Editorial Board

How to Defeat Le Pen

Rivals need to understand why her message is so popular.

The challenge.

Photographer: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

Marine Le Pen could be France’s next president. Sure, her lead in some polls exaggerates her strength before the field narrows to two candidates -- but voters’ discontent with normal politics isn’t subsiding. Failing to take the anti-immigrant, populist insurgent seriously would be a huge mistake.

For France’s sake, and Europe’s, Le Pen must be defeated. Her party’s blend of virulent xenophobia and economic statism makes Donald Trump seem moderate. But with her support still building, defeating her calls for more than a show of contempt. Her rivals need to understand why she’s so popular.

The National Front is no longer just a fringe movement of bigots and extremists. It is now a refuge for disenchanted working-class voters, the unemployed and young people unable to find their first jobs. In response to their concerns about terrorism, economic stagnation and joblessness, the party has an appealing list of scapegoats: immigrants, globalization and a corrupt establishment in Paris and Brussels.

Aping this message -- as Republican candidate and former President Nicolas Sarkozy did during his unsuccessful primary campaign -- won’t do. It’s wrong on the merits and bad tactics as well, because voters sense crass opportunism.

Lavish promises of handouts and action against greedy capitalists are no better. Socialist Party candidate Benoit Hamon promises a 750 euro ($809) monthly universal basic income, and a tax on job-stealing robots. This may appeal to some die-hard socialists, but most French voters know it’s unrealistic.

Unfortunately, the most promising anti-Le Pen platform is championed by Republican candidate Francois Fillon, who’s currently embroiled in a scandal.

An avowed Thatcherite, Fillon offers something fresh, even radical, for France. His Socialist counterpart wants to reduce the workweek to 32 hours; Fillon wants to scrap the 35-hour workweek, raise the retirement age, reduce benefits, and ax 500,000 civil-service jobs. (There’s scope: About one in five French employees works for the government).

He’s trying especially to attract moderates away from Le Pen, calling for caps on immigration and limits to social benefits for immigrants. He’s outspoken on confronting terrorism. Whereas Le Pen wants to take France out of the euro system, Fillon argues for reforming the European Union -- by reducing the European Commission’s powers and better coordinating national fiscal policies. Most French voters are unimpressed with the EU right now, but don’t like Le Pen’s reckless remedies.

Thanks to the scandal, Fillon has lost ground to former economy minister and investment banker Emmanuel Macron, and has talked of dropping out. Macron’s center-left platform remains vague, but he too has championed the labor-market deregulation that France so badly needs, while calling for more public investment in technology, renewable energy and education. His platform needs work, but Macron, like Fillon, has something to offer those drawn by Le Pen’s promise of radical change.

The crucial thing for every candidate opposing Le Pen is to speak to the moderates among her supporters without surrendering to her bleak and dangerous vision. Deploring Trump and his supporters didn’t work in the United States. Deploring Brexit and its supporters didn’t work in the Britain. Le Pen’s opponents can’t say they weren’t warned.

    --Editors: Therese Raphael, Clive Crook.

    To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net .

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