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The GOP's Savior Is French

How the right-wing demagogue politician Marine Le Pen can save the floundering Republican Party.

There's a strange new respect brewing between the United States and France. President Barack Obama needs an ally to lean on in Africa and the Middle East, and President François Hollande needs a legitimate reason to shift public attention from his weak popularity and his personal travails. That's why Obama is now hosting his French counterpart for a rare state visit.

Special treatment like this is sure to help formalize the newly cozy relationship. But U.S. policymakers and politicos alike have some catching up to do. France and America have something else in common, though few elites want to embrace it: right-wing populism.

Paul Krugman recently hinted at elites' anxiety in a half-joking screed against the "plot against France." Egged on, Krugman claimed, by a sensationalistic media, the fiscal-discipline crowd had whipped up a miniature panic over Socialist France's taxing, spending ways. But Krugman cleverly ignored the way that spending is now incidental to both conservative populists on both sides of the Atlantic. For them, excessive regulatory power is now paramount.

And if you want to understand how powerful a popular reaction against regulatory excess can be, one needs to understand the most important figure in France: Marine Le Pen.

But Le Pen isn't just France's biggest story; she's also the French politician with the most significance to domestic politics in the United States. If Marine Le Pen received the attention she deserves, Krugman would have powerful reason to change his tune -- and so would the Republicans he derides. While America's ideological Punch and Judy show bungles along, Le Pen is writing a new handbook of political rules for radicals on the right. She's already changed the game in France itself. And GOP strategists across the Atlantic stand to gain much from following suit.

Yes, Marine Le Pen is from that family -- she's inherited leadership of France's far-fight Front National from her notorious father, the xenophobic Holocaust-minimizer Jean Le Pen. But at 44, Marine has swiftly transformed the Front from a haven for backward-looking haters to an aggressively forward-looking movement. Instead of pounding on well-worn, right-wing themes like "fiscal responsibility" or "social issues," Le Pen puts central the sorts of complaints against big business and big government that most Republicans think too fringe or too quixotic to win elections.

A closer look at her operation would surprise them. In June 2013, the Front National ran level with both the Socialists and the Gaullists. And in a key election that month, as the Telegraph's Ambrose Evans-Pritchard observed, "the Front scored highest in the most Socialist cantons, a sign that it may be breaking out of its Right-wing enclaves to become the mass movement of the white working class."

How does Le Pen do it? She runs the Front against Brussels and the banks -- stressing that whenever the two meet, the result seems to be that smothering, exploitative, unfree market some Americans call crony capitalism. Though some influential conservative commentators are warming up to Wall Street criticism, the Republican donor class is working overtime to sideline the Gadsden Flag brigades and keep the GOP the Party of Mitt.

Republicans squeal and squeal about socialism, but in France, where socialists really are in charge, the right is outflanking the left by going populist in a new way. Of course, there are stark differences between Europe and the United States. In the Old World, populism has long appealed to a revolutionary future or a reactionary past. In America, populism is more closely associated with protecting the cultural status quo. But Le Pen largely rejects both these models, vowing to replace the E.U. regime with a newly free and sovereign France.

It's the sort of nationalistic play that Republicans can study to improve their own. Since Abraham Lincoln's reelection campaign in 1864, Republicans have rooted their popular appeal squarely in militant nationalism. Today, however, they should recognize that Le Pen's assault on patronage bureaucracy actually heightens nationalism because the system she opposes mostly emanates from Brussels, not Paris. Meanwhile, lacking a meddlesome, supranational North American Union, Republicans running against crony capitalism run against their very own government.

See the distinction? For new populist Republicans, adapting Le Pen's successful approach to U.S. politics means downplaying nationalism. Americans aren't the victims of international finance, the United Nations, or some New World Order. Washington is the very epicenter of ubiquitous burdensome rule.

Think about it: For France under the E.U., radical freedom from the oppressive bigness of the elite establishment requires a more prideful France. For the United States, laboring only under its own weight, that same freedom from that same oppression means a more humble America.

As a result, we can be fairly certain that Europe's radical right will be more violent and more dangerous than America's. (Some things never change.) The sweet irony is that Republicans can actually ameliorate the frustrated passions of their base by taking their cues from Le Pen. Tea Party conservatives and libertarians feel, above all, alienated -- unable to put faith in the GOP leadership, and unwilling to promise themselves that Democrats can deliver on genuine hope and change. Left to fester, this pungent sense of isolation can breed resentment even among the most educated and neighborly of radicals on the right. A new populism that also appeals to anti-corruption Democrats, however, can draw disgruntled Republicans out of their self-enclosure and into partnership with surprising allies.

Radical reformers like Justin Amash and Rand Paul have begun to realize the potential of just such a new populism. But thanks to our national press -- here, Krugman is right -- more controversial figures like Ted Cruz, Sarah Palin, and Chris Christie get the lion's share of attention.

Populist reformers will have to fight for the spotlight. With the next presidential election two years away, there's still time for them to help the Republican Party settle on a clear identity. That's no reason for the GOP, never close friends with the media, to take a pass on a first-class teachable moment. There's always the option of rejecting elitism and populism alike -- though it turns out this usually leaves you with a discredited mix of nationalism and statism. While Obama and Hollande make nice, Republicans should use their time out of the White House to set aside the drama surrounding their would-be presidential contenders, and pay heed to Le Pen's lessons about a populism that can unite people and win.

XAVIER LEOTY/AFP/Getty Images

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