Tuesday, July 9, 2024

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It can be done.  Polls are sometimes way off in their predictions.    A classic one just happened in France.   In this article, you find a beautiful narrative of a country with a long history of progressive thoughts and examples for the world.   As you read this, think about the similarities between France and the United States.  It would be honorable if we had the same spirit here.

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A Stunner in France

Against all odds and polls, the right goes down to a humiliating defeat in France.

Celebrations at Place de la République in Paris. Photograph: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

Voters in France delivered a stunning rebuke to the ascendant, anti-immigrant, far-right party of Marine Le Pen. Rather than seize control of the government, the National Rally fell to third place behind a coalition of leftist parties, and even behind Emmanuel Macron's party, which had been expecting a wipe out but placed second.

For weeks, the mainstream media has been predicting a huge win for Le Pen's party. This was, in fairness, understandable; in the EU elections, President Macron's party got shellacked, and the far right seemed unstoppable. Macron took a huge gamble and called for snap elections, hoping to catch the right (and the left) off guard. Instead, the right came out on top during the first round of balloting, setting off alarm bells across France and much of Europe.

Macron had bet big that French voters would rise up against the threat, and that the fractious opponents of the new fascist right would set aside their differences and work together to defeat Le Pen.

The gamble paid off. The leftist coalition won the most seats, with at least 182. Macron's party placed second with 163. Le Pen's party trailed both at just 143. Many observers are calling it the biggest political upset in recent French history.

In today's piece, I'll discuss some aspects of the French election that carry significance and some lessons for us here in the U.S. Specifically, I'll address the polling, high turnout and successful messaging, and the push for coalitions against extremism. I'll then place the election within the worldwide effort to push back against radical, anti-pluralistic and illiberal right-wing ideology.

Before we jump into the details, take a moment and savor the sense of hope the French have delivered to the embattled forces arrayed against the far right. Yesterday, they achieved what many said was politically impossible and already baked into the numbers. This is my favorite clip: a crowd of anti-right supporters in Paris awaiting the results of the exit polls and realizing they had just collectively saved their country:

The polls were off

I may sound like a broken record, but that is because polling remains fundamentally broken in many places, including apparently in France. The polls again were wrong, and by a lot.

Most showed the far-right holding a plurality or even commanding a majority, meaning the new prime minister would be the young, smooth-talking radical in a suit, Jordan Bardella, the current president of the National Rally party. 

Apparently confident in a victory by the right, the New York Times ran headlines such as "Why Power Eludes the French Left," arguing that issues like immigration are hard for leftists to address because they look soft on the border, and that media attention upon polarizing figures like Marine Le Pen is easy, while "the left is in the unenviable position of having to offer concrete proposals and persuade people it can implement them." 

Sound familiar?

Leftists, liberals and moderates alike were in something of a panic and fearful of a government led by Bardella—in a party founded by a group Nazi apologist and overt racist, Jean-Marie Le Pen. And they had reason to be scared. As the Guardian reported,

Two days before Sunday's ballot, two polls on Friday showed Marine Le Pen's anti-immigration, France-first party pulling steadily further ahead in a race it has led since President Emmanuel Macron called the shock ballot almost three weeks ago after the defeat of his centrists in the European parliamentary election.

In other words, according to these very wrong polls, the far right was gaining in strength like a hurricane as the election drew closer, and it was on the verge of seizing control of Parliament.

But polls aren't votes, and the voters defied them.

Democrats in the U.S. can take some solace in this. I have been a fairly lonely voice (with the exception of Simon Rosenberg) saying that the polls showing Trump in the lead over Biden may be missing anti-extremist voters while overweighting political conservatives through flawed methodologies. Instead, we should be paying closer attention to actual election results: the midterms of 2022, the special elections in 2023, the successful abortion rights ballot initiatives, and the primaries in 2024. These elections have all shown surprising strength for the anti-MAGA vote.

While the French vote is a good reminder that polls can't be relied upon for their ultimate accuracy, we don't need to look to France to understand this. The so-called "Red Wave" of 2022 felt a lot like the proclaimed inevitable rise of the right in France in 2024. A weakened incumbent, facing voter revolt over economic conditions, faced a resurgent, extremist right that scapegoated migrants and sought to capitalize on inflation. 

But just as we saw on Sunday in France, the polls were way off, and voters of many political stripes in key battlegrounds wound up rejecting radical politicians. They instead elected Democrats to statewide offices in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Arizona and Nevada, all while increasing the Democratic majority in the Senate and leaving the House GOP in functional disarray with only a threadbare majority. It was a crushing defeat for the MAGA right and portended future defeats for rightist parties around the world.

So when you see polls showing Trump in the lead, remember that the polls were wrong in 2022 and they have been wrong so far in 2024. As the French just showed us all, the only things that matter are the actual votes.

Turnout and messaging

The actual vote counts in France were heavily impacted by very high turnout. Some 67 percent of French voters cast ballots in this second round, the highest in over 40 years. It was driven in part by a shared desire of the left and centrists to prevent France from falling into the hands of extremists and racists.

