Marine Le Pen’s road to victory is clear enough. Can a pragmatist stop the extreme right?

By: Roger Cohen

Paris — For some time France has been a country that does not like itself. Somewhere on the road from its humiliation in World War II to its disappointment with European integration to its discomfort with globalization, France slid into moroseness. High-speed trains purred; France pouted. Grumbling became a way of life, the response to lost grandeur. Now France seems ready to vent this slow-ripening anger in an election that could see the extreme right return to power for the first time since the 1940s and Europe revert to a turbulence not seen since that epoch.

If Marine Le Pen of the National Front wins, she says she will take France out of the euro, the shared European currency, and restore the franc. Exit from the European Union could follow. This would constitute an economic and political rupture so violent that even Donald Trump’s victory and Britain’s vote to leave the union would pale beside it. Europe, and not just its markets, would be upended. President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, who has been meddling, would be happy.

A Le Pen victory is far from assured, plausible if not probable. Returning to France late last month, to the glow of Paris and the gloom of the provinces, I was struck by how much Le Pen’s party, whose racist ideology was once taboo, has joined the mainstream. The pattern that has prevailed throughout the Fifth Republic — alternation of center-left and center-right — seems dead. The French are tired of increasingly indistinguishable Socialist and Republican presidents. President François Hollande, a socialist with a single-digit approval rating, decided not to run for a second term. As elsewhere in the West, traditional parties bereft of compelling ideas are in crisis, buffeted by social-media-driven mobilizations.

The first round of voting on April 23 is almost certain to send Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron, the 39-year-old upstart leader of a new catchall centrist movement, into the runoff on May 7: the xenophobic nationalist versus the pro-Europe neophyte.

Polls show them both with clear, if tightening, leads over the scandal-plagued Republican candidate, François Fillon, and an extreme leftist, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, of the Unbowed France movement, whose support has surged in recent days. The left, still singing the Internationale and plotting class struggle, is in disarray. The inclination to blow up the system has found fertile ground. People have had it with experts. “Ça suffit!” — “Enough!” — is a much-heard cry; and if disruption leads to deluge, so be it.

Such end-of-days gloom is puzzling. Near 10 percent unemployment and near invisible growth cannot explain it. French infrastructure is a rebuke to American decay. French universal health care works. Savoir-vivre, the art of living, is not a French phrase for nothing. From the United States to China, the French hold on the world’s imagination endures. It is a land of unique pleasures.

Yet this seems to offer scant comfort. Instead the French are focused on their country’s failures: its dispatch under Vichy of Jews to their deaths, its painful colonial past in Algeria, its faltering attempts to integrate one of Europe’s largest Muslim communities, its vulnerability to terrorist attacks in Paris and Nice, its expensive and sometimes rigid welfare state, its ambiguous relationship to global capitalism, its fraying model of “laïcité” (or secularism) designed to subsume religious difference in the values of the French republic — all are endlessly agonized over.

“There is a certain French masochism,” Pascal Bruckner, an author, told me. “We are a country that does not unleash its potential. We ruminate on the past. After 1989, we thought Europe would become French. But the models of Germany and Thatcher did much better. And so we lapse into mediocrity.” Jacques Rupnik, a political scientist, put it this way: “France suffers from cultural and civilizational insecurity. Many people feel somehow dispossessed.”

This sense of dispossession, of loss, is what the National Front has exploited: loss of identity, jobs, national borders; loss of faith in a corrupt political system. “On est chez nous!” — roughly “We are at home!” — is the party’s strange battle cry, chanted at every rally. But why such pathological need to reaffirm belonging, and who exactly are “we”? Millions of immigrants from North and sub-Saharan Africa, many of them Muslims, do not appear to make the cut.

“There is no right or left. This election is about patriotism versus globalization,” Nicolas Bay, the secretary-general of the National Front, told me. “That is why we would end immigration. If it’s Le Pen against the globalist Macron in the second round, it will be clear what the contest is about: Do we defend the nation, or is the nation finished?”

