The US is not the only country with populist candidates shaking up the polls; the National Front (FN) – France’s own far-right party – is looking for a serious victory in the 2018 election. Marine Le Pen – who leads the FN and would become President if the party wins – has turned the FN from fringe party to populist contender. Marine Le Pen’s father built the party on anti-Semitic, socially conservative policies that left it continually ostracized and ignored. To try and change the party’s image, Marine Le Pen pushed the party away from an anti-abortion and anti-gay rights and toward an anti-EU and anti-immigration platform. The FN’s controversial core remains, but is now focused around current socioeconomic sore spots. Marine Le Pen opened her campaign for the Presidency with promises to cap immigration at 10,000 people annually, start a referendum to leave the EU, and pull welfare away from the non-native French.
Despite the radical platform polls show Le Pen performing well, winning the first round of elections but losing in the second stage. As usual, the FN cannot find enough support from other parties to form a parliamentary majority. Le Pen’s changes to the FN have helped make it a more marketable, populist product but recent economic and social woes may also explain the FN’s rising popularity. Though France is the world’s 5th largest economy it faces steep joblessness (10 percent unemployment rate), slow growth, and crawling inflation (which raises the real cost of debts and can hurt wage growth). As one of the countries most central to the EU, the Eurozone crisis hit it particularly hard and made some in France resent the EU. There is also plenty of tension around the refugee issue as France suffered from two large IS attacks in Paris and Nice in 2016, has a decent and growing Muslim population, and receives a number of refugees trying to enter through the Southern border.
The FN’s recent surge resembles reactive political shifts in the UK, the US, Belgium, and other Western democracies that all push towards isolationism and nationalism. Le Pen is aware of this fact, celebrating and lauding the UK on exiting the EU and Trump for his victory in the election and his Muslim travel ban. Le Pen and Trump are similar candidates with a shared desire to cut immigration right down to their odd ties to Russia (Le Pen has taken loans from a Russian bank to finance her campaign). Yet Trump and Le Pen will face different kinds of opponents. Le Pen’s foe looks to be Emmanuel Macron, a young millionaire steering a new centrist party he founded after splitting with the Socialist Party. Where Le Pen promotes closed borders Macron pushes open ones, wanting France to accept refugees and stay in the EU. While they stand opposed on policy they are both considered outsiders and if the polls are to be believed, front-runners.