France’s di­vide mir­rors West’s

LE PEN IS UN­LIKELY TO WIN PRES­I­DENCY But far-right move­ment has so­lid­i­fied its stand­ing

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY GRIFF WITTE

paris — Ever since Don­ald Trump proved last Novem­ber that any­thing is pos­si­ble in the topsy-turvy new world of Western pol­i­tics, May 7 has been cir­cled on Euro­pean cal­en­dars with a mix of giddy an­tic­i­pa­tion and ex­is­ten­tial dread.

To right-wing populists, the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion in France — a coun­try scarred by un­em­ploy­ment and ter­ror­ism — seemed to of­fer the next big op­por­tu­nity to re­make the post­war global or­der in their own na­tion­al­ist, na­tivist and pro­tec­tion­ist im­age.

To the main­stream, it looked like a pos­si­ble third strike after Trump and Brexit — one with the po­ten­tial to doom the Euro­pean Union, NATO and other pil­lars of the trans-At­lantic al­liance.

But as tens of mil­lions of French vot­ers pre­pare to cast bal­lots Sunday, in­di­ca­tors sug­gest that the pop­ulist wave is likely to by­pass Gal­lic shores.

In fi­nal pre-elec­tion polling, in­de­pen­dent cen­trist Em­manuel Macron held an over­whelm­ing ad­van­tage of about 25 points over far-right chal­lenger Marine Le Pen — up from 20 points days ear­lier. Even with the last-minute re­lease of thou­sands of hacked Macron cam­paign doc­u­ments, an­a­lysts said the scale of his lead gave Le Pen lit­tle hope of ek­ing out a vic­tory.

“Her chances are very weak,” said Olivier Rouquan, a po­lit­i­cal

an­a­lyst at Pan­theon-As­sas II Univer­sity.

A Le Pen loss, how­ever, will hardly be a knock­out blow for pop­ulism — or a ring­ing vin­di­ca­tion of the es­tab­lish­ment.

If any­thing, the French cam­paign has so­lid­i­fied the new frac­ture lines in mod­ern pol­i­tics, which bear lit­tle re­la­tion to the rel­a­tively mod­est dif­fer­ences mark­ing the old left-right di­vide. In­stead, the choice vot­ers face on Sunday il­lus­trates the pro­found new chasm in the West: be­tween those who fa­vor open, glob­al­ized so­ci­eties and others who pre­fer closed, na­tion­al­ized ones.

“What’s the com­mon ground be­tween Macron and Le Pen? There is none. What we’re see­ing is his­toric: a choice be­tween two com­pletely dif­fer­ent modes of or­ga­niz­ing a so­ci­ety,” said Madani Cheurfa, a pro­fes­sor of pol­i­tics at Paris’s Sci­ences Po. “The world is fo­cused on France be­cause France has man­aged to en­cap­su­late — al­most to the point of car­i­ca­ture — the de­bate un­der­way across the world.”

Al­ready knocked out of the pres­i­den­tial race are the two main­stream par­ties, the So­cial­ists and the Repub­li­cans, which have led France for much of its re­cent his­tory. Both had al­lowed their mes­sages to be­come mud­dled and strained as they at­tempted to strad­dle the new di­vide.

The can­di­dates who are left are un­apolo­getic cham­pi­ons of their re­spec­tive camps. They rarely try to reach across to those in the other. Their sup­port­ers see the world in ways that of­ten seem di­a­met­ri­cally op­posed.

Macron, a 39-year-old for­mer banker and econ­omy min­is­ter, cel­e­brates im­mi­gra­tion as a cul­tural and eco­nomic force for good. Flags with the E.U.’s blue field and gold stars are a com­mon sight at his ral­lies, and he en­thu­si­as­ti­cally en­dorses the bloc as the con­ti­nent’s best guar­an­tor of peace. His sup­port­ers tend to be ed­u­cated, ur­ban and op­ti­mistic.

Le Pen, the 48-year-old leader of a far-right party that her fa­ther founded in the 1970s, rails against the evils of mass im­mi­gra­tion and warns that France is los­ing its iden­tity amid a tide of mostly Mus­lim new­com­ers. She has called for the dis­man­tling of the E.U., threat­ened to take France out of NATO and heaped praise on Rus­sian President Vladimir Putin. Her backers tend to be ru­ral, white, less ed­u­cated and, with­out a rad­i­cal shift in di­rec­tion, gloomy about France’s fu­ture.

Un­til re­cently, the op­tion em­bod­ied by Le Pen wasn’t even on the bal­lot for votes like the one Sunday. When it was — her fa­ther, con­victed Holo­caust de­nier Jean-Marie Le Pen, made the fi­nal round of the French pres­i­den­tial vote in 2002 — it was de­feated by a mas­sive mar­gin.

