After last week’s historic first round, in which none of the mainstream parties made it to the run-off, France is still picking up the pieces of its shattered political system. In the midst of confusion, could Marine Le Pen come out victorious after all?
When the results of the French election’s first round came out on the 23rd April, showing far-right candidate Marine Le Pen behind 39-year-old centrist Emmanuel Macron, liberals all over the globe breathed a sigh of relief. The next day markets were as confident as ever, European leaders expressed their optimism and newspapers around the world celebrated a defeat of extreme right populism in France. Too soon? We all know that history has the rather exasperating tendency to take us by surprise.
Even though polls give Mr. Macron an overwhelming lead and it is very unlikely that people will suddenly start voting for Le Pen, a far-right victory is no longer arithmetically impossible. She knows that her key to victory is abstention. Moreover, she can count on a solid base of supporters who will show up no matter what, whereas Mr. Macron’s remains very volatile; a massive wave of indifference could cost him the election. As a study by the Sciences Po CEVIPOF poll centre shows, if participation sinks to 50% Ms. Le Pen has a serious chance of winning.
A far-right victory is no longer arithmetically impossible
Why would this happen though? Most French voters are unhappy with the choice they are left with, since most voted for neither Ms. Le Pen or Mr. Macron. But now they have to decide between what many see as “the plague and cholera”, and many, especially on the left, cannot bring themselves to vote for Macron’s liberal platform.
She has a strategy, and it’s pretty good. Ms. Le Pen seems to have already found a strategy to draw voters away from her opponent. On election night, Marine Le Pen addressed her crowd of supporters, promising a crusade against “savage globalisation” and presenting her platform as true change against a “system” that is now clinging onto Mr. Macron’s candidacy. In other words, the next two weeks will be about trying to embody the “people” against the globalised “elites”.
She is, moreover, intent on highlighting the similarities between Mr. Macron and François Hollande, France’s hugely unpopular president, claiming that his ex-finance minister who is now her opponent will simply pursue the social-liberal policies of the last five years. This will certainly appeal to the country’s disgruntled left-wing population, which is looking for a radical break from the status quo. Conservative voters who were orphaned by their unfortunate candidate, François Fillon, are also notoriously hostile to the outgoing president. There is therefore a high risk that many on the left and on the right will end up staying at home instead.
One of Ms. Le Pen greatest obstacles on her path to power is her past. People still associate her with Jean-Marie Le Pen, her infamous father who had already been in a presidential run-off in 2002 and faced massive resistance from civil society. The scarecrow effect had succeeded in creating an anti-Le Pen block, resulting in his massive defeat.
Things, however, have changed. Ms. Le Pen managed to transform the National Front into an effective apparatus able to clinch political victories. Its success is apparent in all the mid-term elections of the past five years, during which the party acquired significant local positions. The party’s qualification for the second round is no longer an ugly surprise, as it was 14 years ago, but simply the next logical step in the party’s growing hold over France’s political landscape. In 2002, the streets of France were packed with demonstrators chanting slogans against fascism. Now, people have become used to the idea that the far-right could end up in government.
People have become used to the idea that the far-right could end up in government.
There remains, nonetheless, a large number of French voters who fear the Le Pen label, and her goal in the next two weeks is to reassure them by proving that she is no longer her father’s daughter, whom many view as a racist and anti-Semite demagogue. After ousting Jean-Marie Le Pen from the party he himself founded in 2015, she announced last week that she was stepping down from its leadership, symbolising the final step of her political emancipation. She also made a point of watering down her proposal to exit from the European union, claiming that she will first re-negotiate treaties to favour French interests. She even described herself as a “European” at heart.
What she ultimately hopes to do is to invert the roles. By pointing to Mr. Macron’s positions in favour of open borders, free trade and immigration she is attempting to portray him as the dangerous candidate who will cause even more misery and ruin for the French people. She, instead, offers security and protection from Islam’s perceived cultural threat and from unfair international competition. In such unstable times, this strategy will resonate strongly with the French people.
Emmanuel Macron: the “system’s candidate”
Mr. Macron unquestionably led a stunning campaign. In the matter of a year, he launched his own political movement and managed to beat the far-right. After last Sunday, however, he faces a very different battle in which he needs to show France’s disgruntled middle and working classes that he is not only the candidate of an urban and cosmopolitan élite. Mr. Macron is indeed having a hard time shaking off his past as a banker at Rothschild’s and a friend of the powerful and wealthy. He will have to do a lot of image-twisting to show that he isn’t cut off from the real world of economic hardship, especially since his programme contains a great deal of liberal measures.
Since she came second in the presidential race, Ms. Le Pen has shown that she is ready for a fight. In a week she has taken to the campaign trail with renewed determination and has violently charged her opponent’s policies and personality. Being quite new to the game after years of behind-closed-doors politics and anonymous meetings in hotel lobbies, Macron will have to step up his tone if he wants to be heard amidst the constant flow of criticism. He no longer has the benefit of being an unknown face, especially since the mainstream political class is now lined up behind him. He will have to find the right angle to fight Ms. Le Pen’s blend of Robin Hood and anti-immigration rhetoric.
Macron will have to step up his tone if he wants to be heard amidst the constant flow of criticism. He no longer has the benefit of being an unknown face.
Mr. Macron was incontestably the winner of the first round of these elections. Many, however, have blamed him for acting as if he had already won the election. Commentators were particularly resentful of his decision to celebrate his victory in a high-class French brasserie with members of showbiz. Even though he fended off critics by claiming that this was simply meant to thank “his closest supports”, the message did not go down well in public opinion. A few more blunders like this one or a “basket of deplorables”-style statement could definitely deter an already lukewarm electorate, and cause his lead in the polls to evaporate.