France will choose a new president this spring, in a two-stage election process that for decades has come down to a choice between left-leaning Socialists and a right-of-center party that recently changed its name to Les Républicains.
This year, however, a third candidate has put the direction of the country very much in doubt. Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Front, is campaigning on an anti-illegal immigrant, anti-European Union, unabashedly populist platform. And yes, except for being a woman and not a billionaire, she could easily be called France’s Donald Trump.
Not coincidentally, Le Pen calls her followers the “forgotten” French and promises to restore jobs and prosperity. Wonder where she got that?
Her chances of actually winning are considered slim, just as Trump’s were. Her rhetoric is heated and offensive to many, like Trump’s. She has no regard for traditional rules of political conduct. Her fans are rabid, her enemies legion and vicious in their appraisal of her. She is loathed by the press that covers her just like . . . go ahead, fill in the blank.
Yet for all her polarizing positions and unorthodox style, Le Pen is leading in some national polls before the April 23 first round of elections. If she comes in first or second, she would proceed to a run-off in May against either a Socialist or a Republican rival, either of whom, polls suggest, would defeat her.
Why the second-round cliff-fall? A majority of French voters who were polled said they dislike Le Pen and would never vote for her. However, her self-declared supporters -- most of them blue-collar working class or unemployed -- say they will vote for only Le Pen or not at all. Much of her support comes for her non-stop call to halt immigrants from flooding into France as they have since the European Union opened its doors to displaced refugees from the Middle East and Africa.
BREAKING: Marine Le Pen support reaches 44%. This could be the end of the EU. https://t.co/ynweGkRG30— Westmonster (@WestmonsterUK) February 20, 2017
That open-arms policy is deeply unpopular in France. Le Pen vows to end it. She also questions the value of French membership in the EU, but has stopped short of saying she would lead a “Frexit” movement, like the one that will soon wall off England economically from the European continent.
Right now, the carnivorous French press are honing their swords over unproven allegations that Le Pen, who is also an elected member of the European Parliament, paid her personal bodyguard with funds earmarked for parliamentary purposes. Le Pen denies wrongdoing, but it is the talk of Paris, galvanizing her many detractors in the capital.
Le Pen’s very name is enough to make many Frenchmen cringe. Her late father, from whom she inherited leadership of the National Front, was a racist and a Holocaust denier. Le Pen rejects her father’s extremism, but has carried on his mantra that France should be for the French.
Le Pen visited Trump Tower in New York last month, but only to visit a friend who lives there. Both she and the American president say they never met.
Le Pen may be the political equivalent of the Atlanta Falcons in the Super Bowl this year -- holding the lead at halftime, only to see it slip away as the clock runs out.
On the other hand, most political polls last November gave Trump no chance of winning the White House. Crow tastes better when it’s marinated in a good French wine, don’t you think?
John Moody is Executive Vice President, Executive Editor for Fox News. A former Rome bureau chief for Time magazine, he is the author of four books including "Pope John Paul II : Biography."