Emmanuel Macron was meant to cruise to victory. For the first time, the French far right has a real chance to win.
Marine Le Pen, the candidate for the far-right National Rally (then known as the National Front) in France's presidential election, gestures as she gives a speech during a campaign meeting in Bordeaux, France, on April 2, 2017.
PARIS—For months, the result of the French presidential election looked almost like a done deal, with incumbent President Emmanuel Macron consistently topping the polls and widely expected to win a second term.
But with just days to go before the first round of the vote on Sunday, Macron is grappling with a late surge by his main rival, far-right candidate Marine Le Pen. The gap between the two top contenders widened in March amid Russia’s war in Ukraine, which overshadowed the campaign and boosted Macron’s leadership credentials, but it has more than halved since.
Polls now show Macron still in the lead with about 26 percent, trailed by Le Pen at 25 percent. Even more worrisome for Macron are the predictions for the second round. In 2017, when the pair faced off in a presidential runoff for the first time, Macron’s victory was overwhelming. Now, the president is shown barely nipping Le Pen.
“Marine Le Pen has never been this close to clinching the presidency,” said Luc Rouban, a political scientist at Sciences Po in Paris.
While a Macron reelection is still considered the most likely outcome by pollsters, the fact that Le Pen suddenly appears to have an actual shot is in itself a political earthquake for France, where mainstream parties still see the far right as an anti-system force incompatible with republican values—and with the top job. Le Pen’s National Rally party, formerly known as the National Front, was founded in the 1970s by Marine’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, a veteran of the Algerian War. Its populist pitch revolves around an anti-immigration, anti-European Union platform, with its members often being accused of racism and Islamophobia.
Le Pen is reaping the fruits of an effective campaign. Well before the Ukraine war sent energy prices through the roof, she decided to focus on the working class’s shrinking purchasing power, rather than only sticking to her flagship issue of immigration. Today, polls consistently show the rising cost of living at the top of French voters’ priorities, and in a recent survey a very narrow plurality of respondents said Le Pen would tackle the problem better than Macron.
“She is playing up her image of proximity [to the common man], of normality,” said Jean-Yves Camus, a senior fellow at the U.K.-based Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right. Macron, by contrast, still appears to many as “distant, even contemptuous, someone who embodies the technocratic, financial, and social elites,” he added. While slightly higher than a year ago, Macron’s approval rating is currently below 45 percent.
Meanwhile, Le Pen’s long-standing efforts to “de-demonize” the National Rally have been helped by the appearance of another, even more radical far-right candidate, former TV pundit Éric Zemmour. After threatening Le Pen’s presidential ambitions with a surge of his own last fall, Zemmour has now lost steam, but his hard-line, often xenophobic views on immigration indirectly contribute to making Le Pen seem more palatable to moderates.
“Zemmour did her a huge service,” Rouban said. In the eyes of many voters, “the devil now is Éric Zemmour,” he said. Some 39 percent of French voters think Le Pen has what it takes to be president, compared with only 21 percent in 2017. Le Pen’s softer image makes her appealing to many hard-line conservative voters and even to some radical-left ones (after the National Rally ditched the economic neoliberalism of its early days and started backing big-government spending on a variety of welfare programs).
Macron has taken notice. During a rally in Paris last weekend, he encouraged 30,000 supporters not to believe that “the election is already won” and called for a “general mobilization.” The 44-year-old is resorting again to the catch-all strategy that worked so brilliantly five years ago, when, at the helm of a newly created centrist party, he siphoned off voters from both the conservatives and the Socialists—hamstringing the former and sinking the latter.
Now, on the one hand, Macron is nodding to traditional right-wingers by pledging to toughen unemployment benefits rules and proposing once again an overhaul of the pension system—a reform that sparked the longest strikes in decades earlier in his term, before being shelved when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. On the other hand, he recently embarked on a charm offensive targeting progressives and the working class, vowing to raise the minimum wage and boost people’s battered purchasing power with hefty handouts.
For now, the main result of Macron’s two-pronged approach is dashing the hopes of other moderate candidates—again. Valérie Pécresse of the conservative Republicans is polling at less than 10 percent, while the Socialists are in for the worst performance in their history, with their candidate, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, currently at just 2 percent.
Many hard-line left-wingers appear to be rallying behind firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a veteran of presidential races, who has risen to third place in the polls and still has a slight chance to snatch a spot in the runoff—which he is predicted to lose badly against Macron.
Despite the momentum enjoyed by Le Pen, her road to the Élysée remains an uphill one. The idea of a Le Pen presidency may have become more acceptable to many, but a large majority of the electorate still thinks Macron has more presidential stature than the far-right leader.
Another problem for Le Pen could be abstention. Voter turnout has long been dropping in France and is expected to hit a record low this time around, with the Ukraine war hijacking most of the media’s attention. Some 30 percent of voters may fail to show up on election day, according to some analyses, and as usual those most likely to sit the election out will be the young and the working class—the two demographics from which Le Pen draws most of her support.
If that comes to pass, it wouldn’t be the first time the National Rally performed below expectations. In regional elections last year, the party was tipped to win big; instead, it lost votes almost everywhere and failed to clinch any regional presidencies. But low turnout doesn’t automatically mean trouble for the far right, according to Rouban. In the 2002 presidential election, for example, high abstention levels ended up mainly hurting Socialist candidate Lionel Jospin, while an energized far-right base allowed Jean-Marie Le Pen to stun France and get through to the runoff.
If Marine Le Pen did manage to pull it off, her presidential victory would be an earth-shattering event for France. While she has succeeded in appearing less of a maverick in recent years, many observers stress that her program remains radical, particularly when it comes to immigration. Le Pen is proposing to enshrine the principle of “national priority” to French citizens in the constitution, strip foreigners of various social benefits, and carry out massive expulsions of undocumented or unemployed immigrants.
While she is no longer in favor of France leaving the EU, many of her proposals would inevitably lead to direct confrontation with Brussels, just as with many other far-right leaders in Europe. She wants to unilaterally cut French contributions to the EU budget and curtail the rights of EU citizens in France and says Paris does not have to comply with the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights.
To what extent Le Pen would be able to translate her tough talk on the EU into actual policy is unclear, said Mathilde Ciulla of the European Council on Foreign Relations. But a Le Pen presidency may bring about a significant diplomatic realignment, said Ciulla, with the long-standing Franco-German relationship becoming more troubled and France pivoting toward Euroskeptics such as Hungary’s far-right prime minister, Viktor Orban—whom Le Pen promptly congratulated for his reelection last week.
If, as expected, Macron and Le Pen end up facing off in the second round, the outcome will ultimately depend on how many French will accept voting for a president they don’t particularly like, forming yet again a “republican front” against the far right. In 2002, Jean-Marie Le Pen’s vault into the second round caused a national shock, and the French reacted by voting en masse against him in the runoff—regardless of any other political considerations.
But the Macron camp may have been slow to realize that fewer people consider stopping Marine Le Pen as their top priority when casting their ballots. In France, the far right “is always underestimated,” Camus said. “It’s an old classic of French political life.”
(c) 2022, Foreign Policy