It was the best line of the night. The best line of the campaign, in fact. It might even prove to be the best political line of the year, though it’s unlikely to be acknowledged as such, because of who uttered it. It was Marine Le Pen. Fixing Emmanuel Macron in a surprisingly friendly glare during last night’s televised debate, the last one before the ballot boxes open in Sunday’s presidential election, she said the following:
‘France will be led by a woman – it will be either me or Mrs Merkel.’
Wow. And also: ouch. It’s the definition of a killer line. It had it all. It instantly emasculated her opponent, who was already looking even more boyish than normal (too much make-up, Emmanuel!). He’s the plaything of a powerful, foreign woman, Merkel’s obedient pup, Le Pen was suggesting. That will have hit Macron where it hurts.
It simultaneously played into and subverted the 21st-century enthusiasm for having more women in power. That can be a good thing or a very, very bad thing, Le Pen implied. If France were to be led by a woman elected by its own people, that would be cool; but if it were to be puppeteered by a woman from afar, that would be terrible. Le Pen – whose run for the Élysée Palace has notably not been supported by feminists who normally cheer the rise of women to positions of global authority – was reminding us that women in politics can do both good and ill. Just like men.
And it was a pitch perfect signal to her supporters. They’re concerned about EU bossiness, about the ability of France to make its own policy and design its own destiny in an era when EU law and treaties can override pesky national decision-making. And for all the snooty media’s borderline Francophobic denunciations of them as stupid and paranoid for having this concern, they have good reason. Many of them bitterly remember 2005, when a massive swell of Frenchmen and women – 15m of them, 55 percent of voters – rejected the EU Constitution and then had it imposed on them anyway under the guise of the Lisbon Treaty. Le Pen’s line tapped into a popular feeling of Euro-exhaustion, a growing preference for national democratic say-so over the meddling of Mrs Merkel and others, of those who would impose a constitution on a people that rejected it (have we forgotten what an outrage that is?)
In fact, Le Pen’s line spoke to a key concern of virtually all Western electorates today: the question of who runs society, and in whose interests they run it. The left, with spectacular foolishness and cynicism, has brushed this question off as idiotic and possibly even xenophobic, which has paved the way for hard right-wingers to ask it, and make mileage from it. In that jibe about Mrs Merkel possibly being the first female leader of France, Le Pen crystallised the issues of control and sovereignty that worry and motivate many voters today.
Whatever you think of Le Pen – I’m opposed to her, though I’m no fan of Macron either – you must agree she has just whittled down the French election and the European political crisis more broadly into a witty, memorable insult. One for the history books, surely.