Why Marine Le Pen Is So Close to Power

The French mainstream has failed to counter the far right’s pessimism about the state of the country. Americans are making the same mistake.

Marine Le Pen sits behind a row of press microphones.
Lionel Preau / Riva Press / Redux

About the author: Yascha Mounk is a contributing writer at The Atlantic and the author of The Great Experiment: Why Diverse Democracies Fall Apart and How They Can Endure.

The French far right is closer to power now than it has been at any time since World War II.

When Jean-Marie Le Pen qualified for the second round of presidential elections in 2002, the whole country was shocked. But the outcome of the runoff was a foregone conclusion. In the end, Jacques Chirac won the most lopsided victory in the history of the French Republic, with his extremist rival garnering only 17.8 percent of the vote.

When Jean-Marie’s daughter, Marine, qualified for the second round of the presidential elections in 2017, the broad ideological coalition that had rallied around to marginalize her father was already much weaker. Although Emmanuel Macron won with a comfortable margin, Marine significantly surpassed her father’s performance, winning 33.9 percent.

This Sunday, a member of the Le Pen family will be on the second-round ballot for the third time in 20 years. More likely than not, Macron will squeak through in the end; after his polls improved over the course of the past few days, betting markets now give him a nine in 10 chance of winning reelection. But what is virtually beyond doubt is that Marine will get the largest number of votes won by any far-right candidate in the history of the Fifth Republic.

What can explain the gradual yet seemingly irresistible rise of France’s far right? And how can other countries facing emboldened far-right movements, including the United States, reverse the trend before it is too late?

Some important reasons for Le Pen’s popularity are specific to the French political scene. The most obvious is that many voters are disappointed in the incumbent, Macron.

When he first ran for the presidency in 2017, Macron was a fresh face who promised to take on the country’s atrophied party system. Many successful upstarts in politics, such as Barack Obama, lack definition, allowing voters with a wide range of views to project their hopes onto them. Once they win high office, they inevitably let down some of their original supporters. But in Macron’s case, this process has been especially marked.

Macron came to prominence as an adviser for a left-wing president, François Hollande, and appealed to cosmopolitan voters by portraying his candidacy as a fight for an open world. After five crisis-filled years, including the yellow-vest protests, the pandemic, and the war in Ukraine, Macron has proved his mettle as a competent manager. But he has also acquired a reputation for Jupiterian aloofness, and whereas in 2017 he was a blank slate, voters now view him as a center-right politician. He has pushed for unpopular economic reforms such as lower corporate taxes and a higher retirement age. And, responding to a distinct rightward lurch in public sentiment, he has adopted much tougher stances on immigration and questions of law and order.

At the same time, Le Pen has cleverly expanded her political tent. Ever since taking over the reins of the family business from her father, she has staked her bets on a detoxification of the far right. She has mostly stopped indulging in nostalgia for the Vichy regime, has tried to move on from the party’s anti-Semitic history, and has claimed to defend the rights of women and sexual minorities against the threat supposedly posed by intolerant immigrants.

After showing limited effects for many years, this strategy is bearing fruit. During Macron’s tenure, Le Pen has focused much of her rhetoric on bread-and-butter economic issues, promising to protect the welfare state and boost the incomes of the poor; this has improved her standing among working-class voters. Meanwhile, Éric Zemmour, a best-selling author, has outflanked her on the extreme right, making her seem reasonable by comparison. Both developments have helped to “soften” Le Pen’s image.

Some right-leaning voters who once considered voting for an extremist candidate like Le Pen a betrayal of the French Republic are now openly supporting her. Some of Macron’s former supporters on the center-left are likely to stay home because they just can’t stomach voting for him. And a number of far-left voters who “held their nose” and cast their ballot against the archenemy on the far right five years ago are now telling pollsters that they will back Le Pen. The more he listens to Macron, one left-wing voter with North African roots said in a recent focus group, the more he is tempted to support Le Pen—“even though I have the face of an Arab.”

France remains a highly affluent country with a very generous welfare state. After years of economic stagnation, the unemployment rate is now near a record low. So how can a few missteps by an incumbent president, or a few adroit moves by his extremist challenger, be enough to put the far right within arm’s reach of winning the highest office in the country?

The answer, I believe, has to do with the power of the relentlessly pessimistic narrative told by the far right—and the failure of the rest of society to counter it with a more optimistic vision of the future.

In their speeches, Le Pen and Zemmour give the impression that the country they purport to love is on the brink of collapse. Over the course of decades, they claim, corrupt elites have betrayed the country by attempting to replace its native population with more pliable immigrants. These newcomers, especially Muslims, are said to be fundamentally opposed to both France and French values. Unless the country turns back the clock, and puts “real” Frenchmen in charge again, it is supposedly doomed. Islamism, Le Pen has argued, is a “totalitarianism” that aims to “subjugate France.”

