PARIS – When France last put a Le Pen onto the threshold of the presidential Elysee Palace, one step from power, it could write off the 2002 election shock as a mere accident.
Jean-Marie Le Pen squeezed into the winner-takes-all runoff against Jacques Chirac with just 17 percent of the vote, a record low. Ashamed and stunned by the ultra-right leader’s breakthrough, French voters of all political persuasions regrouped for round two, filling the streets in protest and rallying at the ballot box to hand Le Pen a humiliating defeat from which his sulfurous political career never recovered.
This time, the presidential election success of another Le Pen, Jean-Marie’s daughter, Marine, was anything but accidental.
Voters propelled her Sunday into the decisive May 7 duel against Emmanuel Macron with their eyes wide open. The entire political establishment and every poll had forewarned and foretold of Le Pen’s first-round breakthrough.
That voters pulled the trigger anyway — giving her 1.2 million more votes than in 2012 and, with 21.5 percent of the total, the best score in a presidential race for a Le Pen — showed how ingrained her brand of anti-establishment “French-first” nationalism has become in areas most bruised by and fearful of globalization’s blows.
A less divisive and more polished politician than her father, the mother of three has made voting for the National Front party that Jean-Marie founded in 1972 more socially acceptable than ever. Many of his voters kept their far-right political sympathies to themselves, afraid of being labelled racists and anti-Semites by association with the ex-Foreign Legionnaire convicted for describing Nazi gas chambers as a “detail of history.”
Marine Le Pen’s backers are far less inhibited. Although older voters on the left still sniff that the National Front remains a redoubt of “fachos” — or fascists — she has partially punctured that argument by sidelining much of the party’s old guard, including her father in 2015.
By consistently hammering on her populist themes that the European Union is straightjacketing and impoverishing France, that open borders are open doors for job-taking migrants and murderous Islamic extremism, and that the French political elite is guilty in all this and more, Marine Le Pen is more on-message than her father.
Sharp-tongued like him, she also jumps the tracks of respectability from time to time — for instance, with her denial earlier this month that France was responsible for rounding up more than 13,000 Jews at a Paris cycle track to be sent to Nazi death camps during the Holocaust. Overall, however, she is better packaged and more media- savvy than the cantankerous Jean-Marie ever was.
Macron quickly agreed to share the stage with Le Pen in the traditional televised debate between rounds one and two. That showed how she and her expanding electorate are becoming an increasingly unavoidable force and feature on the landscape, however unsavory that reality is to mainstream politicians who immediately appealed for a repeat of the “all against Le Pen” second-round unity of 2002.
By refusing to debate Jean-Marie Le Pen in 2002, Chirac cast his opponent as a pariah and himself as a champion of French democracy. That Macron couldn’t do likewise without looking undemocratic is another measure of how Marine Le Pen is fighting her way into France’s political inner circle. By stopping both the mainstream right and left from reaching the second round — a first for modern France — Le Pen and the centrist, pro-EU Macron are redrawing the contours of that circle and taking the country into unchartered territory.
Fifteen years ago, Jean-Marie Le Pen’s qualification to the runoff provoked massive street protests — voters’ way of making amends for not turning out in sufficient numbers to keep him out in round one. There were scattered protests in Paris on Sunday night, with police reporting 29 arrests. But it appears less likely this time that more than 1 million people will take to streets across France on Monday’s May Day holiday as they did against Jean-Marie Le Pen in 2002.
With slow but sure gains at the ballot box since she assumed leadership of the National Front in 2011, Le Pen is planting ever-deeper roots into a broader spectrum of voters — including 18- to 24-year-olds hit hardest by chronic unemployment and, despite her plans to roll back some of their rights, among gays. Those groups largely wouldn’t have been seen dead voting for her father.
Sunday’s outcome shows a France split almost down the middle. Le Pen outperformed Macron in National Front strongholds along the Mediterranean coast, on the front lines of Europe’s efforts to control migration from Africa and the Middle East that she rails against, and in the east and northeast, with rust-belt pockets of despairing working-class voters who see succor in “French first” economic and social protectionism. Le Pen is their whip to sanction the French and EU political establishment — even among some voters who don’t otherwise share her politics.
As in 2002, voters probably will come together in sufficient numbers to keep a Le Pen from power. After election setbacks for right-wing populists in the Netherlands and Austria, a Le Pen defeat will signal a halting — at least for now — of the populist wave that crashed over the EU with Britain’s Brexit vote last year to leave the bloc and, across the Atlantic, helped put Donald Trump in the White House.
But polls suggest Le Pen won’t suffer a beating as severe as that endured by her father. At 48, she still has time and, with each passing vote, perhaps a little bit more of France on her side.
EDITOR’S NOTE: John Leicester has reported from France for The Associated Press since 2002.