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Everything You Need To Know About The Blazing Dumpster Fire That Is French Politics

Looking for fresh reasons to feel depressed about politics? Welcome to the French presidential election.

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I've heard far-right leader Marine Le Pen could be the next president of France. How likely is that? Because I haven't experienced enough terrifying political upheaval lately.

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It's a real possibility, but expect months of plot twists and gnawing uncertainty first. We don't know who her opponents will be yet. Still to come: two rounds of the Republican primary (this week and next), the left-wing primary (January 2017), a first round involving an as-yet-unknown number of candidates (April), and then a head-to-head final round in May. So far, polling suggests Le Pen is a near certainty to make that final round.

Who is she likely to face?

GUILLAUME SOUVANT, ALEXANDER NEMENOV / Getty Images

A lot can change but it seems likely she'll be up against one of two right-wing candidates – either Nicolas Sarkozy (best remembered outside France as the stack-heeled "bling president" who holidayed on a yacht and married Carla Bruni) or Bordeaux mayor Alain Juppé, a political veteran so emotionally cold he was once nicknamed The Computer.

Currently the favourite to win the presidency, Juppé is very much the Hillary Clinton figure in this contest: experienced, respected, moderate, not wildly inspiring to an electorate itching for change. And…well, we all know how that panned out for Hillary. You can see why some people are shitting themselves.

Hang on, wasn't Sarkozy dumped by voters a few years back?

Elisabeth Andre / Getty Images

Yep. Derided as a self-obsessed "president of the rich", he became deeply unpopular and was voted out in 2012. Meanwhile, Juppé was prime minister in the '90s. They're both tainted by sleaze. Sarkozy is under investigation for allegedly trying to bribe a judge, and has questions to answer over whether Muammar al-Qaddafi funded his 2007 campaign. Meanwhile, Juppé was stripped of the right to hold office for two years in 2004, following a corruption scandal.

So you know that whole thing about Trump and Brexit winning because voters were dissatisfied with the status quo and wanted to give the "elites" a kicking? That doesn't bode well for either Sarkozy or Juppé. Predictably, Le Pen is out to capitalise on her opponents' vulnerability to anti-establishment anger: She describes them as "the same old faces making the same old promises". It's all a bit ominous.

So…should I start panicking or not?

ALAIN JOCARD / Getty Images

That depends on whether you trust ~experts~. Right now, not a single poll suggests Le Pen could win the final round. One recent poll by BVA has Juppé beating Le Pen by 36 percentage points – a far wider margin than ever separated Trump and Clinton. And left-wing French voters in the past have been willing to vote tactically to keep the far right out of power. They also traditionally turn out in high numbers – around 80%, vs 60% in the US – so there's less chance of "hidden" voters springing a surprise, as happened with Brexit.

On top of all that, France's two-round voting system tends to squeeze out noncentrist parties. Le Pen's National Front did well in first rounds of recent local and regional elections but faltered in second rounds, especially in bigger cities.

But…?

Reddit / Via slate.fr

On the other hand, the polls were wildly wrong about Trump, and few would deny that France, reeling from a string of terror attacks and spooked by a media narrative of rising Islamist radicalisation, has undergone a rightward shift. Le Pen won 6.4 million votes in the 2012 presidential election – that's more than UKIP in 2015, and they went on to utterly reshape British politics. Since the US election Ladbrokes has cut the odds on Le Pen to 7-4 from 5-1, implying a 36% chance of victory. So it's all looking a bit 😬.

Plus, pollsters can't predict the impact of the new force at play in this election: an energised, web-savvy alt-right. The kind of Reddit trolls who rejoiced in Trump's rise have turned their attention to boosting Le Pen. Breitbart, the far-right site whose founder Steve Bannon is now Trump's chief strategist, plans to launch in France. That could make waves in a traditionally restrained media landscape. On the day of the US election, Breitbart got more traction on Facebook than CNN.

Crucially, the broad "anyone but them" consensus among French voters that has always kept the National Front from power seems to be crumbling, as the party comes to be seen as more acceptable. Put it this way: Before Trump won, my French colleagues all said: "There's no way Le Pen's actually gonna win." Now when I ask them, their response is ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. So…basically everything is awful and nobody knows anything.

So in this election it's the right against...the far right. How come you haven't mentioned any left-wing candidates?

Chris Jackson / Getty Images

Because right now, the left is in deep trouble. Current president François Hollande, a socialist, has been described as the least popular president in modern French history. He's polling at 7% (by way of a benchmark, consider that Labour are on 30% and people think they're heading for a disastrous defeat). He's thought to be weak on national security and is blamed for having failed to bring unemployment down – it's been stuck at around 10% for years.

Meanwhile, Hollande's authority has been weakened by scandal: In 2014, news broke of his affair with actress Julie Gayet. The smoking gun, published in celebrity magazine Closer, was a photo of his bodyguard delivering croissants to Hollande's mistress's front door: a strong candidate for the Frenchest thing that has ever happened.