In Le Pen’s television ads and in the pages of Zemmour’s voluminous books, the banlieue takes on the form of a lawless war zone. Immigrants are not interested in integrating into the mainstream of French society. Expert only in scrounging off the welfare state, their condition worsens from generation to generation. “More and more are coming from the third world, taking advantage of our benefits,” Le Pen once warned, turning the next presidential election into nothing short of a “choice of civilization.”

France’s left rightly rejects both conspiracy theories about a “great replacement” and attempts to blame immigrants for the concentrated poverty that does persist in some French suburbs. But even as it has contested who is to blame for the current malaise, it has, in its own way, mirrored the relentless pessimism of the right.

Many of the loudest left-wing voices in France also depict life in the banlieues as bleak and dystopian. They too emphasize that many newcomers have failed to join the social mainstream. And they, too, give the impression that most immigrants and their descendants are perpetually stuck at the very lowest rungs of society. Despite purportedly coming from the opposite side of the political spectrum, they at times sound like Zemmour. The difference lies in who is blamed for these dystopian conditions: The real culprits, according to more progressive pessimists, are the incessant discrimination and racism that define contemporary France.

This pessimism could not have become so dominant if it did not have roots in reality. Immigrants and minority groups undoubtedly face serious discrimination and racism. And yet, life in contemporary France is much better than the dominant discourse on either the right or the left now seems to suggest. Indeed, France has successfully managed to integrate the majority of its immigrants over the course of the past decades. Far from being stuck in poverty or welfare dependency, most immigrants are experiencing rapid social, economic, and educational mobility. According to one large study by European economists, for example, the children and grandchildren of immigrants are more likely to improve their living conditions than the children and grandchildren of similarly positioned “natives.”

Because of the failure of the French mainstream to contest the pessimistic narrative of the far right, these facts are barely known in the country. This leaves French voters with a choice between two unremittingly negative visions of the future: one in which immigrants are to blame for the country’s unsolvable problems, and one in which they themselves are the culprits. Under those circumstances, it is hardly surprising that so many voters are choosing to seek fault with outsiders rather than themselves.

Many other diverse democracies around the world, including the United States, are in danger of succumbing to a similarly perilous spiral of pessimism.

Running for president in 2016, Donald Trump infamously told Black voters: “You’re living in poverty. Your schools are no good. You have no jobs … What the hell do you have to lose?” Because of the evident insincerity of Trump’s concern for the state of Black America, his comment provoked outrage. But some in the mainstream echo his sentiments, portraying the living conditions of Black Americans as bleak.

On the far right, polemicists like to insinuate that immigrants from Central American nations are failing to integrate because they are somehow inferior to earlier generations of Irish and Italian newcomers. Though the left correctly rejects this framework, it too takes a negative view of immigrants’ socioeconomic progress. Because of the depth of racism and discrimination in America, it often claims, today’s nonwhite immigrant groups simply do not have the opportunity to rise at the same speed, or to the same extent, as white immigrant groups did 100 years ago.

There can be no doubt that, like in France, plenty of racism and discrimination do persist in America. Black communities continue to suffer from the long-term consequences of centuries of oppression. Nonwhite immigrants who have recently arrived in the country do experience significant forms of racial discrimination. And yet, American reality is much more hopeful than the pessimistic narratives that are now so fashionable suggest.

The majority of African Americans are middle-class. Most have completed high school and about half have, if they are below the age of 40, spent some time at a community college or research university. Black Americans are more likely to work in white-collar jobs than in blue-collar ones. They are more likely to get their health insurance from their employers than to either have to purchase it on an open marketplace or be uninsured.

This helps to explain why the views of the median Black American are much more upbeat than you might expect from listening to Trump or, for that matter, reading the pages of mainstream newspapers. Black Americans are actually more likely than their white fellow citizens to “believe in the American dream” or to say that the country’s best days still lie ahead.

Similarly, when four economists from Stanford, Princeton, and UC Davis set out to analyze data on immigrants who arrived in the country over the past century, they came to optimistic conclusions about the economic mobility of newcomers to the United States. Immigrants fared very well, rapidly boosting their incomes from one generation to the next. And this turned out to be true irrespective of their ethnic or geographical origin. “Children of immigrants from nearly every sending country,” the economists write, “have higher rates of upward mobility than the children of the US-born.”

According to the study, immigrants improve their economic status about as quickly now as earlier generations of newcomers did 50 or 100 years ago. This gives the lie to those who insinuate that today’s immigrants are somehow inferior—but also to those who claim that American society is so profoundly racist that today’s predominantly nonwhite immigrants just don’t stand a chance.

A realistic assessment of the present state of Western liberal societies requires a keen eye for the injustices that continue to characterize them. But it also requires an appreciation of the real progress they have made in recent decades.

When politicians ignore this lesson, and the pessimists start to dominate the public discourse, demagogues like Le Pen and Trump find it that much easier to win power. To keep them in check, political leaders need to recover a realistic optimism—and offer voters of every ethnic and religious group a vision of the future that they would actually be excited to live in.