‘I see my country falling,’ Marine Le Pen recently announced on American TV. ‘It makes me impatient … It’s impatience that motivates me today. Quick! Quick! Quick! Quick! Let’s put our beautiful, coveted country back on its feet.’ The word déclinisme entered the dictionnaire Larousse last year, and though the far right has been exploiting the spectre of decline since the 1970s, it seems to have acquired a new note of urgency. Asked why she had chosen to contest the Nord-Pas-de-Calais seat in the French regional elections of 2015 instead of focusing her energies on the approaching presidential race, Le Pen retorted: ‘The situation degrades so rapidly, that wherever I can act, I must do so at once.’
France is now entering its 17th month in a state of national emergency. The heavily armed police on the street corners of Paris or Nice look more like an expectant than a pre-emptive force. And as l’état d’urgence becomes the new normal, so déclinisme has acquired the attributes of a race against time. This is Le Pen’s pitch: France must outpace its enemies, before they overwhelm it. ‘There is no more time to lose.’
In her messianic presidential campaign video, she promised the French – ‘these impetuous people’ – that she would ‘return France to complete order in five years’. A referendum on the European Union to ‘reinstate French sovereignty’, seal the nation’s borders and quell the domestic terror threat would happen even faster – ‘within six months’.
These tactics are lifted from the Trump playbook. Donald Trump triumphed last year in part by manipulating the US electorate’s perception of time. According to his campaign, the various crises confronting the state – immigration, terrorism, economic dislocation – were piling up, bringing on terminal catastrophe. A border wall would be built ‘in the first hour’ of the presidency; millions of undocumented migrants would be deported on ‘day one’. Urgency justified haste.
Le Pen applauded this haste during a recent campaign visit to Moselle. Citing Trump’s ludicrous boast that he had single-handedly – and in a single tweet – stopped the Ford Motor Co. transferring a $1.6 billion investment deal from Michigan to Mexico, she marvelled: ‘In one tweet, Donald Trump succeeded in obtaining more changes in the US than Sarkozy and Hollande managed in ten years.’
In Le Pen’s view, Trump’s tactics have acted like electroshock therapy, discharging sudden, salutary volts through the American body politic. The increasingly familiar terms of French public life – l’immobilisme, société bloqué, l’impuissance – suggest that France may require similar treatment. The French seem to agree. A staggering 80 per cent of the electorate now say that, to remedy the present stagnation, they would consider voting for a leader ‘ready to change the rules of the game’.
But there are two factors that could potentially put the brakes on Le Pen. The first is the electoral hiatus provided by a two-round voting system. The French get a fortnight before making their run-off choice, time for heads to cool and tempers to calm.
The second factor is more intriguing. In the US, Trump’s opponents ceded the language of urgency to him. ‘Let our legacy be about planting seeds in a garden you never get to see grow,’ Hillary Clinton said at the Democratic National Convention last June. In France, however, Emmanuel Macron has identified the source of Le Pen’s appeal: it is frustration with the ‘société bloquée’, he has said, ‘which nurtures populism’. Like Le Pen, he wants to unclog the system, ‘to give it agility’. This week, for the first time, Macron edged ahead of Le Pen in some of the first-round opinion polls (he’s long been expected to beat her in a second-round run-off).
Complacent talk about the need to slow down failed in the US. It will fail in France, too. Should Macron stall before the second round, there will be no one to outpace Le Pen’s rhetoric of speed. Haste may take her all the way to the Elysée.