The National Rally was once known as the National Front, founded by Marine Le Pen's father, Jean-Marie Le Pen. Back in 1972, its ranks included former members of a Waffen-SS military unit under Nazi command during World War II, one of whom was the party's treasurer for nine years. Other early members served in the Vichy collaborative government under Nazi rule, which helped deport one quarter of the country's Jews, often to German concentration death camps.

But reminding young people about the party's fascist past was not going to be enough to win over votes, at least according to Macron, who warned that "history and morality" would not hold back the far right's rise. The National Rally was already the most popular party among white working class French and was making inroads with youth, especially given Jordan Bardella's ubiquitous and effective presence on TikTok.

The core anti-immigrant doctrine of Le Pen's was preserved by his daughter. "France for the French" has been rebranded under Marine Le Pen as "national priority." Under it, French citizens would be given priority over non-nationals for jobs, social welfare assistance and housing. It is an overt policy of "putting our own before others"—which sounds a lot like the "American First" anti-immigrant rhetoric of the MAGA right.

As progressive campaign strategist Anat Shenker-Osorio observed, "The French left just demonstrated precisely how to confront fascism: on offense. Le Pen tried to distance herself from ... her own platform - sound familiar? - and the left gave her zero room."

Indeed, pinning Project 2025 on Trump, even as he tries mightily to distance himself from it, could prove an effective strategy for the November election.

The leftist coalition also outright rejected the right's immigrant bashing and even promised to make the asylum process smoother. It also leaned into its domestic priorities: lowering the retirement age (which Macron had raised last year); raising the monthly minimum wage; building one million affordable housing units over the next five years; freezing prices of necessities such as food, energy and gas; having the state cover all education related costs; and vastly expanding government spending on social welfare, environmental protection and health care. It proposed paying for all the above with a tax upon the super rich and on super profits.

It turns out, this progressive platform remains a powerful motivator for French voters.

Finally, the call to defeat extremism went beyond the politicians and included hugely popular and influential figures in French society. Chief among them was French national football team captain Kylian Mbappé, who broke with convention against inserting politics into sports and urged fans to reject political extremism. This helped juice awareness among youth and send the far right to a humiliating defeat. 

"This is a never-seen-before event," Mbappé said. "And that is why I want to talk to the whole of the French people, but also the youth. We are a generation that can make a difference. We see the extremes are knocking on the door of power and we have the opportunity to shape our country's future."

Le Pen's response to Mbappé's call-to-arm was dismissive and displayed ignorance of how impactful such a stance would be in a football-obsessed nation. "I'm not much of a football enthusiast," she told Christiane Amanpour of CNN International, arguing that "French people are fed up of being lectured."

So far, U.S. celebrities and superstars have not largely weighed in en masse against MAGA Trumpism. But if history is any guide, many of the most influential, especially with the youth vote, will be doing so as the election approaches. (I'm looking at you, Taylor Swift…)

The enemy of my enemy

These policies put forth by the leftist coalition placed it at bitter odds with Macron's centrist government for much of his tenure. It's fair to say that these two sides pretty much despise each other, at least over economic policy. 

But when it came to their mutual desire to keep a fascist movement from gaining control of government, they set aside their differences and worked together in many places to not split the vote. Hundreds of third place finishers from the centrist and leftist parties dropped out of the race after the first round so that they could shift support to the anti-rightist effort.

The strategy worked brilliantly. So brilliantly, in fact, that the furious National Rally labeled it an "unnatural" and "dishonourable alliance" that has "deprived the French people" of a National Rally victory. Unlike U.S. sore losers in recent elections, however, Bartella did not claim any fraud was at work.

While the French elections lend themselves more directly to a cooperative alliance against anti-right forces, given that third-place candidates can drop out and help defeat a mutually hated opponent, there is still a valuable takeaway here for our own election this November. Anti-Trump Republicans who are serious about defeating him must come to the difficult decision not only to not vote for him, but to vote for his opponent, which is highly likely to remain Joe Biden. Nikki Haley's supporters will face this question directly, and Democrats would do well to embrace them even if they disagree with them on nearly every economic policy. Our common ground may be limited but it is solid: defeating MAGA Trumpism.

A growing pattern of pushback on the right

France was not the only nation to recently reject the right and its allies. The Conservatives in the U.K. are out of power after 14 years and now hold the fewest seats in Parliament in three generations. Donald Tusk's centrist coalition won the election in Poland in December of 2023, setting the stage for a more pro-European and anti-Russian bulwark against fascism. And before that, Jair Bolsonaro was ousted by Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in October of 2022—right before the MAGA GOP was routed in the battleground states in the U.S.

Even in states controlled by the right wing demagogues, such as in India and Hungary, voters delivered recent stinging electoral disappointments to populist leaders. Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party fell short of a majority in the Indian parliament and has to rely upon his National Democratic Alliance coalition to govern. And Viktor Orbán recently suffered his worst showing ever in recent European Parliamentary elections.

I raise these examples not to prognosticate about what will happen in November, but rather to demonstrate that it is possible to beat back the extremist right, sometimes quite decisively, despite what the polls and pundits tell us. MAGA is not somehow magically immune from rising global resistance to right wing demagoguery. Democrats should take heart that coalitions of forces, united in their opposition to fascism and racism, are actually winning against the right, even in elections held by some of our closest allies.

And if they can win, so can we. 


Juan Matute
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― The Lincoln Project

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