Macron is a former banker and economy minister under Hollande. Small, with glittering blue eyes, his pitch is that he’s a tech-friendly pragmatist with the ability to revitalize France. Nobody quite knows what’s in his gut. To fans he’s a doer; to critics he’s a hedger of bets. But nobody can deny his remarkable surge. En Marche! (Onward!), Macron’s movement, was formed just a year ago. It has become the last best hope of those who would stop Le Pen.

In an interview, Macron told me: “Look, do you want to strengthen Europe, to have a strong reformed France, or do you just want to leave this world and return to the 19th century? What Le Pen proposes does not fly even for a second.”

I headed east to Metz, in the Lorraine region of France. Outside the station, opened in 1908 when the city was part of Germany, I found French, German and European Union flags fluttering to mark “Metz Wunderbar” (“Wonderful Metz”) week, a celebration of French-German friendship. Such is Europe today: a shared house built over borders etched in blood. Lorraine closed its last iron ore mine a couple of decades ago. The region has struggled to replace it with service sector jobs. The National Front has prospered.

At a restaurant I ran into Thierry Corona, a sommelier from nearby Koenigsmacker who had come to attend a Le Pen rally. A blue rose, Le Pen’s campaign symbol, was pinned to his lapel. Corona was fired up. Le Pen would boost the wine industry by getting rid of a “politically correct” law curtailing advertising. She would end “the dictatorship of Brussels.” She would rebuild “France for the French.”

Koenigsmacker, Corona said, had been stripped of life. Small stores had been replaced by huge “hypermarkets” on the outskirts of town. Human contact was almost forgotten. “In the shopping malls the cashiers are lined up like cattle for the slaughter,” he said. Old people without cars were treated like human refuse. “And immigrants arrive and they immediately get handouts!”

Such provincial alienation is widespread. The most talked-about political book these days is Christophe Guilluy’s “The France of the Periphery,” a devastating portrait of what he calls the “total cultural fracture” between the networked milieu of Paris and a few other cities, and the declining dystopia outside them. If America has New York and Trump country, France has Paris and Koenigsmacker. The red state-blue state chasm, in various guises, is the core cultural condition of the West.

“The political world is today a field of ruins,” Guilluy writes. He cites a poll conducted in 2014 by the Ipsos research firm that found that 74 percent of French workers felt they were no longer “at home”; 74 percent saw globalization as a threat (while 68 percent of managers saw it as an opportunity).

“On the fundamental subjects of globalization, free trade, immigration and multiculturalism, dialogue has become impossible,” Guilluy concludes.

This is the backdrop to workers’ abandonment of the left and their embrace of the National Front, now the leading working-class party in France.

Corona took me over to a nearby table where Florian Philippot, one of Le Pen’s top advisers, was lunching. Philippot is an architect of the attempt to rebrand the party by shedding its Fascist, anti-Semitic antecedents (Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine’s father, called the Holocaust “a detail” of history) and replacing it with France-first economic nationalism. Philippot is a slick operator. He did not have time to talk, but I saw him a half-hour later at the rally, warming up the crowd as images of Le Pen on a horse and with a truffle-hunting dog rolled across a giant screen, evoking the connection with “La France profonde” (deep rural France) that is still de rigueur for any French political career.

“ON EST CHEZ NOUS!” the crowd roared. Philippot vowed that the “radical Islamists strolling around our towns” would soon be history. He called Macron an agent of high finance, a man “recycling everything that has ruined France.” Somebody in the crowd shouted “Rothschild!” and then again “Rothschild!” — a reference to the bank where Macron once worked. The attempt to rid the National Front of its anti-Semitism is clearly a work in progress.

Indeed, Le Pen has reopened old wounds by insisting that France was not responsible for the “Vel’ d’Hiv” — a reference to the stadium where 13,000 Jews were rounded up in 1942 before being dispatched to Auschwitz. She tried to portray the wartime Vichy government as distinct from France, an appalling evasion.

