Paul Cohen is director of the Centre for the Study of France and the Francophone World and Associate Professor in French history at the University of Toronto
That Marine Le Pen's prospects of capturing the presidency are now in the realm of reality has made it all the more urgent to think through how and why far-right populism has gained such traction in France. Though it is only one front in the broader populist firestorm sweeping across Western democracies, the French case commands attention because the country's own history constitutes one of the crucibles in which the modern political landscape – populist politics and all – was first forged.
The Revolution's overthrow of an Old Regime that was built upon hereditary monarchy and social privilege relocated political authority within the citizenry. Popular suffrage, crowd violence and fiery rhetoric reified le peuple as a source of political legitimacy, an imagined political community, an agent of democratic politics and a potent weapon in factional politics.
The succession of political regimes that punctuate France's tumultuous postrevolutionary history all had to reckon with the spectre of popular revolt and the rhetorical power of le peuple as an idea. Barricades thrown up by Parisians twice helped bring down regimes, heralding the liberal July Monarchy in 1830, and the Second Republic in 1848. The establishment of the watered-down, constitutionally constrained July Monarchy conceded as much by designating the sovereign as king, not "of France" (the title of Old Regime monarchs), but "of the French." Populism sometimes served authoritarian ends, too. An elected president, Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, on a wave of peasant votes sympathetic to his calls to put down restive urban workers and restore order – pitting rural and urban peuples against each other – swept the Republic away in a coup in 1851. He declared himself emperor on the strength of a rigged plebiscite. Parisian workers rebelled again in 1871 to proclaim a Commune on utopian socialist principles, before being brutally suppressed to make the Third Republic safe for property-owners and industrialization. When Charles de Gaulle took power during the Algerian War in 1958, he wrote his contempt for parliamentary politics into the Fifth Republic's constitution, concentrating power in a popularly elected president dubbed by some an elective monarchy. The French Communist Party – long the largest formation in postwar France – proclaimed its own legitimacy as organ of the working class.
The constellation of patriotic leagues and royalist organizations who invoked tradition, social order, Catholicism, anti-Semitism and nationalism in their fight against the Third Republic pushed a narrow vision of the French people, a community defined by religious, racial, or historical criteria. Jean-Marie Le Pen drew deeply from such sources to found the far-right Front National in 1972. His invocations of a French people bearing the yoke of a globalized elite gestured toward a populist politics of sorts, saturated as they were with racism, nostalgia for the Vichy regime, the Third Reich and French colonial empire. But his repeated verbal provocations always seemed calculated to ensure him a prominent place in the limelight, at a safe distance from political responsibilities.
Determined for her part to govern, Marine Le Pen has broken with her father in two crucial ways. First, she has rid her rhetoric of explicit xenophobia and odes to Europe's fascist past, instead resorting to code to designate suspect cultural others, and borrowing widely from populist repertoires to fashion a formidable message, part Bonapartist, part Gaullist, part anti-capitalist, encapsulated by her campaign slogan, "In the name of the people." Ms. Le Pen presents herself as a providential leader who alone can liberate France from the servitude of European Union technocrats, global capital and the immigrant enemies of the French way of life.
Second, notwithstanding the disastrous course her anti-EU, anti-immigrant law-and-order platform would set for France, her message speaks straight to sharply felt anxieties. In France as in many other Western democracies, representative institutions and neoliberal economics have proven inadequate in assuring social cohesion and political adhesion. It is traditional parties' failure to propose a hopeful, inclusive future to all French people beyond the imperatives of austerity and structural reforms that has allowed the FN to create a divisive, demagogic populism.
If they are to overcome Ms. Le Pen's dangerous challenge, French leaders must invent new forms of politics, imagine a new social contract and redefine the national community – a progressive, inclusive populism, in short – in ways that offer dignity, work and a voice to all. To misquote Margaret Thatcher, there is no alternative.
Eds Note: An earlier version of this column incorrectly said Charles de Gaullle took power in 1958 after the Algerian War. In fact, the Algerian War took place from 1954 to 1962.