Then again, French voters have traditionally been pretty bof when it comes to politicians' private dalliances. Consider that François Mitterrand spent a large part of his 14 years as president living with a secret family and when the news emerged it barely dented his approval rating. Anyway, point is, Hollande hasn't said yet whether he'll run for re-election. If he does, he's almost certainly toast.

Who else is there? Can you give me a shred of hope?

Public Sénat / Via youtube.com

If not Hollande, the socialist candidate could be current prime minister Manuel Valls. But he's hardly a liberal saviour having supported banning the burkini, and in any case, polling suggests neither he nor Hollande has much hope of making it to the final round. Then there's former economy minister Emmanuel Macron, running as an independent. The closest thing this election has to a fresh face, he's relatively young, steers clear of nationalist rhetoric, and is – let's not mince words here – hot as fuck. But don't get carried away. A former investment banker for Rothschild, he's a big business guy: more Zac Goldsmith than Justin Trudeau.

OK, say Le Pen actually wins. How nervous should I be? On a scale of 1 to Trump, how "terrifying racist demagogue" is she?

ERIC FEFERBERG / AFP / Getty Images / Via thehill.com

Outside of street protests people generally don't call Le Pen a fascist in France. But by the standards of mainstream Western politics pre-2016, she's shockingly Islamophobic. In 2015 she compared Muslims praying in the streets to the Nazi occupation, a statement that led to her being charged with inciting racial hatred. The party she leads, the National Front, is a nationalist party of the far right, big on defending "French values" and clamping down on civil liberties. She has promised to ban religious clothing in a bid to "fight the advance of political Islam".

A Le Pen win would be uniquely destabilising for Europe: She is the only candidate to have promised a Frexit referendum.

But here's the thing: In terms of her current rhetoric she's not that much more nationalist than some of her opponents. The French centre right has always been more nationalist than the centre right elsewhere in Europe – but this cycle, the tenor has become more extreme. Once seen as a "unity" candidate, nowadays Sarkozy is a Rudy Giuliani-esque ranter who waves his arms about while shouting about halal meat. He's lurched so far to the right he's been called a "mini Trump" by opponents. Consider the following quotes...

  1. "A tyranny of minorities ... is forcing the republic further into retreat each day."

    Le Pen
    Via Getty Images / Sylvain Lefevre
    Le Pen
    Sarkozy
    Via Getty Images / VALERY HACHE
    Sarkozy
  2. "If you want to become French, you speak French, you live like the French. We will no longer settle for integration that does not work, we will require assimilation."

    Le Pen
    Via Sylvain Lefevre
    Le Pen
    Nicolas Sarkozy
    Via VALERY HACHE / Getty Images
    Nicolas Sarkozy
  3. "When you live in France, you respect its rules: We are not polygamous, we do not practise female circumcision on our daughters, and we do not slaughter sheep in our apartments."

    Le Pen
    Via Sylvain Lefevre
    Le Pen
    Sarkozy
    Via VALERY HACHE / Getty Images
    Sarkozy

Everything You Need To Know About The Blazing Dumpster Fire That Is French Politics

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Yep, those are all Sarkozy quotes (sources here, here, and here). Seemingly determined to outdo Le Pen when it comes to insulting France's 5 million Muslims, recently he said that schoolchildren who don't eat pork should eat a double helping of chips rather than be offered an alternative to ham on the menu.

But even his supposedly more moderate opponents indulge in nationalist rhetoric. Juppé has called for imams to preach in French and to have degrees in French history. Meanwhile, Hollande proposed stripping terrorists of their French nationality. All of this has a ratcheting-up effect. French politics has become an arms race whereby politicians try to outdo each other with tough talk on "defending secularism". This in a country that has shut down at least 20 mosques this year, banned the hijab in schools, and banned the burka outright.

OK. I see now why you called it a dumpster fire.

Getty Images

For liberals, certainly, it's all looking a bit bleak. Even if the polls are correct and Le Pen is defeated, in one sense she has already won – in the same way Farage "won" in the UK – by shifting the tone of the political debate, maybe even the mood of the country, way to the right.

Plus, she's relatively young at 48, and French political careers are long. Troublingly, whereas in the US and UK the right-wing populist surge is being driven by older voters, in France it's a youth phenomenon too: Le Pen is the most popular candidate among 18-to-24-year-olds.

So, Le Pen for president? If not in 2017, she may well be an even stronger force in 2022. And waiting in the wings is her niece, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, a rising National Front politician who's been called a "rock star of the right" by Breitbart. In the wake of Trump's victory, Le Pen's party strategist Florian Philippot posted a triumphant tweet. It read: “Their world is collapsing; ours is being built.”

UPDATE: Sarkozy's out!

After making a later surge, former PM François Fillon won the right-wing primary. Juppé came second, Sarkozy came third and was eliminated. There's now a Juppé / Fillon run-off vote on Sunday November 27. We'll find out that night which of those two will go on to on face Le Pen in 2017.

Luke Lewis is BuzzFeed's Head of European Growth and is based in London.

Contact Luke Lewis at luke.lewis@buzzfeed.com.

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