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France’s far right: Adults in the room

Recent polls showed that if last year’s head-to-head presidential election were held now, Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right Rassemblement National, would beat Macron handily, 55 to 45 percent.

France’s far right: Adults in the room
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For three months, France has been in revolt: Demonstrators have marched; railroad workers have blocked tracks; barricades and buildings have been set aflame; protesters have done battle in the street with police. The most recent innovation has been tamer: People have banged pots whenever the president has appeared. The cause? President Emmanuel Macron’s measure raising the retirement age from 62 to 64. This might at first glance appear to be the work of a vibrant political left wing, fighting pro-business, anti-worker policies from a center-right technocratic government. Indeed, France’s labor unions — though representing a smaller share of the work force than elsewhere in Western Europe — have been united in their opposition, making them a redoubtable force. Jean-Luc Melenchon, who leads the left-wing coalition NUPES, has been a central figure in the parliamentary fight against Macron, nearly bringing down his government with a no-confidence vote in March.

And yet it is not France’s left that has benefited from the popular rebellion. It is the far right.

Recent polls showed that if last year’s head-to-head presidential election were held now, Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right Rassemblement National, would beat Macron handily, 55 to 45 percent. Other polls that list all possible candidates have shown that Melenchon, despite his and his group’s support for the anti-Macron movement, has gained a mere percentage point since last year’s elections, hovering at around a quarter of the votes and, in some scenarios, only 20 percent. In a situation that seems tailor-made for a resurgence of the left, how is it that, for the moment at least, it is not just the right but the far right that has benefited?

Hatred of the established order is no longer a marker of leftism, and France’s recent history testifies to this. The Yellow Vests, France’s last mass protest movement, which began in response to an eco-friendly hike in gas taxes in 2018, was a strange hodgepodge of positions and attitudes, and its political leanings varied from city to city and even differed from one roundabout to another where the protesters gathered.

The movement rejected attempts by politicians to join them and very early developed a solid right-leaning conspiratorial element. Jacline Mouraud, whose October 2018 video helped spark the movement, later supported the far-right presidential candidate Eric Zemmour, a committed racist. A direct outgrowth of the Yellow Vests was the phenomenal popularity of the 2020 Covid conspiracy film “Hold Up,” as was a vocal anti-mask movement.

The right-wing populist current in the Yellow Vests from just a few years ago has not vanished, and it is making itself felt in the new polls. The Rassemblement National has been the face of the populist right since its beginnings, and its history has been one of growth. These polls are a sign that this move has continued, to the benefit of Le Pen.

Her rise has been assisted by the missteps of her foes. How the increase in retirement age was finally made law — bypassing a vote in the National Assembly — was seen as a confirmation of Macron’s undemocratic, even authoritarian tendencies. The political center and center right have been neutralized by their support for the president’s unpopular measure. In response, the center and center right are on the attack. It is their opponents, the centrists say, who are the true threat to democracy: the left for its support of violent protests and the far right by its very nature. Macron’s ministers hammer away at this idea in the media.

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