Melinda Henneberger

Melinda Henneberger: French presidential contender Marine Le Pen all too familiar

Marine Le Pen seemed to enjoy pulling the wings off her less dramatic rivals in a recent presidential debate.
Marine Le Pen seemed to enjoy pulling the wings off her less dramatic rivals in a recent presidential debate.

There was something uncomfortably familiar about watching the nationalist French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen’s absolute domination of the debate stage last week — the insidious appeal of her us-versus-them ad hominems and the uncontained glee she takes in pulling the wings off her less dramatic rivals.

“I don’t want to be president of some vague region of the European Union,” the anti-immigrant, anti-elite, anti-E.U. National Front leader said in her opening statement, “or the vice chancellor of Madame Merkel” of Germany.

Instead, Le Pen said, she’d lead the free French Republic whose independence and territorial integrity “millions of French people died for over the course of our history.” For a minute there, I thought the crowd was going to jump up and sing, “La Marseillaise,” like the Nazi-defying patriots at Rick’s in “Casablanca.”

Also familiar was the predictability of her more conventional competitors, whose conformity of form, though not substance, was underlined by the matching navy suits and ties worn by three of her four opponents, all of whom seemed united in wishing her dead as she grinned at them.

When the far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon — a funnier Bernie Sanders, arguing for free school books and against immigration quotas — called her “chère madame,” it was with criminal intent in his tone.

Because she could win this thing, chers amis.

Neck-and-neck with her closest rival in polling a month ahead of the first round of voting on April 23, a worrying 40 percent of voters remain undecided. And her chief competition is a 39-year-old former investment banker and centrist, Emmanuel Macron, whose “Third Way” talking points she countered with exactly the kind of “telling it like it is” insults that thrilled Donald Trump supporters. “You talked for seven minutes,’’ she shouted over him, “and I have no idea what you just said.”

Not so Le Pen, whose protectionism and anti-Muslim rhetoric about those who “pollute” France are nothing if not straightforward: “I want to end immigration — that’s clear — legal and illegal.”

She flicked away Macron’s more complicated proposals, like his argument that better coordination among European countries would help curb illegal immigration, by asking how France could possibly count on “ruined Greece or under-water Italy” for anything.

Snap polls showed that French viewers narrowly saw Macron besting her in the debate. But oh how she got under his skin by accusing him of being pro-burkini — the full-length swimwear for Muslim women banned in some French towns last year. “I don’t need a ventriloquist,” he snapped. “When I have something to say I will, very clearly, as is my habit.”

Like Trump, she promises to turn government back over to the people, and like him, too, says that you can’t stop terrorism when you don’t even know who’s in your country. Macron was strongest in his last answer, when he spoke the uncomfortable truth that no one can guarantee an end to terror attacks.

But in a world with the attention span of a moose — a big but amnesiac creature — it’s hard for more orthodox office-seekers to compete with political shock jocks like Le Pen or Trump.

“It’s now the world of (Vladimir) Putin, the world of Donald Trump,” the National Front leader said on Friday, after meeting with Russia’s thug of a president. And the world of Marine Le Pen, she means.

Like Trump, she is an alpha of the species who loves martial references and says over and over that France, its economy and its police need to “rearm.”

When she describes students and teachers who walk into violent schools every day with “fear in the pit of their stomachs,” challengers proposing a longer school day or smaller classes can’t help but seem anemic — boring, to use Trump’s word — in comparison.

But Trump’s early weeks in office have left me longing for the kind of boring leader who would not praise Putin, discriminate against Muslims, confuse our allies or get up in the middle of the night to tweet nonsense.

When I asked a few French friends what they thought of the debate, none of them had watched it, and all were lukewarm about their choices.

“I’m not even sure I’ll vote,” said one friend, a woman so politically inclined that she ran for office herself several years ago. Ennui and disgust with politics as usual are real and understandable. But that’s exactly how we elected a man with such little respect for American institutions.