By the time this is published, the French people will have gone to the polls for the presidential runoff between Marie Le Pen and incumbent President Emanuel Macron. Whatever the result of the race may be (as of writing, prediction markets give Macron nearly a 94% chance of victory, hence the titular pun) the election provides a chance to look at the contrast between two political visions, which might be considered technocracy and populism.
Neither Le Pen nor Macron are “conservative” in the American sense of the word. Macron is far too socially progressive, and too much a fan of big government, while Le Pen lacks the civil and economic libertarianism which, like it or not, is a core part of American conservatism. However, they both represent ideologies which American conservatism needs to incorporate if it is to capitalize on the current moment.
Macron can be thought of as representing neoliberal technocracy. Opposed to radicals of the right and the left, he portrays himself as someone “following the science,” who understands that “facts don’t care about your feelings.” How he stands against the radicalism of the right is clear enough in his race against Le Pen, but he also is a bulwark against the radicalism of the left. Last summer, he railed against “American-imported woke culture racializing France and creating more division among minorities.” Then, of course, there is the interview where his minister of gender equity and diversity, a woman from West Africa, claimed “The ‘woke’ culture is something very dangerous, and we shouldn’t bring it to France.”
In addition to his cultural stand against the radical left, Macron also has some good economic policies, though from an American conservative standpoint he is decidedly a mixed bag here. On the one hand, he plans to further lower taxes, reduce welfare spending, lower the national debt from its COVID-induced highs, and pursue more regulatory reform. In this way, his economic policies are very similar to those of Presidents Trump, Bush, and Reagan. On the other hand, he has pursued an aggressive green agenda and has promised to increase some types of public spending. In this way, he is very much like President Clinton, in that he pursues both right and left economic policies as it suits him.
So while Macron is certainly no conservative, his stand against ‘wokeness’ and for free markets make him appealing. Conservatism has been described as the “absence of ideology,” and, in his embrace of technocracy, Macron comes much closer than most politicians to this ideal. He shares with the classical American right a willingness to just “do what works” regardless of what critical theory says about it or whether it promotes perfect equity between all races, genders, classes, and sexualities. In an era of increasing ideology on the right, where many focus more on highly performative actions such as “owning the libs,” “banning CRT,” and “destroying woke corporations,” the party could use this bracing dose of technocracy and focus on bread and butter issues.
With Le Pen, the ways in which she is and isn’t a conservative are more obvious. On the one hand, she is a strong defender of the French national identity. She stands for the idea that it is okay to be French— not European, not a global citizen— but simply French. Replace “French” with “American” and this is very similar to the nationalistic vision which helped propel Trump to victory— the vision that, despite our mistakes, America is still a fundamentally good country that has the right to put itself and its own interests first. Now how true this actually is is a matter for debate, and many conservatives, such as myself, think that both Le Pen, and to a lesser extent Trump, have taken this idea too far, but like it or not, this defense of identity is an integral part of our movement.
More than that, Le Pen is a symbol of resistance to the progressive dominance of our culture. Whether it is her civil disobedience in defiance of COVID lockdowns, or her broader stance against progressive technocracy, she, like Trump, represents defiance of progressive hegemony. A prime example of this is her proposed ban on the public wearing of head coverings, which is openly targeted at the hijab. The point of this ban, like the hijab itself, is symbolic. It is meant not as policy per se, but as a pulsing middle finger in the face of progressive orthodoxy, a demonstration that the Overton window extends further to the right than anyone had dared to hope, that calling a policy “racist” or “xenophobic” or “a massive violation of civil liberties,” is no longer an automatic veto progressive can wield against any policy they dislike.
But despite all of that, Le Pen is not a conservative in the American sense of the word. This is not, primarily, a function of her support for legal abortion, her opposition to free trade, or her proposal to partially nationalize French banks, but of her rejection of the principle of liberty which is at the heart of the American right.
The headscarf ban, of course, is the biggest example. Such a law, should it be proposed in America, would be laughed out of Congress, and should it pass, would be struck down in about five seconds for its blatant unconstitutionality. This is merely a symptom of a broader problem: Le Pen can never be, in the American sense, a conservative because she lacks an appreciation of liberty— the idea that we all have the right to do as we please, free from government interference, so long as we aren’t hurting anyone else. This is the basis of Anglo-American conservatism, and Le Pen has no more appreciation of it than Macron.
The main problem here is her embrace of laïcité, the French policy of “forced secularization.” The idea was enshrined in a 1905 law which states that “The Republic does not recognize… any religious sect.” This may sound similar to the first amendment, but in practice is interpreted as establishing the separation of church and state— in the same sense that the Freedom From Religion Foundation would like us to give that phrase. Laïcité was, of course, originally targeted at Christians, primarily Catholics, but works just as well against Muslims.
That laïcité is a slap in the face to the American view of liberty is not as much a criticism as it may sound. Nations, after all, have the right to dictate what laws they will live by. America has traditionally chosen to respect diversity, whether it be ethnic, religious, or ideological, and this is reflected in our constitution. France, and indeed most of Europe, has made a different choice. Famously progressive Denmark, for instance, has so-called “ghetto laws” which mandate that all children born in “ghettos” must, from the age of one onwards, spend at least 25 hours a week in state-run agencies apart from their parents. Of course, we can respect the choices other countries make— we do, after all, value multiculturalism— but the view that the government has the right to dictate to people how to live their lives is antithetical to fundamental American principles, and no one who embraces this view can rightly be called an American conservative.
This is but one, albeit the most prominent, of the ways in which Le Pen is opposed to liberty. Le Pen can do what she wants, she is running to represent France, not America, but Americans still need to keep this in mind lest we go too far in embracing her, as many are doing, as a rallying point against progressive hegemony. Le Pen is a fascinating politician and stateswoman, and there is a lot the American right can learn from her, but both she and Macron approach politics from a position alien to our body politic, and we need to keep that in mind.
What the American right needs is a fusion of and balance Macron’s technocracy and Le Pen’s populism. We need to find a way to stand up for average Americans against woke tyranny while implementing policies rooted not in the mood swings of Twitter or Parler, but in data and reason. When the American right can pursue politics with the populist passion of Le Pen, the practical prescience of Macron, and the peculiar perception of liberty that is unique to us, then we will be a force worth reckoning with.
As for the election, Dieu bénisse la France, que Dieu préserve la cinquième république, et que Dieu aide la république de mars, car ils vont vraiment en avoir besoin.