It was a Socialist president who made the National Front a force in French politics in the first place. In the early 1980s, François Mitterrand instructed state broadcasters to give the National Front, hitherto a negligible party, greater attention — supposedly for the sake of fair play. This led directly to Jean-Marie Le Pen’s first double-digit performance, in the 1988 election — in which Mitterand was easily re-elected. The Mitterrand strategy, if that’s what it was, of dividing and radicalizing the right might be helpful to the left, but it entails terrible costs for France. Even without getting to power, the National Front only intensifies the conflicts of French politics, stoking and feeding off anger without having to take on the responsibility of governing.
France is not the only country to find itself in this predicament. Much of the Western world finds that the parties of austerity and free-market economics no longer deliver the growth that used to reconcile the public to tougher competition and fewer services. The populist nationalist right rushes to fill the void left by the traditional conservatives’ downfall. But the nationalists have little experience in government and, in Europe especially, come programmed with genetic memory of 19th and 20th century authoritarianism (or worse). The Le Pen clan and their National Front are telling examples.
Yet France provides a counterexample as well, in the historical person of Charles de Gaulle, a nationalist whose nationalism did not reduce to bigotry. He even had what might be a viable solution today — as it was not in his time — for the problem of the European Union: a federal alternative, composed of strong, sovereign nations. His nationalism was economic, pragmatic, and republican, in contrast to the racial and sectarian nationalism that has so often bloodied Europe.