Winner will ignore Le Pen voters at his peril | Simon Heffer
At the time of writing – and perhaps even at the time of your reading this column – François Fillon remains a candidate in the race to become the next French president.
The inquiry into whether he actually did anything illegal in paying his wife and two of his children out of state funds for doing nothing has not yet brought him down, but it would be a brave man or woman who would say that it won’t. The man who appeared, in January, to have the presidency sewn up now struggles in the polls behind Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron.
The fat lady has not, after all, yet sung.
Meanwhile, Macron, risen from nowhere and sustained so far purely in the way that one-hit wonder rock stars are – by the hysteria of a small group of fans who make an amount of noise far exceeding their numbers or the abilities of the performer in question – starts to outline his policies. Suggesting, at the outset of this process, that France’s history of colonisation was a crime against humanity is precisely the sort of grandstanding rubbish to be expected of a man without any firm principles, but who knows how to suck up to a particular constituency. Sadly for him, the constituency he has offended by his remarks – millions of French who feel their forebears took an amount of civilisation and decent values to the places they colonised, whatever other mistakes were made – is considerably larger than the one with which he has ingratiated himself.
As for the two leading leftist candidates – the veteran neo-Marxist Jean-Luc Mélenchon and his pale imitator Benoît Hamon – all one need concern oneself about them, if at all, is who comes fourth and who fifth in the first round on 23 April. Which leaves us with the present front-runner, Marine Le Pen.
There seems to be widespread agreement about two things: that Le Pen will come first in the first round, and that she will lose the second because the supporters of the other parties will gang up on her. Some of you may have read Michel Houellebecq’s brilliant novel Soumission, which by a horrible irony was published the day of the Charlie Hebdo massacre in 2015. It is set at the 2022 elections, and Le Pen, as she looks likely to do this time, comes first. However, it is not a reasonably sanitised figure such as Macron or Fillon who has come second: it is an Islamist candidate. Faced with a choice between urging their supporters to switch their allegiance to a French nationalist candidate or to one who promises to Islamify France, the leaders of the defeated parties on the left and right agree on the Islamist. It couldn’t happen in real life, could it?
Because of the nature of the French political system I don’t believe Le Pen can win: and, given her strange obsession with protectionism and redistributing public money to create jobs for French workers that the free market cannot create and would not sustain, I think it would be disastrous for France if she were elected. Because of her somewhat socialist economic ideas I find it hard to think of her as an “extreme right” candidate, which is what the French and the British press unthinkingly label her. One would almost label her a national socialist, if that name did not have connotations that would be more fairly applied to her rather unpleasant father than to her.
However, no-one should be in any doubt that Le Pen has enormous appeal to millions of French people, and that some of the issues she addresses are of the highest importance.
France has a reputation among those with whom it co-operates on intelligence matters for lagging behind in this particular department, which is why it has endured terrorist outrages in the last three years of a sort that the UK has avoided.
Le Pen has been right to criticise the Hollande administration’s failure to get a grip on this: and although armed soldiers now routinely patrol railway stations and other potential flashpoints, an effective response to an outrage is no substitute for its prevention. And when Le Pen talks of scrapping the euro and offering a vote on France’s continued membership of the EU, she appeals to millions of her fellow French who, as with 17.2m Britons last June, feel they have had enough of having their social and economic destiny shaped by a foreign power. Her arguments on this will have particular appeal to unemployed people – and France has 3.5million of those – and to those in blue-collar jobs who fear for their future. All this adds up to why she is going to do so well.
I repeat: I find it hard to believe she can win, because of the system. But she is going to end up with a very large pile of votes, having identified a very large constituency in the country that would from the outset despise Macron, or Fillon, or possibly even Alain Juppé if he has to be parachuted in as the Les Républicains candidate.
The man who beats her ignores the feelings of her voters at his peril. She could, for the next five years, serve as the sort of well-defined Leader of the Opposition that France does not usually have. And if the next president does not tackle terrorism, or the economy, or the failing EU in a way that wins the respect of French voters, he may just be paving the way for a victory for her in 2022 that even an Islamist candidate could not prevent.
Whether she wins or loses, the effect of Marine Le Pen is likely to be that she will change the nature of French politics for ever.
Simon Heffer is also a columnist for the Daily and Sunday Telegraphs