France's National Front party leader Marine Le Pen, January 29, 2016.
Alessandro Garofalo / Reuters

No one was fooled by the defeat of France’s far-right party, the National Front, in the country’s December regional elections. The party, led by Marine Le Pen, had won the most votes in the first round of the election on December 6. Although it ran a fairly tight race in the runoff a week later, it failed to win in any of the country’s 13 regions. The margins were close, and as Socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls exclaimed after the election results came in, “Tonight, no sigh of relief, no sign of triumphalism… The danger of the far right is still around.”

For her part, Le Pen knows that to make a serious bid for power at next year’s presidential and legislative elections, she must appeal to France’s more moderate middle-class voters. Since the December regional election, the party has introduced a new slogan—La France apaisée, or “an appeased France”—in order to distance itself from its controversial and confrontational past, and present a more polished and reassuring image. Since then, several senior National Front party officials have also been looking into the possibility of a political entente with some elements of Nicholas Sarkozy’s center-right party, the Republicans. “We have never made alliances and we don’t believe in political jerry-rigging,” Nicolas Bay, the National Front’s electoral strategist, said in an interview with Politico last month, continuing, “but it’s true that we are reaching out.” If it works, the party and Le Pen might stand a chance of winning the next round of presidential and legislative elections.

Mainstream parties have generally responded to the National Front’s rising popularity—three times greater than it was five years ago—with a mixture of denial and accommodation. For the first four decades since its creation in 1972, the party was consistently dismissed as a marginal and anomalous phenomenon, unfortunate but unthreatening. During his time as Socialist Party leader and president, François Mitterrand even privately welcomed the rise of the National Front, hoping it would split the right and keep the left in power.

But now the National Front threat doesn’t look so manageable. Under the leadership of the current president, François Hollande, the Socialist Party’s popularity has sagged, mainly due to the country’s continued economic stagnation. In turn, public sentiment has shifted to the right. Even Hollande, who was originally elected on a progressive political platform that promised to challenge Brussels and Berlin’s economic austerity policies, has since come around to accepting market liberalization and budget cuts as a last-ditch attempt to revive the economy. His government also considered adopting antiterrorism measures that were first suggested by the National Front after the string of terrorist attacks that hit France in January and then November of 2015. These include a highly controversial plan to revise the constitution by introducing a provision that would allow for the denationalization of dual citizenship individuals convicted of crimes related to terrorism.

A man walks past campaign posters for France's 2012 presidential candidates, including Francois Hollande of the Socialist Party and Marine Le Pen of the National Front, April 9, 2012.
Benoit Tessier / Reuters

The electoral logic at work here is clear: in preparation for next year’s election, Hollande’s strategy is to move as far right as possible in order to squeeze Nicholas Sarkozy’s Republicans between the National Front and the Socialists, thereby forcing a runoff against Le Pen. Although this would require coming at least second in the first round of presidential elections next year— which as things stand is far from certain—most polls indicate that Hollande would stand a chance of winning a second round against Le Pen.

If this strategy were to succeed, it would mark a fundamental transformation in French political life. Traditionally, the two sides of the political spectrum have been dominated by a market-friendly but socially conservative center-right and an economically interventionist but socially liberal center-left. This time around, politics would hinge on a nationalistic and protectionist force running against a centrist party that stands for free markets but is socially liberal.

In other words, it would render traditional notions of left and right increasingly meaningless. We have already begun to see this happen with Le Pen. Even though considered far right, she has adopted much of the anti-globalization and anti-neoliberalism platform usually associated with the traditional left. She has turned May 1, a holiday associated with left-wing working-class politics, into a day for large-scale National Front rallies. In this way, she has been able to attract large swaths of the working-class electorate, which had traditionally voted for the communist or socialist parties, without relinquishing the party’s strongholds in areas traditionally dominated by the extreme right.

Northern League leader Matteo Salvini (R), France's far-right National Front political party leader Marine Le Pen (C), and Austrian Freedom Party (FPOe) leader Heinz-Christian Strache at the "Europe of Nations and Freedom" meeting in Milan, January 28, 2016.
Alessandro Garofalo / Reuters

So far, neither Le Pen nor Hollande seems interested in self-identifying along the traditional spectrum. Le Pen insists that her party is “neither right- nor left-wing,” and instead protects the interests of France from the cosmopolitan elite in Brussels, bent on imposing European integration from the top down. Similarly, an important aspect of Hollande’s electoral strategy is to disassociate himself from the fray of partisan disagreements and take a stand as the “responsible” candidate—one of institutional continuity.

In fact, the political spectrum swings less between right and left and more between populism and technocracy. Le Pen’s brand of populism promises to do away with the traditional political establishment, and Hollande’s technocratic platform promises that expertise and competence will save France.

This pattern isn’t limited to France. In Italy, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi subscribes neither to the left nor right, but has succeeded in consolidating power by moving his presumptively center-left party markedly to the center and portraying himself as a non-ideological and pragmatic reformer. Members of the opposition, on the other hand, including Matteo Salvini’s anti-immigrant League of the North and Beppe Grillo’s tech-savvy Five Star Movement, have sought to portray themselves as the anti-establishment parties. In Greece, Alexis Tsiparas’ formerly far-left anti-austerity party, Syriza, has been forced to accept austerity by Brussels and Berlin. As a result, other parties, advocating anti-immigration and anti-EU platforms, such as the violent, neo-fascist Golden Dawn party, are gaining ground.

The conflict between populism and technocracy is most apparent in countries such as Germany where grand coalitions reign supreme. The pragmatic Chancellor Angela Merkel heads what is virtually a fusion of the country’s two mainstream parties into one centrist political force. The opposition consists of emergent populist forces such as the Alternative for Germany party, which advocates exit from the eurozone, and the right-wing anti-immigrant movement Pegida. In Spain, no party won a majority in the recent December general election. Although politics is at a stalemate for now, the election may eventually result in a grand coalition between the two main parties, the center-right Popular party and the center-left Socialists. So far, they have sought to legitimize such as coalition by portraying it in terms of competency, continuity, and reason. That would leave Podemos, yet another young, Internet-based party, which is headed by the charismatic political scientist Pablo Iglesias, free to challenge the coalition with its more populist anti-establishment message.

In the late eighteenth century, France was Europe’s political avant-garde. Today, it may be at the forefront of a different kind of change, one that is reducing political competition from a struggle between left and right to a fight between populism and technocracy. This represents a serious impoverishment of democratic politics, since the left and right were markers of a substantive political conflict, whereas populism and technocracy are merely opposing political styles that ultimately converge in their shared opposition to liberal democracy itself. The best antidote to the threat posed by the recent rise of populism in Europe is therefore not more technocracy but more politics.