But Marine Le Pen has kept this year’s con­test rea­son­ably com­pet­i­tive un­til its fi­nal days and is on track to more than dou­ble her fa­ther’s vote share from 15 years ago.

That trend ex­plains why, even if Macron claims the pres­i­dency on Sunday, his sup­port­ers say they will be more re­lieved than ex­ul­tant.

“If we win, we have five years to do some­thing with it,” said Aurélie Quartier, a for­mer ele­men­tary school teacher who was hand­ing out Macron fliers near a sub­way stop in a work­ing-class neigh­bor­hood of eastern Paris this past week. “Oth­er­wise [Le Pen] will be elected in the first round in 2022.”

Quartier, 38, said she had never been in­volved in pol­i­tics un­til this year, when she re­al­ized that Le Pen’s Na­tional Front could ac­tu­ally take hold of the El­y­see Palace. The thought chilled her, and gal­va­nized her.

So she’s been out on the streets ev­ery day for the past month, talk­ing to her neigh­bors and try­ing to con­vince them that re­gard­less of how they feel about Macron, they need to vote for him to block Le Pen.

She was ner­vous enough about the re­sult that on Fri­day, she started her work at 8 a.m. and didn’t plan to stop un­til 11:59 p.m. — the fi­nal minute that cam­paign­ing was legally al­lowed.

“I want to be able to say I did ev­ery­thing I could,” she said as she stood be­side a poster of a grin­ning Macron and the name of his move­ment, On­ward.

To Quartier, Le Pen and her move­ment rep­re­sent an af­front to the mul­ti­cul­tural way of life that Quartier has come to know in a neigh­bor­hood where the smell of Turk­ish spices wafts from the weekly mar­ket, and the cor­ner gro­cery store is run by an Arab owner who spe­cial­izes in Ser­bian fare.

The choice on Sunday, Quartier said, is el­e­men­tal.

“Do we re­main our­selves, or do we give in to the worst inside us?” she asked. “To feel fear and re­jec­tion is hu­man. But do we sur­ren­der to that and say, ‘I don’t like you be­cause you don’t look like me?’ Or do we try to bring out the best in our­selves? It’s the best ver­sus the worst.”

For Eve Froger, a 20-year-old law stu­dent, Sunday presents France with an equally dra­matic de­ci­sion. But it’s Macron who’s the threat, and Le Pen who’s the coun­try’s would-be sav­ior.

“I’m wor­ried about un­em­ploy­ment and hous­ing and se­cu­rity and the de­fense of French iden­tity,” she said. “France comes from a Judeo-Chris­tian cul­ture, and we have to de­fend it on a daily ba­sis. Too of­ten we deny our iden­tity in fa­vor of glob­al­ism.”

She de­cided at the age of 18 that the only party that spoke to her con­cerns was the Na­tional Front. Froger has been cam­paign­ing for the party ever since, hand­ing out leaflets, blast­ing proLe Pen mes­sages on so­cial media and only tak­ing time out from this spring’s pres­i­den­tial con­test to study for ex­ams.

Raised by a sin­gle mother in a hard­scrab­ble Paris sub­urb, Froger said af­flu­ent and cos­mopoli­tan city dwellers have lit­tle idea of the prob­lems fac­ing or­di­nary French cit­i­zens.

She was pleased when Macron won a place in the sec­ond round against Le Pen be­cause Froger sees him as the sharpest con­trast to her cham­pion, the ul­ti­mate sym­bol of an out-of-touch, glob­al­ized elite.

“He’s a man of the fi­nan­cial sys­tem with no com­pas­sion for the peo­ple of France,” Froger said. “He only cares about him­self and the E.U. What de­fines this elec­tion is on one side the de­fense of the E.U.’s in­ter­ests and on the other side the de­fense of France’s in­ter­ests.”

Rouquan, the an­a­lyst, said it’s un­likely a ma­jor­ity of French vot­ers will agree — this time, at least. But as­sum­ing he wins, Macron will be un­der im­me­di­ate pres­sure to do some­thing he hasn’t dur­ing the cam­paign: reach out to Le Pen vot­ers and con­vince them he’s com­mit­ted to mak­ing their lives bet­ter. Oth­er­wise, their ranks could soon grow.

“Marine Le Pen is mak­ing progress, step by step,” Rouquan said. “Next time, she could make it to power.”

“What we’re see­ing is his­toric: a choice be­tween two com­pletely dif­fer­ent modes of or­ga­niz­ing a so­ci­ety.” Madani Cheurfa, a pro­fes­sor of pol­i­tics at Sci­ences Po in Paris

MIKE THEILER/REUTERS

A child looks out from a vot­ing booth at the French Em­bassy in Washington. In fi­nal polling, cen­trist Em­manuel Macron held an ad­van­tage of about 25 points over his far-right chal­lenger, Marine Le Pen.

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