Le Pen's Voters, Like Trump's, Should Be Taken Seriously
By anyone’s standards, the town of Ennemain is tiny, just a few hundred people nestled among sleepy fields two hours north of Paris. By American standards, it is also startlingly lovely, and very old. With its old brick houses and its winding roads, Ennemain is easily imaginable as it looked in 1793 -- when the population was, yes, several hundred people.
I was in Ennemain because it was the site of Marine Le Pen’s last rally in the runoff of the French presidential election. I was given a very thorough pat-down on my way in, but otherwise, it was a charmingly informal thing: A bandstand was set up at an intersection, abutting the streets filled with a few rides, some stands, children shrieking in joy. The crowd assembled itself on a bank facing the stage; some of the younger attendees climbed up on a stack of hay bales to get a better view. As soon as Le Pen left the stage, a band started playing, loud. There was no question what century those amplifiers came from.
In between, Le Pen spoke, and the crowd cheered. The cars parked along the roads held license plates from many parts of the country, but nonetheless, it was not a large crowd. They did their best to make up for it in enthusiasm. French flags vibrated madly; chants of “Marine le Presidente” swept across the crowd in waves. Le Pen beamed like a mischievous cherub.
Her speech was roughly what people have come to expect from her -- “They’re all the same,” I was told when I asked a few Le Pen groupies how this rally compared to others they’d attended. She derided “the system”: “The system doesn’t like it when you ruffle the feathers of the teacher’s pet,” she said, a clear reference to Macron’s marriage to his high-school drama coach. She said that Macron was putty in the hands of radical Islamists, though contrary to my expectations, at least, she did take the time to say that radical Islam was a perverted and minority form of Islam. And she praised the people there a lot. The gist of the praise will be very familiar to Americans: the salt of the earth, the spine of the body politic, the heart of the country. “I am proud to have been your voice, and I’m sorry if it hurt their ears,” she told them. A bit later, she added “We are France, wherever we are.”
And Le Pen’s basic promise is to protect those people from powerful outside forces that threaten them. Protect their jobs, lower the taxes that rob the French people of the product of their hard work, and root out the terrorist groups from French soil. “I will shut down radical mosques,” she promised. “I will throw radical preachers out of the country. I will strip terrorists of their citizenship. I will ban radical Islamist groups proliferating on our territory.” Each sentence was punctuated by fervent chanting: “We love you, we trust you.”
The echoes of a Donald Trump rally rang louder than those amplifiers. 1 The details differ, but the framework is the same. Security, prosperity, and rage against a smug cosmopolitan elite that has taken those things from the ordinary classes and divided that birthright between poor strangers and themselves.
I met a number of those people after the rally, and frankly they seemed a whole lot like the people I know from the small town in Western New York where my mother grew up. They’re nice people who do unglamorous jobs -- driving a school bus, working as a secretary, running a florist’s shop. They know each other with an intimacy that is foreign to a city girl like me.
These people have long been conservative, but quietly so. Then something happened that was the last straw. Legalized abortion. Taxes that squeeze their small business so that they struggle to make a profit, or pay their employees what they’d like. A failing job market that forces their sons and daughters to move away looking for work. Foreigners who know little and care less about a way of life they treasure, one that is deeply embedded in a particular place, a specific set of cultural practices, a group of people with ties to each other that flow back through the centuries. They don’t want that old way of life to become one tiny thread in a magnificent multicultural tapestry, because most of what they love about it will be lost within the more numerous and brilliant colors of other places.
No one I talked to made explicitly racist remarks. They talked about terrorism, of course, but Islamist terrorism is not just something they’ve imagined for the sole purpose of blackguarding helpless strangers. It's a real and recurring problem in France. They didn’t make nasty remarks about immigrants or Muslims. What they did talk about was honesty. Every single person I spoke to mentioned it. They liked Le Pen because she was honest. She would do what she said, because she was honest. Macron was an untrustworthy liar; Le Pen says what she means, and means what she says.
This struck me particularly because I heard the exact same thing from Trump supporters, over and over and over. This was, to a policy journalist, fairly astonishing, given Trump’s remarkable penchant for … well, let us say, creatively editing facts to suit his obsession of the moment. But "honesty" has more than one meaning, and over time, I came to see that what they meant by "honest" was not “makes only true claims”; they meant “refuses to self-edit his opinions in order to keep the respect of elite society.”
Conor Friedersdorf of the Atlantic recently noted that as the list of things that must not be said has proliferated, a growing class of Americans have come to view these proscriptions as less about decency and more about manners -- the manners of an elite class that despises them, and seeks to punish them for the linguistic equivalent of not knowing how to use an oyster fork. They are sick of that class, sick of being looked down upon as their old way of life disappears and their communities implode. And so they rejoice when someone is willing to transgress its edicts.
What I heard from Le Pen supporters sounded an awful lot like what I heard from those Trump voters. Neither France nor the U.S. would be a better place if people felt freer to make racist remarks. But they probably would be better if no one class felt comfortable disdaining another. They would probably also be much less angry, fractured and ungovernable.
Getting there probably starts by recognizing that Trump and Le Pen supporters are not simply interested in the joy of hate. Call it xenophobia, or nationalism, or whatever you like, it still has an affirmative as well as a negative aspect. People deeply rooted in their own place -- be it a small town in northern France or a small town in Iowa -- have depth in their locations and their histories rather than breadth of experience in the modern lives of many kinds of people from many places. Those deep lives really are in tension with the multicultural dream, a tension that cannot be erased by platitudes about diversity.
I can easily see why people want to fight for the beauty of Ennemain, as it is now and has been for a long time. The question for France, and for America, is why the people who want to preserve that beauty are resorting to such ugly rhetoric.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
The parallels were not exact, of course. For example, I have a hard time imagining Trump spouting a line like “The nation of human rights must carry the torch of the enlightenment again.” And while American officials make rote genuflections to God even when their grasp on the Bible seems somewhat … tenuous … in France, apparently, the references are more oblique. At one point, Le Pen talked about politics “Through the people, with the people, and in the people,” which seemed to be a reference to the Catholic Mass, but she didn’t launch into the five-minute reverie about her deep Christian faith that would inevitably have followed such a line in an American speech. As a friend drily noted, “the racial appeals are explicit, but the religious appeals have to be dog whistles.”
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