In the lead-up to the first round of France’s presidential elections, two candidates from outside the mainstream are leading in a tightening contest: Emmanuel Macron, running as an independent on a center-left platform, and Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right Front National party. The two are locked in a dead heat for first and second place with 23–24 percent support each, depending on the poll. In a surprise surge, the communist Jean-Luc Mélenchon is quickly rising to third place.
Although many observers have focused on the rise of far-right politics in Europe, the real story of the French presidential race, and of European politics more broadly, is the failure of centrists to effectively respond to the challenge from either extreme. Center-right parties, including France’s Républicains, are taking the biggest hit as the far right sweeps up conservative voters. The party’s response seems to be if you can’t beat them, join them. For example, François Fillon, the center-right presidential candidate, has said that France should ignore the Schengen Agreement and reinstate “real borders” to control immigration—a longtime talking point for the anti-EU Le Pen. The approach may work in the short term, but our research suggests that in the long term it is doomed to fail.
Looking at elections in all European countries since 1990, I and a co-author found that when the line between the center right and the far right blurs, the centrists inadvertently give more credence to ideas that were once considered too extreme. As those ideas enter the mainstream, voters who once found the far-right agenda unsavory, may start to think otherwise. (After all, if establishment leaders are saying it, it must be acceptable). Over time, the adaptation strategy only emboldens the far right.
In France, the Républicains are playing with fire. François Fillon, former Républicain prime minister and once the dominant front-runner, embraced the Front National’s talking points, calling for strict immigration controls, such as refugee
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