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Konrad Yakabuski

No longer impossible: Marine Le Pen can win Add to ...

For six minutes last Wednesday, a beaming Marine Le Pen held court on France’s main nighttime TV newscast – a platform once off limits to her kind – to explain why the previous day’s populist earthquake in the United States would jolt her own country’s presidential race.

“If the people have reserved so many surprises for the elites lately, it’s because the elites are completely disconnected,” the leader of France’s far-right National Front said after Donald Trump’s victory. “We can render possible that which had been presented as impossible.”

Ms. Le Pen has been denigrating every consensus of the French elite – on immigration, on free trade, on religion and on Europe – since long before Mr. Trump began his crusade for the White House by insulting every American establishment that moves. But it may have taken Mr. Trump’s election for French elites to start taking her seriously. Suddenly, what seemed ridiculously impossible seems increasingly plausible.

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“The main lesson for us is that Marine Le Pen can win in France,” former centre-right prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin said after the U.S. election. “Extreme populism can win.”

The thesis that June’s Brexit vote generated, and Mr. Trump’s election validated, Ms. Le Pen could prove in the French presidential vote. “Madame Frexit” had been expected to come first in April’s opening round of the vote, only to succumb to an anti-Le Pen wave in a two-candidate presidential run-off election two weeks later. Her defeat no longer seems so bankable.

Much of the outcome will depend on who else is on the ballot. The main centre-right opposition party – which just changed its name to Les Républicains in part to shake off its establishment image – will elect its presidential standard-bearer in a two-round primary starting on Sunday. The favourites, Alain Juppé and Nicolas Sarkozy, are polar opposites, meaning the dynamics of the presidential race will be very different depending on which of the two wins the primary.

Mr. Juppé, a former prime minister, leads the opinion polls for both the primary and the presidential race. After the surprise Trump win, no one knows whether to believe them though, especially since no one knows who will turn out to vote in the primary. Most agree, however, that Mr. Trump’s victory gives a shot in the arm to Mr. Sarkozy’s flagging candidacy.

Mr. Sarkozy, the hyperactive former president booted out of office in 2012, is running, improbably, as an outsider. He attacks the elites nearly as much as Ms. Le Pen does and peddles an anti-immigration message nearly as xenophobic as her anti-Islam diatribes. Unlike Ms. Le Pen, however, he wants only to renegotiate France’s European treaties, not rip them up.

Also unlike Ms. Le Pen, who vocally backed Mr. Trump from the start, Mr. Sarkozy spent most of 2016 dismissing the bombastic billionaire. “I find it terrifying that 30 per cent of Americans can identify with that,” Mr. Sarkozy said as Mr. Trump rang up consecutive Republican Party primary wins earlier this year. This week, however, he was praising American voters for validating his own anti-elite drive to return control over France’s borders to the French people.

Mr. Juppé warned, in contrast, that the U.S. vote underscored “the risks of demagoguery and extremism” and called on French voters to take heed. His down-the-centre pitch for national unity is hauntingly similar to the fateful “Stronger Together” slogan of Hillary Clinton’s campaign. He is as beige as Ms. Clinton, with plenty of scandals on his rap sheet. And he has the backing of the French establishment to boot.

Could that spell doom against a populist politician as fiery as Ms. Le Pen? Could Mr. Sarkozy’s base of small-business people and notaries opt for Ms. Le Pen if he’s not on the ballot? Could left-wing voters, who have splintered among several competing factions in the face of Socialist President François Hollande’s unpopularity, unite behind Mr. Juppé to stop Ms. Le Pen? Who knows?

For all their similarities, the differences between the French and U.S. electoral systems make Ms. Le Pen’s climb steeper. The French elect their president through direct suffrage, not an electoral college, and the winner needs to capture more than 50 per cent of the vote. And French turnout is robust, with 80 per cent of eligible voters typically casting a ballot in presidential races, compared with less than 60 per cent of registered U.S. voters.

Still, with Brexit looming and Trumpism rising, only an ostrich would count Ms. Le Pen out.

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Follow on Twitter: @konradyakabuski

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