France’s far-right National Front party keeps gaining ground. Its leader, Marine Le Pen, wants to be president. There’s a good chance I’ll face a distasteful choice in 2017.

Marine Le Pen in Lyon, France, 7 April 2012.  (AP Photo/Laurent Cipriani)
Marine Le Pen in Lyon, France, 7 April 2012. (AP Photo/Laurent Cipriani)

By Pauline Bock

In 2002, I was too young to vote or understand what was happening in French politics when far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen took the country by surprise and reached the second round runoff in the presidential election.

I remember one of my Italian friends saying good-bye to everyone at school because she feared she “might be kicked out of the country” by a xenophobic Le Pen.

I didn’t know at the time that my parents reluctantly voted for a candidate from a party whose policies they rejected, just so Le Pen — who once called Nazi gas chambers a “detail” in history — would not win power.

Back then, few in France suspected my generation would face this distasteful choice — hold your nose and vote for someone you don’t really support — at each subsequent poll.

In recent regional elections, the extreme-right National Front (NF), led by Le Pen’s daughter Marine, emerged as the nation’s single biggest party in the first round of voting — ahead of the mainstream parties on the left and right that have governed France since Charles de Gaulle created the Fifth Republic in 1958.

Her party, which takes a dim view of immigrants, the euro and even the European Union, failed to win any of the 13 regions in the second and final round, but only because President François Hollande’s Socialists fell on their swords and in extremis joined right-wing Republicans to block the NF.

Le Pen was anything but a loser, and the voting in the last major election before France’s presidential poll in 2017 confirmed her party’s ascent.

A stark and dispiriting choice

All of this matters for Europe and even beyond.

Marine Le Pen sits in the European Parliament, flanked by representatives from other nationalist parties from elsewhere in the continent. She will run for the French presidency in 18 months time and has an excellent chance of reaching the runoff.

Right-wing parties are expanding all over Europe. Nigel Farage’s UK Independence Party fared very well in Britain’s general elections in May. Like Le Pen’s NF, the Alternative for Germany party wants that country to distance itself from the EU.

Security fears and economic worries are fueling nationalist sentiment among many voters in the United States, where Republican presidential candidates are calling for stringent border controls and a more go-it-alone foreign policy.

In France, young people like myself face a stark and dispiriting choice at election time — the extreme-right NF, or not.

A friend who lives in the North, one of the NF’s strongholds, wrote on Facebook: “It would be great if we could avoid finding ourselves in the very same cycle next time. It’s a cycle we’ve come to know a bit too well — a total lack of interest in the elections, leading to ‘Shit the NF is about to win,’ leading to ‘Pfew, that was close.’”

A long-time political outsider, the NF is now electable. In vote after vote, the party has been gaining supporters. In 2014, it won control of 14 city councils — and would have won far more if mainstream parties had not ganged up against the NF in the second round.

Since taking control of those towns, NF-controlled councils have slashed spending on social services and culture. In the town of Béziers, halal food is no longer served in school cafeterias.

Playing the nationalist card

Given the NF’s recent gains, few will be shocked if Marine Le Pen makes it to the second round runoff in the 2017 presidential election and poses a bigger threat than her father, now estranged from the party he founded, did 15 years earlier.

Marine Le Pen’s party won roughly the same number of votes in the second round of the elections this month as she did in the first round of the 2012 presidential poll — but on a much lower turnout.

She should not be underestimated. She knows how to seduce electors in a way her father did not. She takes no prisoners in the political arena but mostly avoids the legal and verbal pitfalls that her father repeatedly fell into while he was building the party from scratch.

She has inherited a better oiled political machine, and her rhetoric plays on widespread fears. The gloomy economy? Europe’s fault. Security worries? Blame Muslims.

Like Donald Trump in the United States, Le Pen plays the nationalist card that has allure in times of trouble.

On the back foot, both the right and the left are busy trying to contain their far-right opponents, borrowing from the NF’s policy playbook while the economy remains in the doldrums and the Paris attacks fan security fears.

There’s a better than equal chance that I, like my parents 15 years earlier, will enter the voting booth in the second round in May 2017 and force my hand towards the ballot with the name of anyone except Le Pen.

Only this time her adversary will have a hard time beating her with an 82% majority.

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