Last year was full of surprises: The United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, despite confident predictions that it would remain. Donald Trump won the U.S. presidential election, after polls predicted Hillary Clinton's sure ascension.
So you'll forgive me if I'm hesitant to proclaim it impossible that Marine Le Pen, the leader of France's right-wing populist National Front, could win the French presidential election this spring. Right now, the smart money is still bet against her. But lately, everything has been turning up Marine.
Her most capable antagonist, conservative candidate François Fillon, has been engulfed in a never-ending scandal surrounding his decision to put his wife on his payroll as a parliamentary aide, paying her a generous salary for not much work. This is hitting his poll numbers pretty hard.
And now, an increasing number of riots in France's suburbs threaten to change the character of the election entirely. In early February, a young black man alleged that he had been raped by police after a routine police check. The incident put him in the hospital. The four officers involved were investigated for assault or rape, but have not been formally charged with a crime. An internal police investigation declared the incident, which involved a police baton, "an accident."
Now, young people, many of them immigrants and minorities, are rioting against police brutality, burning cars, and attacking authorities in the country's housing projects, which, as The Guardian explains, "are home to many immigrants and where the poverty and unemployment rates match the high levels of hopelessness and frustration." Nearly 250 arrests have been made.
This is a political godsend for Le Pen, who campaigns on an anti-immigrant, tough-on-crime platform.
Let's back up a bit. Back in 2005, urban violence erupted after the suspicious death of a teenager who was running away from police. The chaos lasted for weeks, and many are concerned these new riots could become a repeat of 2005.
It is hard to get an accurate report of how out of hand these new riots are. The French right-of-center publication Le Figaro recently broke the news of a secret report to the minister of the interior suggesting the extent of the "troubles" go beyond what the police had officially disclosed. According to the report, more than 50 violent "incidents" occurred in roughly 30 towns around Paris in just one night. Cars were torched, windows broken, and police officers had to discharge non-lethal weapons on a number of occasions.
Unlike in the 2005 riots and other lower-scale incidents in 2007 and 2010, there have been no reports of firearms used against police in the current riots, which would certainly escalate the violence even further. A police union representative quoted by Le Figaro noted that most of those arrested are school-aged, and speculated that things might cool off once school is back in session.
But then again, things could yet escalate. That would obviously be bad news for France. But politically, it would be good news for Le Pen.
We're just three months from the election, and tensions surrounding immigration in the European Union are already high. Le Pen has voiced her support for police, and promised to crackdown on foreigners entering France. And while some French voters are wary of this extremism, riots in neighborhoods with heavy immigrant populations could be the nudge these voters need to pull the lever for Le Pen. I still think it's unlikely she'll win, but then again, I thought the same thing about Brexit and Trump.