America in the Shadow of France, 2002
AP Photo/Francois Mori
America in the Shadow of France, 2002
AP Photo/Francois Mori
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"Vote for the crook, not the fascist!" So urged the French newspaper Libération on the morning of April 23, 2002. The paper's editors had woken up to a reality that few thought possible. Following the first round of the presidential election, the incumbent president, Jacques Chirac -- long suspected of campaign finance shenanigans -- would meet Jean-Marie Le Pen -- the foul-mouthed leader of the anti-Semitic and authoritarian National Front -- in the second and decisive round of voting two weeks later.

The Republic seemed, suddenly and unexpectedly, in danger.

In the wake of yet another round of U.S. presidential primary elections, Americans might be having this sense of déjà vu all over again. Donald Trump, whom Jean-Marie Le Pen recently endorsed, is closing in on the Republican nomination. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton collects Democratic delegates as quickly as she collected speaking honoraria from banks and brokerage houses. Chances are that just as Chirac trounced Le Pen, so too will Clinton defeat Trump.

But this may not be the happy ending we imagine it to be.

In 2002, the word "decline" was on most everyone's lips in France. The country's flailing economy had deepened the so-called fractures sociales, or social fissures knifing across social classes. At the same time, the forces of globalization and immigration seemed to be erasing the nation's borders and undermining the sense of national identity. In essence, France seemed to be dividing between what the sociologist Christophe Guilluy calls the "metropole" and "periphery." The former, home to professional classes benefitting from great technological and commercial changes, have become the electoral bases for the major parties on the right and left. Those unable to find employment in this world, however, gravitate toward the peripheral zones, mostly ignored by the mainstream parties. Both conservatives and socialists have failed to measure, Guilluy argues, "the ideological and cultural abyss that now separates them from these modest social classes."

The abyss was measured to Jean-Marie Le Pen's outsized dimensions. When not dismissing the Holocaust as "a detail of history" or reminiscing about the collaborationist Vichy regime, Le Pen was blaming Muslims as the source of France's economic and social ills. In his speeches, immigration morphed into an invasion, while Islam boiled down to terrorism. Though hauled several times into court for inciting racial hatred, Le Pen nevertheless persisted, warning France that when the Muslim population grows from 5 million to 25 million, "they will be calling the shots while we will walk past them with our heads bowed."

In the second round of elections, more than four-fifths of the French cast their votes for Chirac -- or, rather, against Le Pen and his toxic values. But it is important to recall, as we try to make sense of the Trump phenomenon, that the massive rejection of Le Pen was the best thing that ever happened to the Front National. The party was largely Le Pen's personal vehicle, one that veered between vaudeville and violence, and whose function was to keep his personal brand in the public's eye. Lacking a national organization and local affiliates, Le Pen was no more prepared to run a national campaign than he was to run the country. No one better understood this than his daughter and current leader, Marine Le Pen, who has transformed what was once a motley collection of anti-Semites and neo-Nazi thugs, Catholic traditionalists and royalists, into a party that has redefined the country's political landscape. Thanks to the younger Le Pen, France has become a three-party system.

It is a system, however, now infected by the FN's persistent xenophobic and authoritarian strain. Just as establishment Republicans like Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz have sought to match Trump's anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim harangues, French Républicains like Nicolas Sarkozy have repeatedly targeted "Arabs" as a national threat. Just last year, one of Sarkozy's allies, Nadine Morano, declared that France was a "country of the white race," adding that she did not feel like "seeing France becoming Muslim." Much like Trump's initial refusal to disavow David Duke's support, Sarkozy waited three days before condemning Morano's words and evicting her from the party.

More telling, perhaps, is the political evolution of the FN's rank and file. They are no longer, as they were in 2002 -- and as Trump's supporters are in 2016 -- voting their anger at a system that has ignored them. As political scientists like Jean-Yves Camus and Nicolas Lebourg argue, the typical FN voter no longer votes against the mainstream parties or imagined enemies. Instead, they now vote for the FN's platform of economic protectionism and reinforcement of national borders and "zero immigration." They are, more broadly, voting to give the FN a greater role and voice in the system. These voters increasingly know what they do want as much as what they don't want.

But the traditional parties still have not fully grasped this truth. They still see the FN as the lightning rod for those fed up with the system, and not as a mature political party that has both the ideas and the means for transforming the system. Not surprisingly, they also tend to be dismissive of the concerns, both cultural and economic, of the workers and small business owners filling the ranks of the FN. The French political class sees these "peripheral" men and women as clinging bitterly to their baguettes and berets.