the case in 2017. You know, altogether, she amounted for 33% or sort of big third - 35% of the electorate in 2017. As for Mr. Melenchon, I think even though he's identified with the far left, many Social Democrats in France have been choosing what appeared as the most efficient candidates to reach the second round. They don't especially support his policy or his views. They just believe this out of efficiency - it was important to vote for a candidate that could make it for the left against Emmanuel Macron the second round in order to avoid this second round between Marine Le Pen and Mr. Macron. So let's not think too quickly that there would be a radicalization of left-wing voters. I think that these votes that have been deciding to go on Mr. Melenchon are just temporary and that this reconstruction of French politics is still an ongoing process.

FADEL: Le Pen has worked to redefine her platform and image to be a bit more moderate. She talks more about inclusion than immigration. But does her political philosophy match the pivot in her message?

MARTIGNY: Well, the thing is that I think her platform didn't change at all. She remains an extreme-right candidate with a nationalistic, xenophobic, strong dimension. But she also appears as a candidate like she was five years ago but in more - she performed it better as a candidate for the losers of globalization, as we call it. Of course, when I say losers, I'm not having a moral intention by saying that but rather than she appears to those who are left behind of European construction or globalization, these workers that can't compete on the international market. And these people - they are very many people in France. And they feel that there's only one candidate who support them, who understands them. That's Marine Le Pen.

And I think that's the main strength, this capacity to mobilize the working class, these people who are really left behind society, especially against a president that appears the very opposite, a president of the winners of society, winners in a sense that those who have the most, those who will benefit the most from the internationalization of French economy. And, of course, these two Frances will confront one another in two weeks, and the result is still undecided.

FADEL: Did Macron spend time on these national issues, these kitchen-table issues about the economy, inflation?

MARTIGNY: Well, that's the problem. Not at all. He didn't campaign. He hardly campaigned. As your correspondent mentioned...

FADEL: Right.

MARTIGNY: ...He hardly campaigned. I think when the war in Ukraine started, his popularity raised to 31%. So people - he believed in the first round, that would be a piece of cake. In a certain way, the election wouldn't happen. And that is also the fact that these successes on the economic dimension would be enough to guarantee him a reelection. And so he thought that it was possible for him not to campaign. And he concentrated on the war in Ukraine. But when the rally-around-the-flag syndrome stopped - and it did, partly - well, actually, people could see that it missed this democratic rendezvous with the French and today will have to struggle very much to show that, eventually, is a president who cares for his own people, and he has concrete solutions to propose for the next five years. It's one thing to be reelected, which - it is probable. It's probable that Mr. Macron will be reelected. But it's another thing to be able to rule for the next five years, considering that there will be general elections for the parliament in two months. And then nothing says that Mr. Macron would win them.

FADEL: Now, if Le Pen were to win, which is a possibility, it would be the first far-right presidency in French history. Does this moment surprise you at all?

MARTIGNY: The moment in which we are is not really surprising. The National Front in this country in the extreme right has always represented a strong trend of public opinion, especially in a country that is moving fast, is very international, once again, for the reason I mentioned earlier. I think that would be a huge surprise if Mrs. Le Pen could win. I think it would be the consequence of an institutional system that is not functioning very well because in reality, you don't have 50 plus 1% of the French population supports the extreme right. That's not true. What is the case is that the presidential election creates such a level of polarization that it creates some negative consequences or, let's say, side effects. That's allowed for the - for such a possibility.

FADEL: Vincent Martigny is a political science professor at the University of Nice.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.