Can France’s mainstream media stop Le Pen? Jolted by the shock results of Brexit then Trump, the western world is now braced for a third major upset – a possible victory for the far-right Marine Le Pen in the French presidential election next year.
Could it happen? Well, it looks unlikely. But that’s what people said about Brexit and Trump. It couldn’t happen because it was unthinkable. Then it happened.
So what can the French mainstream, left and right, do to stop Le Pen marching in through the gates of the Élysée Palace? Here are this year’s lessons from the UK and US:
- Assume the worst. Hillary Clinton thought she had the presidency in the bag, so failed to campaign in states such as Wisconsin that Trump sneaked through to win. The UK’s Remain campaigners were convinced people would “see sense”, so failed to address their deep-seated resentment towards the EU and their thirst for a return of sovereignty. If France’s mainstream wants to stop Le Pen, it must take her threat seriously. Assuming it’ll be all right on the night – just because the alternative is unthinkable – will lead to disaster.
- Don’t take the voters for fools. For all his strengths as a campaigner, David Cameron tried to pull the wool over the voters’ eyes with the absurd “concessions” he claimed to have negotiated with other EU countries on free movement of people. The concessions were close to worthless. He knew it, the voters knew he knew it, and they resented his seemingly desperate, some would say dishonest, attempts to pretend otherwise. He’d have been better off with no concessions at all.
- Don’t insult the voters. Cameron once called UKIP voters “a bunch of fruit cakes, loonies and closet racists”. Hillary Clinton described Trump supporters as “a basket of deplorables” consisting of “the racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic, you name it”. If you want to drive voters away from you, insulting them is a great way of doing it. Instead, you must show that you understand – genuinely – their concerns about immigration, globalisation and the threats, as they see them, to their way of life. And if you really find it impossible to empathise with the way so many of your fellow countrymen think and feel, you shouldn’t be running for office in the first place.
- Set out a passionate and positive change agenda. Britain’s Remainers were arguing for the status quo. So was Hillary Clinton. In contrast, Trump and Britain’s Leavers offered a sea change – not just from the past few years, but from the past few decades. France is full of anger and resentment at a stalling economy, terrorism and “waves of immigration”. Unless Le Pen’s opponents show the French people that they offer wholesale change to match hers, she’ll have a great chance of victory.
- Get your message right. Britain’s Leave campaign offered the beautifully simple yet powerful “Take back control”, which resonated with so many. Trump’s message was “Make America great again”, and the voters loved it. But what did their opponents offer? Clinton’s “Stronger together” was puny by comparison, and Remain’s “Stronger, safer and better off” tried to be three messages in one, which is always a bad idea. Win the battle of the topline message, and you go a long way towards winning power.
- Be truthful and authentic. People are heartily sick of spin and lies. Yet, what was Hillary Clinton’s instinctive reaction to physically collapsing on the campaign trail? To seemingly lie about why it happened. And that’s before we even begin to look at email servers while she was Secretary of State. No wonder Trump’s “Crooked Hillary” line wounded her so much. People agreed with him, and could see how over-spun she’d become. In contrast, for all his deep faults as a human being, the voters recognised in Trump someone who “says what he thinks”. This is the post-spin age, where authenticity and sincerity matter most.