Le Pen entered to thunderous applause in a black pantsuit. It’s easy to imagine her an everywoman telling it like it is. Her hashtag is #aunomdupeuple (in the name of the people), and, like Trump, she vowed to “return power to the people.” The Élysée Palace, she declared, would become “the house of the people,” and referendums would be held on major issues like leaving the European Union.

For a couple of hours Le Pen rambled. The influence of Islam was “unbearable.” France faced “a choice of civilization” — either uncontrolled immigration “or recovering our home.” National borders would not be closed; they would, however, exist. Patriotism meant resistance to “savage globalization.” In short, “The Republic must again become all-conquering.”

Thérese and Frédéric Defaux were watching. “Look, this is pretty simple,” he told me. “We need to recover our values and defend them.” Then his voice was drowned out. “ON EST CHEZ NOUS! ON EST CHEZ NOUS!”

Europe used to signify stability and peace. Now refugees and asylum seekers stream across the union’s porous borders. To find jobs for immigrants, you need an open and flexible labor market. But the comprehensive French welfare state — financed by mandatory contributions for pensions, health and unemployment benefits that push up wage costs — tends toward inflexibility. Firing anyone can be tedious and expensive, so there’s reluctance to hire. Youth unemployment stands around 25 percent. Over 31 percent of gross domestic product is spent on health, unemployment and other benefits, compared to 24.6 percent in Germany. France has in effect made a structural choice for unemployment.

Everyone knows this. But because attachment to the model is fierce, honest discussion tends to be taboo.

The first presidential debate last month was an exercise in evasions. The moderators redefined journalism as deferential passivity. Macron, Fillon and the socialist candidate, Benoît Hamon, were all dressed in blue suits and blue ties, like a bunch of airline stewards, and their responses scarcely differed more than their attire. Nobody even asked Fillon, a former prime minister, about the fact that he’s been placed under investigation relating to allegations he employed his wife and children in make-believe jobs as aides.

Fillon, a social conservative who favors free-market reforms and labor market deregulation, had been looking formidable but slumped after the scandal broke. He had promised to stand aside in the event of a formal judicial inquiry, but reneged, infuriating people. The political classes’ contempt for the electorate was encapsulated in his volte-face. Voters’ disgust has boosted the National Front, even if Le Pen is herself caught up in a financial fraud investigation at the European Parliament and has used parliamentary immunity to avoid a police summons.

Her path to victory runs roughly like this. She qualifies for the second round with about 24 percent of the vote. Macron is her opponent, with about the same score. The more right-wing Fillon supporters migrate to Le Pen. Supporters of the far-left candidate, Mélenchon, refuse to vote for Macron; they’ve had it with so-called “useful votes” and they believe Macron, for all his talk of being a progressive, will pursue “neoliberal” global capitalism. Some Hamon supporters also refuse to back Macron. The abstention rate soars. Le Pen squeezes past 50 percent and becomes president.

It could happen. Only a fool, after Brexit and Trump, would suggest otherwise. Le Pen’s line of attack on Macron is clear: he is the perpetuation of Hollande, the representative of “the system” and a product of “international finance,” with all the attendant innuendo. This attack is pretty disgusting, which is not to say it won’t work. Russia is helping. The Russian propaganda site Sputnik has singled out Macron for attack. It was behind rumors that he’s gay and living with the head of Radio France — rumors so insistent that Macron, who’s married to his 64-year-old former high-school teacher, had to deny them.

One thing is certain: Le Pen needs to distract attention from her economic program, a hodgepodge of nationalist and statist measures combined with exit from the euro, which alone could send French bank accounts into free fall. Fear of such a meltdown may be the biggest obstacle Le Pen still has to overcome.

I found Macron in Paris answering questions for a Yahoo News event in French and then English (radical for a French politician). The first question was whether “explicit Macron” is an oxymoron. He laughed. He said he was pragmatic, supple, interested above all in results. His political family was broad: the pro-European moderate right, socialists, progressives, “reasonable ecologists.” He called for “strong reforms” of the French labor market, decreased corporate taxes and invigorated vocational training.