The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Marine Le Pen is now part of France’s mainstream. That should scare us all.

A man rides a bike in front of posters of Marine Le Pen, French far-right National Rally party candidate for president, after her defeat in the second round of the election, in Paris on April 25. (Yves Herman/Reuters)

French President Emmanuel Macron should take no pride in once again defeating far-right candidate Marine Le Pen. Since her first run for the presidency in 2012, she has gained a substantial degree of influence — enough that the far right is now an unavoidable force in French politics. Instead of celebrating his win, Macron and his supporters should take a close look at how Le Pen and her hateful positions have become part of the French political mainstream.

Make no mistake: Despite her loss, Le Pen managed to both raise her profile and cultivate an image that whitewashed her dangerous agenda.

Over the years, campaign posters shifted from mentioning her last name — associated with her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, former head of her party and a notorious racistto focusing on her first name, all while depicting her with a wide and innocent smile. During this campaign, she used her Instagram account to showcase her love for cats and made public appearances singing outdated popular songs, thus presenting herself as a regular person who does not share the cultural tastes of the elite. She described herself as a single woman, like “a number of French people,” but failed to acknowledge that she was born and raised in the upper class. Former Miss France Delphine Wespiser even praised Le Pen as “a mother of the French.”

At the same time, several media outlets held debates on whether or not Le Pen was a part of the far right. That shocking question captures just how many people in France no longer perceive her as a threat. She has definitely won the “de-demonization” game.

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Yet there is no doubt about what she stands for. As leader of National Rally, a party founded by former Nazi collaborators and fascists, she is supported by the most radical and violent fringes of the far right, including fascists and antisemites. Her positions and previous statements clearly show she comes from the most extreme side of the political landscape.

As a member of Parliament, she introduced a bill last year on “Citizenship, Identity and Immigration,” proposing a referendum to prioritize French nationals over foreigners (no matter how long they might have been in France) in areas from housing to jobs to social services. The proposal would eliminate birthright citizenship (a core principle of French citizenship), facilitate deportation and end family reunification, violating international human rights laws protecting the right to family life. Furthermore, French people with dual citizenship would be prevented from accessing public service jobs.

Such policies threaten the principle of equality outlined in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, passed during the French Revolution in 1789 and now part of the preamble of our constitution. Le Pen also planned to partially withdraw France from the European Convention on Human Rights.

Nor is Le Pen an ally to feminism. The word “woman” is not mentioned in any of her 22 key measures or her presidential manifesto, with the exception of a general line about all men and women. Her platform includes no policies to stop gender-based violence or to promote equal rights in the workplace. She has previously spoken disparagingly of “comfort” abortions, implying that reproductive justice was a luxury, and this year she said the Muslim “veil” marked “an ideology … as dangerous as Nazism.”

Her party’s platform, moreover, pushes for a police state, in which police officers would be granted the “presumption of self-defense” if they committed a violent act. They could also file complaints against any citizen they accuse of attacking them, without having to reveal their own identity, making defending the accused virtually impossible.

Unfortunately, Macron was slow in labeling the National Rally’s platform as “racist,” and he did so only after polls predicted her rising threat. Such condemnation would have been useful to hear from him last year when his interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, criticized Le Pen for being “too soft” on Islam.

In fact, Macron’s government contributed to the mainstreaming of Le Pen by spending more energy fighting “wokeism” and “Islamo-leftism” than addressing the rise of the far right. His hard stance on immigration, Islam and security policies helped Le Pen’s xenophobic and racist rhetoric appear acceptable. Human rights organizations have raised concerns about laws enacted over the past five years that threatened freedoms; the harsh repression of social movements that left thousands of protesters injured; and the unprecedented harassment of Muslim people that culminated in the closure of 718 Muslim institutions.

The Islamophobic rhetoric used by several government members, as well as the president — who said the Muslim veil made people “insecure” because “it is not in keeping with the civility that there is in our country” — is now firmly anchored in France’s political landscape.

Winning an election after fueling public opinion with hateful discourse and changing laws to restrict civil liberties is not a victory. The far right has succeeded in normalizing its ideology — and that should worry us all.