With the French Presidential elections recently decided in favor of incumbent Emmanuel Macron I thought it might be timely to share an excerpt from my forthcoming book where I examine the rise of populist groups in Western Europe, which is not immune to Trumpist nationalism. Charismatic leaders in Germany, France, and the United Kingdom have been not-so-quietly channeling widespread feelings of frustration and rejection among the so-called silent working-class majorities into successful bids for political power. Just as many pundits and poll-watchers initially dismissed Donald Trump as a show-boat jokester, they similarly regarded Marine Le Pen, Boris Johnson, and the leaders of Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland as indulging fringe voters with no serious chance of election. That sentiment has changed, and populism in Western Europe is gaining traction.
As we all know, what goes around, comes around: Marine LePen’s recent loss recalled the presidential elections of 2002, when her father faced off in the final round against then-incumbent Jacques Chirac.
Projective identification unconsciously contributes to the manipulation of their political adherents and helps them maintain their grip on power. However, each leader has a different approach, leadership style, and way of using projective identification.
Before Trump began musing a presidential run, Marine Le Pen was carefully and thoughtfully rebuilding a political party mired in controversy nearly since its creation by overt anti-Semitism and bigotry. Why maintain allegiance to such a party? Marine Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie, founded the National Front in 1972 as a corrective response for what he believed was a decline in French society, and in the half-decade since, his inflammatory rhetoric has slowly become part of the French mainstream conversation. However, to understand Marine, I believe we must examine her father’s role in laying the groundwork for her current political success.
So, what did Le Pen père despise so much about the direction of his beloved France?
Part of this societal collapse, in Le Pen’s view, was due to the decline of the Catholic Church’s influence and a “demographic depression” caused by “the professional promotion of women outside the family.” He also asserted that “although men and women are profoundly different, and although nature has programmed women to assure the reproduction of the species as their essential task, the feminization of society has encouraged women’s independence and turned them away from the vital function of reproduction (Eltchaninoff, 2018).” The decline of French civilization is due to this sense of loss. Women have allowed themselves to be swept up in this revolution that is not really in their best interests, and, poor things, those modern women do not realize they are being had. It was up to Jean-Marie to lead them to salvation.
Jean-Marie also blamed foreigners, Jews (frequent indirect targets of anti-elite rhetoric throughout Europe), and immigrants for French society’s debauchery. For some 30 years Jean-Marie Le Pen championed strict controls on immigration and questioned the reality of the Holocaust. His support primarily drew from a fringe cohort of fascists left over from World War II. Through the eighties and nineties, Le Pen slowly gained political credibility, due in no small part to his unwavering persistence and undeniable charisma. Slow and steady pays off: Each election cycle brought more legislative seats to the FN. Le Pen always eyed the Elysée Palace and in 1995 ran for president. He won only 15 percent of the vote, but the electorate did send FN party members into mayoral seats in cities like Orange and Nice. The party claimed power in chunks but was never considered a contender for major power grabs.
That all changed in 2002, when the presidential elections jolted the French out of their political ennui as Jean-Marie Le Pen advanced to the final election round. This astonished pundits and the voting public, but it was not some silent wave that pushed Le Pen. Voter apathy proved a major component. Sixteen politicians threw their names into the presidential ring, and an embarrassment of choice, along with insipid campaigns, kept many voters at home, assuming “their” candidate would make it to the final round. A misplaced, naïve confidence ruled the political theater, and an historic 28 percent of eligible voters stayed home. Le Pen squeaked into the final round with 17 percent of the total vote—roughly 234,000 more votes than he received in 1995, enough to put him one round away from the top job in the land. Realizing they were improbably close to electing a fascist racist misogynist to the highest office in the country, the French electorate overwhelmingly rallied behind the 83-year-old conservative Jacques Chirac—not so much because he was popular, but because he remained the only suitable alternative.